After only getting a few glimpses in “An Unexpected Journey,” the first of Peter Jackson’s epic film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” we finally get to see the dragon in all his glory in part two, “The Desolation of Smaug.” So, the question is, was it worth the wait?
Oh my, yes!
The final 45 minutes, which show us the fateful encounter between a very brave hobbit and a very fearsome dragon, are as breathtaking as anything in “The Two Towers,” the gold standard for Middle Earth adaptations. The two hours leading up to the dragon are so entertaining I’d bet most viewers will be willing to forgive the film’s outlandishly indulgent running time, which only occasionally gives us the wearying feeling we’re seeing this journey unfold in real time.
After a prologue with Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen), the film rejoins Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the 13 dwarves as they make their way to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarves’ lost treasure and kingdom. As the only hobbit among them, Bilbo has a surprising habit of saving the day, like when the party is attacked by giant spiders. This terrifying sequence shows us a side of Bilbo we haven’t seen up until now, as the ring of power begins to have a corrupting influence on him.
This is just one example of how “The Desolation of Smaug” sets up will happen later in “The Lord of the Rings.” In a separate quest, Gandalf and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) encounter a certain Dark Lord who will figure heavily in the battle for Middle Earth. We also learn that one of the 13 dwarves, Gloin (Peter Hambleton), is the father of Gimli, a beloved character in “LOTR.”
The hobbit also proves useful in the “Barrels Out of Bond” sequence, the most exciting part of the movie prior to the dragon’s appearance. It provides a showcase for a dwarf named Bombur (Stephen Hunter), whose slapstick heroics will have audiences laughing in delight. Just the sight of this character, with his rotund figure and orange beard, is enough to keep me in stitches.
When Bilbo finally sneaks into the dragon’s lair, Freeman has some hilariously tense moments as the hobbit tries to outwit Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), described by Tolkien as “a vast red-gold dragon” and brought to wondrous life by Jackson and his CGI team. Cumberbatch’s contribution is not to be underestimated. Unlike, say, Sean Connery in “Dragon Heart,” you won’t recognize the actor’s voice, but you will appreciate the way he captures Smaug’s vanity, intelligence and fire-spewing wrath. Jackson, who’s been working on Middle Earth movies since the late ‘90s, proves he’s still capable of inducing awe. The sight of a gold-speckled Smaug flying up into the night sky is among the most magical moments in this series or in “LOTR.”
Page 2 of 2 - As good as it is, “The Desolation of Smaug” isn’t as satisfying a middle chapter as “The Two Towers” was. I’ve seen “Smaug” twice now, and each time some viewers expressed outrage at the abruptness of the ending. It’s probably better to know going in that here there be dragons and cliffhanger endings.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is playing this weekend at the Augusta Historic Theatre, 523 State St. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $6.