The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Opens Fri., Dec. 13 at Cinerama

The Hobbit: 
The Desolation of Smaug

Opens Fri., Dec. 13 at Cinerama and 
other theaters. Rated PG-13. 156 minutes.

As holiday movie titles go, The Desolation of Smaug is a less-than-catchy handle for an evening’s buoyant entertainment. But only to the uninitiated. To the throbbing fan base of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fun and relatively compact fantasy novel, those words portend sheer fire-breathing awesomeness.

By now you know that The Hobbit has been elongated into three hefty movies by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Smaug is the middle one, and it improves on last year’s rambling An Unexpected Journey by sticking to a clean, headlong storyline and jettisoning much of Part 1’s juvenile humor. Our hero, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is traveling with his crowd of bumptious dwarfs, intent on finding a magical stone inside a mountain crammed with treasure. Wee wrinkle: The mountain is home to a dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who likes to emerge periodically from his lair and burn down neighboring Laketown.

This is really the only plot. Wizard leader Gandalf (Ian McKellen) breaks off from the travelers for his own jaunt; elfin archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns to the fray from his LOTR stint; and a new elf character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) provides woman-warrior action. Jackson once again wrote the (rather overly talky) script with Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, and they’ve dialed back on the funhouse action just a bit—though one zany escape, involving dwarfs riding barrels down a rushing river, is a glorious blend of Chuck Jones–style cartoony gags and Steven Spielberg’s dream of a Wild Waves park.

The tightened storytelling (even at 156 minutes!) is welcome, and the movie looks cool. From the opening scene of Gandalf conspiring with the presumptive dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) in a grungy pub to the wonderfully tumbledown design of Laketown, Jackson’s eye for epic locations (New Zealand–shot, natch) is right on. I saw the film in conventional 3-D, although in some theaters it’s available in the bizarre high-frame-rate version deployed in An Unexpected Journey. One serious caveat: Jackson misplaces Bilbo Baggins. In the bustle and the rapid-fire close-ups of the dwarfs (you still won’t be able to tell them apart), good old Bilbo is relegated to member-of-the-gang status—but this really is his journey, isn’t it? We miss his solid center, amid all the breathless archery and scar-faced Orcs.

There’s a final bold move by Jackson: the ending. The LOTR episodes and other such multipart franchises generally round off each chapter with some combination of resolution and “What happens next?” Smaug is pure cliffhanger, to be resolved next Christmas. The faithful are unlikely to complain.