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'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' review: Far trek into darkness

*** (out of four)

Going into the roughly 153-minute “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” my questions were, “Is it painfully slow like ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’?“ and “Wasn’t Smaug already, uh, desolate?” I mean, Smaug sounds like a mountain, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoyed Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series but can’t keep track of every fantasy location from Bree to Hogwarts. (Just kidding, Potter fans, just kidding.)

Actually, you may or may not remember (I obviously didn’t), Smaug is a humongous, evil dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch and awoken in this prequel sequel, which, following its snoozy predecessor, also feels like rousing a sleeping dragon. This time Jackson actually delivers a watchable movie—not just an elongated (and, if you saw “Journey” in the unfortunate 48-frames-per-second technology, very weird-looking) return to terrain that’s already taken up a half-day of screen time. At the start of “Smaug,” Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who still runs quite well for a huge old wizard carrying a large stick, encourages dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the heir to the throne of Durin—stay with me here—to “Take back your homeland!” When Gandalf bellows, you oblige.

A year later, Thorin, Gandalf, several other bearded dwarves and prime burglar and lovable hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) are continuing the journey begun in “Journey.” And this time, the story really moves. The dwarves’ rocky relationship with the elves yields an excellent escape in barrels and a well-handled flirtation between dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Snarling, hideous orcs call her “She-elf.” If they were smarter, they’d just say “Shelf.”

Maybe it’s because being wrapped in a web by a giant spider, as happens to Bilbo and company, is high on my list of Things I Don’t Want to Happen to Me Ever, but “Smaug” consistently and surprisingly thrills. It is long, and it’s easy to zone out as characters say things like, “The power in that fortress will only grow stronger.” But this time, big doesn’t mean bloated. A chase sequence down a river practically turns a dwarf into a missile, and the pep in the numerous conflicts makes the elegance of precisely shot arrows and impeccably detailed locations regain their sense of grandeur. Ditto for the bravery of underdogs who stare danger in the face, even if it requires them to balance on their tiptoes.

Wake up, “Hobbit” haters: It’s time to believe again.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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