For nearly two hours of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the exciting second installment of the three-part prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” director Peter Jackson sets a grand table before the main course.
That main course, of course, is one hellacious dragon. We’ll get to him in a moment.
First, Jackson reintroduces our tiny hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a cohort of dwarves as they venture toward the Lonely Mountain on their quest for gold and one rare jewel, the Arkenstone, that will restore the would-be dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to his rightful throne.
Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves in many a scrape. If it isn’t the orcs on their tail, it’s the spiders in the woods. Then it’s the duplicitous Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) trying to keep his kingdom neutral in the oncoming war between good and evil. Later, it’s the xenophobic humans of Laketown, where the dwarves receive reluctant aid from the bowman Bard (Luke Evans).
Not everyone the dwarves encounter is against them. Thranduil’s son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, back from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) sees the impending doom of the rapidly amassing orcs. He also sees the elven guard captain, the lovely and butt-kicking Tauriel (“Lost’s” Evangeline Lilly, playing a character Tolkien never considered), has already left Mirkwood to give the dwarves an assist.
Meanwhile, Bilbo is realizing the power and the danger of the ring he acquired from Gollum. He keeps the ring a secret, even from the trusted wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). When Gandalf leaves the party for some urgent business to the South, Bilbo is truly alone with his burden — though he finds that Thorin is in a similar quandary, as the dwarf leader’s pursuit of the Arkenstone starts to border on obsession.
All of the above takes up nearly two hours of the movie’s nearly three-hour running time, and Jackson (co-writing with his usual partners, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro) makes it worth the while. The action set pieces are astonishing, especially a playfully exhilarating sequence in which the dwarves escape the Elf King’s jail and ride barrels down a raging river with orc archers attacking.
As exciting as that all is, it’s all just setting up for the big reveal of the evil dragon Smaug.
Jackson’s computer-generated rendition of Smaug, protecting the golden treasure, is an awesome thing. The skin textures are realistic, the movement agile and organic, and the voice — by the seemingly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch — is insidiously silky and menacing at once. This is one fearsome beast, deserving of the trepidation the other characters show before they (and we) see him.
The dragon’s appearance in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is riveting entertainment, and the cliffhanger ending leaves the audience gasping for breath — and ready to get in line for next year’s concluding chapter.
‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’
Peter Jackson raises the action quotient in his Middle-Earth saga, setting the stage for one mighty dragon.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
Running time • 161 minutes.