Whenever the movie gives him some screen time, Freeman does well depicting Bilbo’s growing dependence on the magical ring he stole from Gollum — it’s like a drug — and he’s good, too, at portraying the timid hobbit’s burgeoning bravery and courage (he gets to save the day, more than once). But Jackson has become too distracted by his digital toys to give his characters the same weight and importance he used in the “Rings” trilogy (Bloom, for one, comes off as stiff and robotic, even though he’s reprising the signature role that made him famous).
“The Desolation of Smaug” is all about finely rendered CGI creatures (including giant orcs and an enormous bear-monster); villages that feel like sets augmented by special effects; and a visual grandeur that is at odds with the intimacy of this small, simple tale. In one scene, the dwarfs wander into a poisoned forest where they are attacked by a cluster of huge spiders. But the sequence isn’t nearly as effective as the one in “The Two Towers” in which Frodo squared off against just one overgrown arachnid. Saying a movie looks like video game has become a hoary cliche, but that’s really the best way to describe long chunks of “Smaug,” which uses so much animation it practically qualifies as a Pixar movie. And although the movie ends on an enormous, groan-inducing cliffhanger, this story has been stretched so thin that all the suspense has seeped out.
People who haven’t read the book will have to wait until next December to find out how Bilbo and his gang fare. But it’s hard to imagine anyone fretting much until the third film arrives.