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December 13, 2013

'Desolation of Smaug': Better, but still bloated

There is one thrilling, rib-tickling sequence in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”: A group of dwarfs, riding inside empty wine barrels over rushing rapids and waterfalls, fend off an attack by an army of orcs with the help of bow-and-arrow wielding elves.

The set piece is as fun and rousing as anything in Steven Spielberg’s canon. The action is sprawling and comes at you from all angles — there’s so much happening, your eyes don’t know where to look — and director Peter Jackson throws in some terrific slapstick as a bonus, leavening the furious action with laughs. It’s a showstopper.

But another part of what makes the sequence so memorable is that it also advances the story: It matters. The same cannot be said for the bulk of “Smaug,” a bloated, dawdling and misshapen adventure that throws in so many extraneous characters and subplots, the eponymous hero — Bilbo Baggins — is edged off the screen for large chunks of time.

When Jackson announced he was going to adapt Tolkien’s 300-page novel into three films instead of the originally announced two, fans grumbled of studio greed and artistic indulgence. The now-infamous, 30-minute dinner scene that opened the previous film, “An Unexpected Journey,” seemed to confirm those suspicions (early in “Smaug,” when the dwarfs sit down for a meal, I gripped my armrests and braced for the worst, but fortunately it turned out to just be a snack).

Once Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and their merry band of 13 dwarfs finally set out on their quest to reclaim Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) as the rightful ruler of their kingdom, “An Unexpected Journey” found its footing. Despite all the additions and changes to the original text, the movie had momentum and the characters had a clear goal: Travel to the Lonely Mountain and recover a jewel guarded by an enormous dragon named Smaug. The film followed them on their quest as they constantly pushed forward, even though it ended with the heroes still far away from their destination.

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