"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is an exercise in excess.
If one long, lingering shot of dwarves and a hobbit making their way across the rolling vistas of Middle-earth is good, 50 is grand. If a battle with a dozen giant spiders is creepy fun entertainment, then a dozen dozen spiders is grandiose. There's not a single shot, line of dialogue or special effect that doesn't show signs of director Peter Jackson's unbridled style of filmmaking.
That's why what should have been a two-part film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's book became three movies.
As the middle child in this cinema family tree, "The Desolation of Smaug" is not nearly as full of wonder and discovery as the first movie in the series or potentially as satisfying as the third. As the middle movie, it suffers from being neither the beginning nor the end. But it is still a well-crafted bridge that slowly moves the story along with some first-rate action scenes played out against a breathtaking background.
"Smaug" picks up with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) leading Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the band of merry dwarves on their quest to vanquish a dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and regain the kingdom for Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Just getting to the castle is a major adventure as the brave, vertically challenged warriors have to survive being captured by the elves of the Woodland Realm, face numerous orc attacks and sneak through the community of Lake-town.
Jackson stages each of these major encounters — plus the final showdown with Smaug the dragon — with a bold and broad canvas. The forests are a lumbered maze that provides many dark and sinister hiding places for spiders and elves. Then the action moves to the film's most heart-stopping encounter as the heroes escape from the elves and orc using wooden barrels to travel down a fast-moving river. It should be noted the battles with the orc feature enough violence that the movie definitely deserves its PG-13 rating.
The once lush countryside gives way to a city in the grip of a chilling winter with Tolkien's answer to Venice in Lake-town. But nothing shows Jackson's obsession with either going big or going home than the mountain kingdom where the dragon sleeps that makes the combined wealths of Scrooge McDuck and Richie Rich look pitiful.
Freeman continues to shine as the Hobbit, who goes from a pastoral pacifist to journeyman hero.
There are no weak performances, including the addition of Evangeline Lilly ("Lost") as Tauriel, an elf who uses a bow like Katness Everdeen on speed.
It's unfortunate that all of the acting work ends up as little more than a footnote to the movie's driving force — the visual effects. It's just that Jackson's visions are so massive, no actors can compete.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" suffers from second movie syndrome — an inherent weakness that comes from being caught in the middle of a trilogy. Jackson at least delivers an excessive visual spectacular that's stunning to watch while waiting for the end to finally come.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," rated PG-13 for violence, language. Stars Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom. Directed by Peter Jackson. Running time: 2 hours, 36 minutes. Grade: B-
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.