At the beginning of The Hobbit The Desolation of Smaug, the second chapter to Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s children’s book, Bilbo Baggins owns a sword called Sting and One Ring to Rule Them All — eventually.
We have a ways to go. As everyone on Earth and in Middle-earth definitely knows, Mr. Jackson, having turned Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings into three epic movies, has given its prequel a blockbuster make-over in three separate 3D films. The first, The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey, a soporific 170 minutes released in 2012, lived up to its subtitle principally by moving at a snail’s pace. At 161 minutes the new one by contrast feels like a sprint. (The third, The Hobbit There and Back Again, is set for world domination in December 2014.)
Once again, Martin Freeman portrays Bilbo, the homebody hobbit who has been recruited by a band of boisterous dwarfs to help take back their lost kingdom and huge treasure from a gold-stoned dragon, Smaug, voiced with charming, sepulchral threat by Benedict Cumberbatch. (The casting for Bilbo and Smaug makes up a reunion of kinds since Mr. Cumberbatch plays, beautifully, Holmes on the BBC TV show “Sherlock,” in which Mr. Freeman holds the heart as Watson.) When the film kicks in, Bilbo, the dwarfs and the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), are closing in on Smaug, who rules over the lost dwarf kingdom in Lonely Mountain. Having endured loads of trouble in the first movie — lions, tigers and bears, or rather trolls, orcs and stone giants — the travelers are in for more.
And how: Mr. Jackson, similar to many contemporary directors given huge resources to play with, likes to pile it on. With The Desolation of Smaug, he has taken roughly five chapters from the middle of Tolkien’s book and turned them into a relentless adventure tale, teaming with rowdy action, slavering enemies and Elven gymnastics. (It was written by Mr. Jackson, along with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro.) There are gigantic spiders, wolves called Wargs and one lovely familiar face, that of Legolas, the Elven heartthrob portrayed by Orlando Bloom, who pops up the mix and, like Luke Evans, as a mystery man named Bard, gives the film some oomph. The film also finds the skin-changer, Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who divertingly transforms from man to beast and provides Bilbo and the rest a shelter.
There’s more, much more, including a layover in the Elven kingdom, where the imperious Elvenking, Thranduil (Lee Pace), gads about in flowing robes and locks like a petulant supermodel. He’s a bore and a drag — he keeps the dwarfs imprisoned and whines restlessly — but Legolas, with his darting moves, is a wonder, as is another Elven warrior, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). A filmmaker invention, Tauriel was created to femme up the nearly all-male world of the “Hobbit” and is one of the better realized and welcome liberties taken with a book that Tolkien, who fought and studied among men, wrote between the two world wars. So it’s irritating that she’s saddled with a romance, a pandering turn that suggests Mr. Jackson, unlike his female fans, can’t even imagine a woman without a man.
It isn’t that the romance is poorly executed: it actually creates a little of a breather and shines some light into a galumphing, often dark film. Rather, it’s the conventionality, the lack of surprise and poverty of imagination that’s gone into the creation of the only woman in the movie with an active, substantive role and which speaks to Mr. Jackson’s weaknesses as a director. Because when he is good — as in the first Lord of the Rings and in scenes here and there in its sequels and in this movie — he is very, very good. But when he is bad he’s a crushingly straight, unoriginal director who seems largely interested in topping himself with bigger, louder, more frenetic action and who all too often hits his beats as predictably as someone doing hack work for Jerry Bruckheimer.
The good Mr. Jackson dukes it out with the bad throughout The Desolation of Smaug. There are, once again, too many busy, uninterestingly staged battles that lean heavily on obvious, sometimes distracting digital sorcery. But there are also pacific, brooding interludes in which the actors — notably Mr. Freeman, an intensely appealing screen presence — remind you that there’s more to Middle-earth than clamor and struggle. “They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon,” partway writes Tolkien through The Hobbit, in a line that delivers the stateliness of purpose of Bilbo’s quest and its foreboding, “and they were come at the waning of the year.” For a few pleasurable moments, Mr. Jackson stops at the verge of this poetic cliffhanger — and then barrels right over.