DRAGON AWAKE! Peter Jackson leaves behind the dudefest of the first film.
Its narrative is fractured, and only in moments does the familiar WWII metaphor emerge, but The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a huge improvement over An Unexpected Journey—it's a well-filled smorgasbord without much starch.
Its showstopper is a seriously heinous dragon; I say this as a film watcher who'd never previously seen a dragon scarier than Agnes Moorehead. Benedict Cumberbatch's voice, digitally augmented with bass rumbles, rises from a throat that glows when Smaug is ready to belch up a firestorm. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has only flattery as a weapon: "Greatest and most terrible of calamities," he addresses Smaug, trying to butter him up. It doesn't work. Greed and solitude have made the dragon slightly insane.
Meanwhile (Peter Jackson's series depends on meanwhiles), Ian McKellen's Gandalf journeys to a haunted castle where Sauron is busily coalescing himself. The flaming eye opens, revealing the figure of Sauron in the slitted pupil, then we zoom into numerous pupils and numerous Saurons, like the "Cat on the Dubonnet bottle" illusion. It's as handy a way of saying "fathomless evil" as any ever seen.
The ineptly wigged dwarves with their rhyming names continue their journey through tangled Mirkwood, where horrible spiders dwell. The questers end up imprisoned by temperamental sylvan elves; the group includes in their number a fair-faced but stalwart captain of the guards named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who is important enough to have her own elf-dwarf love triangle.
The last Hobbit was annoyingly boys-only. But Tauriel is a real pest exterminator, and if you've been down these endless Middle Earth roads before, the new methods of orc-cleaving Tauriel tries out demonstrates that this series hasn't even begun to exhaust its invention, surprise and delight.
'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' opens Friday, Dec. 13, in wide release.