Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

January 17, 2014

'Smaug' is escapist delight

By Rob Cox
Daily News

---- — FROM THE DEN AT WOLF THEATRES — I suppose characterizing “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” as Peter Jackson’s finest trip to Middle Earth is a dicey proposition.

Fans of these movies might question, perhaps, how I could suggest this second entry in Jackson’s latest Middle Earth-based trilogy is more entertaining than any of the original “Lord of the Rings” movies – especially than “The Return of the King,” which garnered a Best Picture Academy.

Granted, it’s been more than a decade since my theatrical screenings of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “King,” but I nonetheless remember always being disappointed after each. “Towers,” in fact, was beyond disappointing, but also one of 2002’s worst movies for me.

And it hasn’t been long since I saw this latest trilogy’s first entry – 2012’s “An Unexpected Journey,” which, for me, ranks alongside “Towers.” Consequently, based on my initial reaction to this film, “Smaug” is the most entertaining interpretation of JRR Tolkien’s work Jackson has adapted for the screen to date.

On the whole, “Smaug” isn’t radically different from its predecessors. The film transports us back to the by-now familiar world of Middle Earth, which is populated by a fantastical array of goblins, hobbits, orcs, trolls, elves, sprites, giant spiders, wraiths, dragons, skin-changers, necromancers, wizards, wargs and witch-kings.

“Smaug” picks up where “Journey” left off: The hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is on a quest with a band of exiled dwarves across Middle Earth to reclaim their gold and their homeland inside the Lonely Mountain from the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).

In some ways, explaining what makes “Smaug” superior to Jackson’s other Tolkien adaptations feels akin to nitpicking. Bilbo and his company, initially guided by the Wizard Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen), never stay in one place long. They’re on the run from a pack of orcs as “Smaug” opens, taking refuge in the cabin of the skin-changer Beorn, who they initially encounter as a hostile bear.

Shortly after, Gandalf leaves them to attend another matter and the group flees into the enchanted Mirkwood, where they’re accosted and nearly eaten by a horde of giant spiders. They’re saved and subsequently captured by a group of Wood Elves, who are led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).

With the help of Bilbo and his darkly-enchanted “one ring of power,” the dwarves escape the elves, floating down a river in barrels. They ultimately make their way to Lake Town, which sits at the foot of the Lonely Mountain.

That synopsis isn’t terribly different from what’s come before, but Jackson elevates this film through a handful of nuances. For one, he departs from his typical M.O., never allowing “Smaug” to bog down in action or become encumbered by its own runtime.

At two-hours-forty-one minutes, “Smaug” isn’t appreciably shorter than any of Jackson’s other jaunts into Middle Earth, and yet, it doesn’t feel that long. That fact speaks to pacing. Whereas in the other films, when Jackson staged an epic battle, he might linger for what felt like half the film’s runtime, he rarely dawdles here. As a result, “Smaug’s” escapes and battles feel tighter and shorter, with a decent amount of narrative downtime in between, allowing the director to tell a more involving, more narrative-and-character-driven story.

“Smaug” doesn’t feel quite so epic as Jackson’s other Tolkien adaptations, either, and that’s not a bad thing. The Dark Lord Sauron and his armies don’t figure as prominently here, and the aforementioned battles aren’t nearly so grand compared to similar sequences from the other movies; in fact, in comparison, “Smaug’s” battle scenes feel scaled down. Sauron appears here mostly in suggestion, but his presence is far-more menacing than in any of the other adaptations. He’s like a ghost, a nameless demon whose identity only the audience is certain of.

The reduced scale also frees Jackson, to some degree, from Middle Earth’s tedious inner workings – the politics, the names of this warrior and that and their fathers from the Houses of [insert big, gibbery-sounding fantasy names] and so on.

Such fantastical touches can help add to the escapist enjoyment of a film like this, but they can also greatly detract from the overall effect, bogging the viewer down with alien-sounding names and places and words. Whether intentional or no, Jackson largely frees himself from that burden here.

Then there’s the dragon.

I’ve never seen anything quite like him put to film. Cumberbatch’s voice work on this great, scaly, digital delight is superb – at once slithery and silky, mesmerizing and terrifying. Bilbo, as the thief of his band of dwarves, is sent into the Lonely Mountain alone to retrieve a great magical jewel that will, supposedly, enable Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to defeat Smaug (Oakenshield is the rightful heir to the dwarven throne).

Martin’s chemistry with Cumberbatch is compelling, and they’ve got a solid script upon which to base their banter. The scenes between them work so well that I’m largely looking forward to the trilogy’s concluding chapter – December’s “There and Back Again” – just for the chance to spend more time with this beast.

“Smaug” is an atypical, typical Jacksonian Tolkien adaptation. Most of the familiar elements fans expect are present, but they’re used more efficiently, with storytelling and pacing that’s more streamlined.

By scaling things back a bit, Jackson finally manages to grab hold and sweep the viewer away — least THIS viewer — in a fashion he’s never quite achieved with previous trips to Middle Earth. As a result, “The Desolation of Smaug” is nearly three hours of escapist pleasure that’s apt to leave moviegoers wanting to linger a bit longer in Middle Earth.

Rating: Howl-and-a-half (***1/2)

Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011; robert.cox@greensburgdailynews.com