The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

GETTING ELVEN: A new elf on the scene, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), kicks orc butt and finds herself in an elf/dwarf love triangle.

It's narratively fractured, and only in moments does the familiar WWII metaphor emerge. That happens when raffish boatman Bard (Luke Evans, proving that a mullet can be workable) tries to warn the medieval-Baltic city of Laketown of the flying wrath to come. (He gets no help from the city's poncy, gouty Master, played by Stephen Fry.) Yet The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a huge improvement over An Unexpected Journey—it's a well-filled smorgasboard without much starch.

Its showstopper is a seriously heinous dragon: I say this as a film-watcher who'd never previously seen a dragon scarier than Agnes Moorehead. Benedict Cumberbatch's voice, digitally augmented with bass rumbles, rises from a throat that glows when Smaug is ready to belch up a firestorm. Smaug is even bad in repose: buried in several acres of gold coins in the Lonely Mountain's vast treasury, he twitches, and his several-hundred-foot length is revealed in eddies and currents of the coins. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has only flattery as a weapon: "Greatest and most terrible of calamities," he addresses Smaug, trying to butter him up. It doesn't work. Greed and solitude has made the dragon slightly insane.

Meanwhile—Peter Jackson's series depends on meanwhiles—Ian McKellen's Gandalf journeys to a haunted castle where Sauron is busily coalescing himself. The flaming eye opens, revealing the figure of Sauron in the slitted pupil, then we zoom into numerous pupils and numerous Saurons, like the "Cat on the Dubonnet bottle" illusion. It's as handy a way of saying "Fathomless Evil" as any ever seen. The ineptly wigged dwarves with their rhyming names continue their journey through tangled Mirkwood, where horrible spiders dwell. The questers end up imprisoned by temperamental Sylvan Elves; the group includes among their number a fair-faced but stalwart captain of the guards named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who is important enough to have her own elf/dwarf love triangle. The last Hobbit was annoyingly boys-only. Tauriel is a real pest exterminator, and if you've been down these endless Middle Earth roads before, even just the new methods of orc-cleaving Tauriel tries out demonstrate that this series hasn't even begun to exhaust its invention, its surprise and its delight.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

PG-13; 161 min.

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