Engaging second ‘Hobbit’ does not disappoint

REVIEWER’S RATING: ★★★

A visual feast and technical marvel, the second installment of director Peter Jackson’s three-movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s single-volume book, “The Hobbit,” is thin on story but rich with intricate action and wondrous sites.

Coming in the middle of a triptych as the “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” does, it must be among the greatest teases in cinematic history.

Of course, fans of Jackson’s three “The Lord of the Rings” movies and his first “Hobbit” film, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” expect to be left hanging with a doozy of a cliffhanger. In that regard, “The Desolation of Smaug” does not disappoint.

Twelves dwarves and their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf king who has no kingdom, plus their prime motivator, Gandalf the wizard, and the lone hobbit they’ve recruited to help them are gathered in Middle-Earth, 60 years before the time of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The group is on a suicidal quest to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor.

The prodigiously bearded Ian McKellen is back as the crafty Gandalf. Martin Freeman returns as Bilbo Baggins, the diminutive hobbit whose courage has grown considerably since the first film. Richard Armitage again assumes command as the determined Thorin.

Unlike the first “Hobbit” installment, there’s no time for rollicking feasts of the kind that began “An Unexpected Journey.” Nor does this dark adventure have room for much humor.

Packs of mirror-breaking-ugly orcs, riding their wolfish wargs, continuously hunt the dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo. The group must also journey through a hallucination-generating forest infested with giant spiders. And waiting at the dwarves’ destination, there’s Smaug, the fire-blowing giant lizard who’s taken covetous possession of their mountain kingdom.

With so much threat in the land, “The Desolation of Smaug” becomes a series of uncomfortable alliances. In a treacherous world, the dwarves and their begrudging allies realize they have mutual interests.

Beorn is the first of the new characters to offer aid to the dwarves. Towering over them, Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt’s Beorn, enhanced by heavy facial prosthetics and hair, looks not quite human. He isn’t human. Beorn is the melancholy last member of a race of beings known as skin-changers. He can transform himself into a huge, terrifying bear. Luckily, he hates orcs but merely dislikes dwarves.

Getting much screen time in the new film, Tauriel and Legolas, a pair of Mirkwood Forest elves, are two characters interjected into Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” by the filmmakers. Orlando Bloom’s Legolas previously appeared in “The Lord of the Rings,” but Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is an entirely new character.

Whatever discomfort their addition may cause purists, Tauriel and Legolas bring a lot to the film. Mirkwood elves are magnificent warriors. Jackson and his returning co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro make the most of the elves’ skills, to the point of overkill. Nevertheless, Lilly’s lovely bow-and-arrow- and blade-armed Tauriel is likely to inspire crushes throughout the world.

Also in the cast, Luke Evans co-stars as the human Bard, another of the dwarves’ benefactors, and a compelling and essential character.

Smaug the dragon is a character, too, on top of being a hell of a fire-breathing mega-lizard. Moviegoers get to see a lot of him in “The Desolation of Smaug.” British actor Benedict Cumberbatch speaks the beast’s menacing voice and computer-animators and special effects wizards make Smaug the most dangerous dragon to ever stalk the screen.

“The Desolation of Smaug” is engaging, attention-holding bait for the third and final “Hobbit” movie. Everyone will just have to wait until next year to see what happens to Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf and the gang.