December 12, 2013 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: Bloated 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' is a trip to muddle-earth

Bilbo and the party face a dragon and giant spiders, among other threats. (Mark Pokorny)

Simply put, this dragon is a drag.

In “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” director Peter Jackson passes all patience with his drawn-out telling of the one-volume story of “The Hobbit.”

Jackson’s inventive, heartfelt transformation of the three “Lord of the Rings” novels into a trilogy of movies a decade ago was masterful if at times indulgent. But let’s face it: He never matched that success again. So he returned to the precursor of those three books and has elongated this one story over the course of three films.

Why? Well the answer must be money because “Smaug” has nothing to do with art.

And let’s face it, “Smaug” will make gobs of money. Its predecessor, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” earned more than $1 billion (most of that came from overseas). People simply like to see dwarves and trolls and wizards and elves and fantastical battles in a magical world. No matter how long it all drags on, no matter whether anything really happens.

And “Smaug” drags on painfully — it’s two hours and 41 minutes long — without ever really resolving anything. Forget waterboarding; put this movie on endless repeat if you want to torture somebody.

The good news: The dwarves don’t sit around singing endlessly as they did in the first movie.

Some other good news (the final good news, actually): Orlando Bloom has returned to the franchise as the archer extraordinaire elf Legolas, and Evangeline Lilly has been added as an equally adept archer counterpart, named Tauriel. Like Bloom, she seems born to the role.

Now to the slog of it. The group of dwarves — it’s still nearly impossible to affix names or personalities to most of them, a huge failing — accompanied by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) are approaching the mountain that is the dwarves’ homeland, within which a dragon named Smaug (who names dragons?) sits on a horde of treasure.

They have to go through your basic scary enchanted forest and do battles with giant spiders and eventually trolls and whatever else comes along. Gandalf, meanwhile, senses all is not right with the world, so he gallops off to discover the Big Bad everybody knows is building from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

After an escape involving barrels and waterfalls (soon to be available at an amusement park near you), our heroes end up captured by elves, so Legolas and Tauriel can hitch their wagons to things. The dwarves then march on to the mountain. After breaking into it, they run around for about an hour with Smaug breathing fire at them.

Smaug, by the way, turns out to be both hugely inefficient and thoroughly dull. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s your basic big meanie dragon. Wasn’t there something more interesting to be done with such a major character? Make him cranky at the least, or wittily condescending — something.

But then this “Hobbit” trilogy is dearly lacking in personality. McKellen merely seems to be going through the motions, Freeman (a wonderful actor) really doesn’t have much to do in this film and the dwarves, as mentioned, are mostly blanks. You keep wishing Sneezy would show up.

Jackson, as always, has a wondrous way with action scenes, and the addition of Legolas and Tauriel certainly helps, but there’s so much of the stuff that it all mashes together.

And ultimately that’s the biggest problem with “Smaug” — it’s simply too big. This film could lose an hour and be much better for the cutting. But then again, it never really needed to be made in the first place. It’s mostly just a cash register exercise. As a result, a franchise about a magical world has lost all its magic.

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'

GRADE: D+

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images

Running time: 161 minutes

Film reflux

A full list of awful sequels might go on for pages, ranging from artistic missteps (“The Godfather Part III”) to wrong-headed re-imaginings (“The Next Karate Kid”) to bad follow-throughs (“The Matrix Revolutions”). But some sequels just seem like outright money grabs. Some examples:
“Speed 2: Cruise Control” (1997): That Sandra Bullock recovered from this disaster is testament to her talent; Keanu Reeves wisely avoided it altogether. Who thought boats on the ocean could compete with a bomb on a bus?
“Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” (1999): It had been 22 years since George Lucas directed a film, and for most of that time he was living off the (considerable) fumes of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” So he brought us Jar Jar Binks and stained his own legacy, although the paycheck was huge.
“Ocean’s Twelve” (2004): George Clooney, Brad Pitt, et al returned in a film that didn’t even pretend to make any sense — at one point Julia Roberts was impersonating Julia Roberts — and marked the biggest misstep in director Steven Soderbergh’s career.
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009): Again, the plot made no sense, the noise was constant, even the actors apologized for the entire ridiculous enterprise. Director Michael Bay keeps making these things, and in truth the third one wasn’t so bad (comparatively). But this was all about the money.
“The Hangover Part II” (2011): Rarely has a sequel dared to completely replicate the original film, but this hugely unimaginative follow-up to one of the films that launched the raunch comedy trend was shockingly — and boringly — repetitive. An enduring argument against “Bridesmaids II.”

tlong@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

Ian McKellen's Gandalf pops in and out to help Bilbo and the dwarves in ... (Mark Pokorny)
Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel and Orlando Bloom reprises his role as ... (James Fisher)