Sleeping dragons, as we know from our childhood literature, eventually awaken. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a story. So it’s hardly news that in the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, the dragon rouses from his slumber.
What IS news: the franchise wakes up, too.
Die-hard fans might disagree, but to many, the first film, last year’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” took way too long to get going and then dragged for much of its 169 minutes. “I do believe the worst is behind us,” noted Bilbo Baggins at the end of that film, to which some of us wanted to reply: “Well, we hope so.”
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is not much shorter — 8 minutes, to be exact — but it feels brisker, lighter, funnier. The characters are more varied, more interesting; We’ll take a comic turn by the entertaining Stephen Fry over another Orc any day. There’s even an added romantic subplot.
The whole enterprise, it must be said, involves a huge dollop of cinematic hubris. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” after all, is a book of some 300 pages. With these three films, a prequel to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jackson devotes about two film minutes to each page. Imagine if they did that with Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The movie would have been 40 hours long.
On the other hand, the first “Hobbit” installment brought in some $1 billion. So it’s rather beside the point to argue with Jackson’s approach.
Happily, “ Smaug” is vastly better from the getgo. Instead of a drawn-out intro, we get right to the action, which is of course the quest of Bilbo (Martin Freeman, himself livelier and funnier) and the band of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield ( a suitably noble Richard Armitage) to reclaim the kingdom of Erebor, under the Lonely Mountain, from the frightening dragon Smaug.
As always, trouble takes many forms: not only the menacing Orcs, but giant spiders with sticky webs, too. Then there are the elves, who come to the rescue at an opportune time but then imprison Bilbo and his mates. (Gandalf — the always grand Ian McKellen — has other business, and leaves for long stretches.)
Lee Pace is fun as the campy and authoritarian Thranduil, leader of the elves. His son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, back from “ The Lord of the Rings”) is talented as ever with a bow. And he has a love interest: Tauriel, a newly invented character, played with spunky sweetness by Evangeline Lilly, with a soft spot for the dwarf Kili.