Never mind the dwarves and elves and wizards — maybe even the hobbit. The star of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the dragon.
This movie feels very much like the middle of three parts. After a brief flashback to the first meeting between the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and the exiled dwarf king, Thorin (Richard Armitage), it plunges right into the scene where The Hobbit ended, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin and his trusty band of dwarves being pursued in the Misty Mountains by orcs mounted on those nasty wargs, wolflike creatures that look especially scary snapping their teeth in your face in 3D.
The Desolation of Smaug also ends with the most shameless cliff-hanger since The Perils of Pauline left its title character tied to the railroad tracks — at the showing I attended, half the audience yelped, "What?!?"
But there is fun to be had in between. Several of the action scenes are riveting — although if you don't care for spiders, the hordes of gigantic ones that almost dine upon our heroes in Mirkwood will give you the willies. On the other hand, the scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves escape the dungeons of the Elvenking Thranduil by bouncing and spinning down a river's rapids in a bunch of barrels, pursued by both elves and orcs, is thrilling as well as funny.
Purists will find the movie does not hew very closely to the novel. Gandalf leaves Bilbo and the dwarves to carry on while he heads off on a secret journey that Tolkien described in The Quest of Erebor, one of the ancillary Middle-earth books, not in The Hobbit. (It's also the most undercooked sequence in the movie, likely more confusing than expository to viewers who haven't read the books.)
The Elven warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) plays a big role here even though he appears not at all in the book — although admittedly he's quite handy to have around, beheading orcs by the battalion without ruffling a white-blond hair.
Jackson stretches farthest in inventing an entirely new major character, another Elven warrior named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly of Lost). She's a redhead in a green dress who's an ace with bow and arrow (sounds familiar somehow) and a romantic interest for both Legolas and the handsome dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), the only one of the dwarves who doesn't sport comic facial hair. Tauriel's flirtation with Kili leads to the movie's only sexy line: "He's quite tall for a dwarf, don't you think?"
One of the pleasures of all of director Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies is watching first-rate actors at work. McKellen is wonderful as always as Gandalf, even if he has less to do in this episode. The marvelous Stephen Fry has a great turn as the seedy, greedy Master of Laketown, sneering at the poverty of the people he rules and robs. And Freeman is once again pitch-perfect as Bilbo, the reluctant hero struggling to deal with his own dark thoughts as the power of the Precious, that ring in his pocket, grows.
The highlight of the movie is its final portion, when Bilbo finally finds his way inside the Lonely Mountain and ventures into the lair of Smaug. (It's pronounced "Smowg," like "ow.")
The scene pairs Freeman with his Sherlock co-star, the inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch, whose silky, deep, distinctive voice brings the dragon to life. The visuals are spectacular — covered in bronze scales, the enormous Smaug slithers like a snake and crawls and soars like a bat — but that voice is mesmerizing. The dragon, perhaps lonesome after sleeping under those piles of treasure for so many years, would rather argue with Bilbo than incinerate him, and their exchange — who knew dragons were so witty? — is more fun than a barrel of dwarves.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.