Part Two: In which we rejoin Bilbo and Gandalf on their way to Erebor in company with the questing dwarves Thorin, Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy — you remember. Once again, they’re menaced by fearsome orcs and snarling wargs as they gamely transit glorious New Zealand. Some familiar faces pass through, including the mind-reading Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the mushroom-addled wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Orlando Bloom’s fiercely blond Legolas is dragged back from the “Lord of the Rings” series (no word from J.R.R. Tolkien about this), and even the fiery Eye of Sauron gets a quick peek in.
OK, OK. “The Desolation of Smaug” is actually a lot livelier than the first “Hobbit” installment, “An Unexpected Journey.” For one thing, there’s nothing in it as fun-smothering as the endless hobbit-hole chow-down that opened the previous film. There’s a lot more action this time, and at several points, director Peter Jackson exceeds even his own very high standard in designing and executing it.
The story is so simple that we wonder once more why it should take nearly three hours to tell it. Bilbo (amiable Martin Freeman) is slogging along with the 13 dwarves en route to the ancestral homeland from which they were long ago expelled by the dragon Smaug. Their leader, Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage), has recruited him to join in re-entering the stony innards of the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug still sleeps, and, once there, to find and secure a glowy artifact called the Arkenstone, which is — I don’t know — really important. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, crinkly as ever) is intermittently absent, but Bilbo is still secretly in possession of the One Ring he snookered away from Gollum in the first film. Maybe that’ll help.
Entering the dark, broody forest of Mirkwood (where “the very air is heavy with illusion,” Gandalf mutters), the party is attacked by a very real army of giant spiders — a scary scene that allows Jackson to flex his low-budget-horror muscles. Before long, the hardy band is imprisoned by a tribe of unfriendly elves. But then they manage a spectacular escape — the movie’s most thrilling sequence — in which Bilbo and company, each squeezed into an empty wine barrel, plunge down a churning waterway as warrior orcs pursue them, leaping from bank to bank, and an intervening band of friendlier elves wades in to fend them off. Blood gushes; limbs fly. And the action builds in endlessly inventive ways. Only when this sequence finally concludes do we note that it’s gone on too long.
Likewise the movie’s final set piece — the confrontation with Smaug. It takes place in a vast Piranesian treasure chamber filled with shifting dunes of shiny gold coins. The dragon — a digital wonder the size of an Airbus — speaks in what’s said to be the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch. (I wouldn’t have guessed.) He and Bilbo trade tense bons mots as the nervous hobbit edges his way toward the gleaming Arkenstone and the dragon grows ever more menacing. It’s a pretty great scene, but it surely could have been cut down by, oh, 10, 15 minutes or so. But, yet again, no.
The feeling of bloat that attends the whole “Hobbit” enterprise remains off-putting. Jackson says that he keeps his Middle-earth franchise going because if he doesn’t, someone else will, and he wants to protect the unique fantasy world that he created. But the question persists: Why did he feel it necessary to inflate into a trio of three-hour films a story that Tolkien tossed off in 300 pages? The stretch marks continue to show. More regrettably, these latter-day movies lack the enchantment of the “Rings” trilogy. There’s nothing in the first two pictures as beautiful as the scene in “Return of the King” in which Pippin, detained in the castle of Denethor, gives forth with a haunting a cappella ballad while his vile host wolfs down his dinner with lip-smacking indifference. There are still marvels to be seen in these new “Hobbit” films, but they’re almost entirely technological. The magic has flown.