Peter Jackson's latest Hobbit installment puts everyone on Smaug alert 

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," declares the first line of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 fantasy tale, introducing the world to the tiny, hairy-toed heroes who — alongside wizards, dwarves, elves and other future 20-sided-die RPG staples — inhabit a mystical place known as Middle Earth. You can imagine a reader picking up the book back then, perusing that modest opening salvo and scratching their dome, wondering what, exactly, is a hobbit?

Fast-forward several decades and one major film franchise later, and nobody — not your obnoxious co-worker, not that tween sitting next to you on the bus, not your mother — would have any trouble describing those diminutive Shire-dwelling denizens in great detail. What they'll recount isn't Tolkien's version, however, so much as Peter Jackson's. It's the New Zealand filmmaker's take on the author's follow-up trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, that has allowed Frodo, Bilbo, et al. to penetrate the popular consciousness.

Jackson's stamp is now as permanently etched on the material as its creator's. He's why so many of us were breathlessly ready to travel there and back again to Middle Earth three turn-of-the-millennium winters in a row — as well as the reason that 30 seconds after the credits for 2002's The Return of the King started rolling, we all collectively wondered, "So when the hell does Jackson start tackling The Hobbit? And why can it not be right freakin' now!?!"

The less said about the be-careful-what-you-wish-for answer filmgoers received last year, in the form of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the better. To note that the first of the three serialized installments lacked that ol' Jackson magic we know so well would be akin to observing that Gollum is somewhat preoccupied by his preciousssss. Thankfully, Part 2 — titled The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, much to the consternation of theater-marquee letterers everywhere — substantially ups the quality and the stakes. The middle portion of Bilbo and Gandalf's Excellent Adventure is still larded with excess narrative baggage, gratuitous appearances by fan favorites and the occasional dead weight. (As with Part 1, it's also being shown in a higher frame-rate option, a techno-whiz move that renders everything with the retina-frying "clarity" of a Teletubbies episode writ large. Once again, you're urged to choose the more traditional version; a lustrous fantasy like this deserves images that have tactility, texture and depth for maximum escapist immersion.)

But though this sequel is padded, it's certainly not turgid this time around, which immediately makes this a vast improvement over its predecessor. In fact, thanks to a prologue that gives the characters' trek to Lonely Mountain a greater thematic sense of purpose regarding the corruption of power, there's an urgency here that propels things along with much more momentum. Giant spiders, skin-changers and shrieking brutes provide obstacles to be overcome and chances for gory beheadings, notably once Orlando Bloom's Legolas – a name that apparently means "badass" in Elvish — starts using orc corpses as skateboards. (A set piece involving barrels, roaring rapids and a movable siege turns into the bloodiest waterpark ride imaginable.) Don't even get us started about Ian McKellen's Gandalf battling an inky blast mist. This is the Jackson we've been missing, the guy who never met a rotating Dutch-angle shot or sweeping landscape vista he didn't like.

The bonus elements, some added (Evangeline Lilly's hot she-elf flirting with Aidan Turner's equally hunky dwarf) and others fleshed out from the book (political turmoil that causes problems for Luke Evans' swashbuckler-chic subversive), only enhance the running time. But the real special feature here is how Martin Freeman has grown into his role. Having developed a patented bag of comic tics and tricks honed over years on shows like The Office and the BBC's Sherlock revamp, the British actor seemed to turn Bilbo into another example of charming, stammering Freemansonry, giving us a hobbit who seemed like he was punching the clock at a paper company even when he was tricking trolls. He now appears to be making an effort to embrace his inner Baggins instead of grafting his persona onto the hobbit, and his reading of "Mine!" when a beasty tries to nab his precious ring makes the scene the single most meta-interesting moment in the film. "You're not the same Hobbit who left the Shire," Gandalf muses, and McKellen could well be talking to his fellow actor. You get giddy wondering what he's got up his puffy sleeve for Part 3.

Then again, most of The Desolation of Smaug seems to be gearing up for the last chapter, even when the titular dragon (voiced by Freeman's Sherlock partner-in-crime-solving, Benedict Cumberbatch) starts wreaking havoc and slithering after our band of Middle Earth brothers in literal hot pursuit. Improvement or not, the film still suffers from middle-movie syndrome, diligently moving everything into place for one last big blowout. Characters are left in peril, orcs and wargs are on the move, and sheer anarchy is loosened upon the world. No one is expecting something as awe-inspiring as The Two Towers' Battle of Helms Deep, the showstopper that graced LOTR's second act, but the sense that time and baddies are being killed in equal measure here keeps this from being a stand-alone victory. Jackson may have dug himself out of the hobbit-hole he was in, yet there are still miles to go before Bilbo & Co. sleep. At least now we, too, feel compelled to stay awake for the final countdown.




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