Middle-earth adventurers are stranded in foggy 'Smaug'

2013-12-12T14:00:00Z 2014-12-16T11:36:05Z Middle-earth adventurers are stranded in foggy 'Smaug'By Joe Williams joewilliams@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8344 stltoday.com

The elders speak of an epic pilgrimage for the Holy Grail in which the heroes were posed three riddles: What is your name? What is your quest? What is your favorite color?

“The Desolation of Smaug,” the endless second installment of the “Hobbit” trilogy, asks the question: Are we there yet?

The original slaying-a-dragon novel by J.R.R. Tolkien was about 300 pages long. Director Peter Jackson is stretching it into three movies, and the first two segments have already run for more than 5½ hours. By next December, visitors to Middle-earth will have spent eight hours traveling there and back again.

Is it too much to ask that they be entertained?

At the end of Episode 1, last December’s “An Unexpected Journey,” the titular traveler and his baker’s-dozen dwarf companions had awakened a sleeping giant: the dragon Smaug. The dragon dwells in a mountain of moolah skimmed from the defeated dwarf kingdom. Reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) carries a treasure map to the little rock Arkenstone, which has the power to restore the dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) to the throne.

We know these things from the first movie, but the sequel does a lousy job of bringing us up to speed. And unless we kept a runic scorecard, we could easily forget the names of the gnomish sidekicks with the braided beards. Two and a half hours is plenty of time for character development, yet Jackson just dawdles along the trail.

What a relief, then, when a mysterious human (Luke Evans) ferries the fellows to Lake-town, a fishy version of Venice. That’s where dwarf Fili (Dean O’Gorman) has a bout of gout, or some such malady, and is helped by elf babe Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) while most of the other pilgrims proceed on their not-so-merry way.

Some will describe this film as “dark,” but that’s because most of it takes place at night or in that tiresome silver-gray light that’s so conducive to 3-D CGI. On a dramatic level, this epic quest is hardly compelling at all. While the ominous Orcs are busy dithering with Gandalf (Ian McKellen in a glorified cameo), deposed King Thorin abdicates his leadership role to Bilbo. When the hobbit rouses Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) in his cavernous cache, the dragon prattles about squashing Bilbo like a bug, yet the threats are a lot of hot air. The rambunctious hide-and-seek seems like a proposed theme-park ride, not a legendary battle.

We were promised desolation, but “The Hobbit” just keeps dragon on.

What “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” • Two stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 2:41 • Content Extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images

Joe Williams is the film critic of the Post-Dispatch and the author of the book "Hollywood Myths." Follow him on Twitter @joethecritic

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