One year and several hundred films later, I confess my mind isn't over-full of vivid memories of director Peter Jackson's first "Hobbit." It did the job, in its leisurely, fill-out-the-trilogy fashion, albeit looking like clinically detailed crud when viewed in 48 frames-per-second digital projection. Maybe my eyes will catch up to the glories of this alleged improvement. Maybe not.
Format aside: Why so much "Hobbit," when the book itself supplies just enough story for one, maybe two movies? Here's a bit from last year's review. "Turning the relatively slim 1937 volume 'The Hobbit' into a trilogy, peddling seven or eight hours of cine-mythology, suggests a better deal for the producers than for audiences. When, in Jackson's film, someone describes a character's 'love of gold' as having become 'too fierce,' you wonder if the warning might apply to 'The Hobbit' in other ways."
Now we have the sequel. And you know? It's livelier and better than its predecessor. The first movie's harrumphing throat-clearing has given way to a swift, imposing adventure boasting several wing-ding action sequences. My favorite is the bit where the dwarves do battle with a near-endless supply of enemies, while speeding down a raging river atop their stolen barrels. It's exciting, improbable, funny in its derring-do and a reminder that Jackson, as a filmmaker, can do many things, including finding the precise way to send arrow after arrow through skull after skull, while tossing in a few beheadings, and yet somehow maintain a PG-13 rating. And the right spirit.
At its best, "Hobbit 2," which carries the subtitle "The Desolation of Smaug," invites comparisons to Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" threesome. Bilbo Baggins, again played by Martin Freeman, is sidelined a bit in this middle chapter. The script interpolates sections of "The Quest of Erebor," one of J.R.R. Tolkien's so-called "Unfinished Tales," setting up an alliance between Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and our old pal Gandalf (top-billed, not yet visibly bored Ian McKellen). The dwarves want their kingdom back, and Smaug is the dragon in the way.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who now rules the world, provides the voice of Smaug. Whatever one's personal investment in the Tolkien mythology, the dragon on screen is one hell of a dragon. Smaug's first close-up finds the beast asleep beneath mountains of gold coins, and when we see one eye open, it's a wonderful, awful sight. Elsewhere there's a truly scary giant-spider sequence, a little long — everything's a little long in "Smaug" — but more than enough to give younger viewers some fairly bad dreams.
Much of Part 2 unfolds in the coastal burg of Laketown, which has fallen on hard times since Smaug took over Lonely Mountain, or Lonesome Valley, or Honorary Dragon Way, or whatever Tolkien called it. We're left with the threatened decimation of Lake-town. Part 3 opens Dec. 17, 2014.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)
Running time: 3:02
Opens: Thursday evening