For a movie that’s all about literally going home again, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is further proof of just how hard it is to do so figuratively.
After 2003’s "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" tied an Oscar record with 11 wins, including best picture, last year’s "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" landed with a bit of a critical thud. And despite scoring the biggest opening weekend of the four by far, "Journey’s" final box-office haul was the series’ lowest yet.
While "Smaug" represents an improvement on "Journey’s" often exhausting getting-to-know-you slog through Middle-earth, it still rarely rises above the sort of thing that should temporarily feed the "Hobbit" habit of die-hard fans.
Last seen being carried by giant birds away from the dreaded pale orc Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the rest of his not-so-merry band of dwarves — Fili, Kili, Balin, Dwalin, Oin, Gloin, Dori, Nori, Ori, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur — continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
If your eyes glazed over during any part of that admittedly long sentence, "Smaug" is most certainly not for you.
Along the way, they encounter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a skin-changer who can turn into a bear. While his appearance feels glossed over, newcomers Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who smuggles the gang into Lake-town and provides them shelter and weapons, and the corrupt Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) fare better.
Also joining in the action are "Rings" fan favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his fellow elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), neither of whom appear in the novel.
Director Peter Jackson obviously brought Legolas back to goose the box office, and he’s part of "Smaug’s" best action piece as he dances atop barrels and the heads of the dwarves as they take a dizzying ride down a rampaging river. It’s more fun than 13 barrels of dwarves and feels more akin to Bloom’s "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.
Tauriel was created by the "Smaug" screenwriters — Jackson, Guillermo del Toro and the "Rings" team of Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — to add a strong female presence, and she fits the bill quite nicely.
Tauriel proves herself to be a skilled fighter while teasing a romance with Kili (Aidan Turner, thankfully given more to do this time around since his "Hobbit"-forced departure from "Being Human" ruined a perfectly good series).
But as much life as Legolas and Tauriel breathe into "Smaug," their presence is problematic. Not only will purists likely scoff at the intrusion, they help push the great Gandalf, whom J.R.R. Tolkien actually included in "The Hobbit," to the side for far too long.
The heart and soul of the trilogy, though, remains Bilbo Baggins, and Freeman is delightful in bringing him to life. Whether he’s screwing up his courage to confront the dragon or rushing to save his friends as fast as his big, hairy feet can carry him, Freeman expertly captures Bilbo’s transformation from homebody to hero.
And "Sherlock" fans will relish his interactions with Cumberbatch’s Smaug, who’s covered in gold and constantly boasting about how great he is like an insecure rapper.
While "Smaug" offers a few silly moments, such as the dwarves having dozens of fish dumped on their heads or being forced to sneak into Bard’s home via the toilet, it’s an overall darker tale than "Journey," full of decapitations and plenty of arrows to the heads of various orcs.
And unlike the "Rings" films, each of which told its novel’s tale from beginning to end, "Smaug" doesn’t really offer a climax. It just sort of stops.
That’s part of the larger problem of squeezing more than eight hours of movies out of a roughly 300-page children’s book.
"The Hobbit" could have made one really good movie or even two decent ones. Instead, we’re two installments into what’s shaping up to be a so-so trilogy.
The whole thing’s just too much too much.
Middle-earth should never feel this middling.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.