THE PROBLEM WITH picaresque stories like “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is that there’s not much of a narrative arc. There is a lot of energy and loads of action, but the entire movie exists on one monotonous emotional level. Don’t expect much in terms of character development, story-line nuance or acting skills for that matter in this, Peter Jackson’s wearingly exhausting fifth version of Middle Earth and that damned ring.
The basic story-line centers around the need for the leader of the band of dwarfs, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, whose stellar CV includes masterpieces such as “Captain America: First Avenger” and various TV stints in “Spooks” and “Robin Hood”. This is an actor whose flaring nostrils and flashing eyes easily make him THE front- runner for the Rudolph Valentino award for swashbuckling excess) to steal a piece of bling – the Arkenstone – from Smaug, the dragon – a sort of reptilian wealth manager. Bilbo, the eponymous hobbit (Martin Freeman, wearing an expression of permanent worry, as if his bonus were in jeopardy) is the one entrusted with stealing into the bejeweled lair (a glittering cave from “Beyond the Candelabra”) and filching the gem. Of course, Bilbo himself is enthralled with his own piece of bling – the famous ring – that gives him the power of invisibility, and like all wealth has the power to corrupt.
Along the way, they are chased by elves, Orcs, sundry villagers and giant spiders. They run, they jump, the get caught, they escape, they get shot at and shot, they heal, they get chased again, they fight, they run, they swim…on and on and on for sixteen hours (OK, three).
There are certainly some brilliantly executed set-pieces, particularly a spectacular fight against the giant spiders (though there’s not a lot of tension as to who’ll win – unlike, say “Game of Thrones” where all the good guys seem to get killed) and a marvelous river chase where Legolas (Orlando Bloom, still struggling for a place in the firmament of top ranked Hollywood stars) hops between barrels (in which various dwarves are riding), shooting sundry attacking Orcs.
But we’ve seen it all before: in “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit 1”. And we’ll see it all again in the multiple other versions of “The Hobbit” to follow. Certainly Smaug is a delightful dragon (Jackson’s beasts – Golum, King Kong, Smaug – are far more interesting than his humans) with Benedict Cumberbatch’s smooth, silky voice purring reptilian threat and dread.
But beyond that, it’s business as usual: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) emotes as usual with full theatrical, thespian melodrama, and flits away from the chase for obscure reasons which will probably never be explained (or even if they were, they won’t really matter that much): there are the Disney-esque dwarfs who huff and puff and there’s the ethereally beautiful elf, Tauriel (Evalgeline Lilly, from “Lost”, who, though she really can’t act, we deserve to see more of), who struggles to balance love-lorn romance with Wonder Woman.
And to think, we’ve not seen the last of this yet.