When Peter Jackson set about adapting J.R.R. Tolkien children's novel "The Hobbit" as a sprawling trilogy of eight running hours, we felt we could expect certain things. One would be the best special effects money could buy; after the rake on Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" flicks, we know the Kiwi auteur is resting on a pile of coin that would make the titular dragon in this second installment, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," drool napalm. We knew the costumes and settings would give the film the weightless sensation of having been created in another world, as if the production crews teleported to Middle-earth to bear witness to a troupe of dwarves and a wizard and a hobbit and elves and orcs. We knew the sweep and scope would be epic or die trying.
Aside from some irritatingly obvious digital effects, all of the above came true in the first and now the second film. So far so good. Now, to the deficiencies.
"The Desolation of Smaug" is a movie made for everyone, and therefore, for no one. It's a fantasy costume drama with action sequences straight out of Saturday morning cartoons, saggy middle stretches made logy by stultifying elf palace politics, blizzards of geographical scope and character names that make sense on a re-readable page but that become audio fuzz when spoken onscreen, and a tipsy notion of scale and pace. The climax of this 160-minute romp can barely be identified as such, because it cuts between a helter-skelter inner-mountain dragon battle and a single ill dwarf miles away who's dying on a kitchen table and needs a poultice. Then, because this is the middle child of a three-part series, the film ends almost literally on a cliffhanger. Tune in next year, kids!
Our heroes' journey to an ancient dwarf fortress should be the simplest of quests, but even that gets bungled in the telling. Led by an heir to the dwarf throne, name of Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarves bring the brave hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) so he can retrieve a single gem, a MacGuffin called the Arkenstone, from the Scrooge McDuckian avalanche of gold the dragon Smaug is guarding. Why is this mammoth bauble so valuable, such that the entire mission hinges on it? Something about uniting armies. Maybe so they can kill the dragon? But then Thorin doesn't exactly make stealth a priority and, surprise, the dragon stirs, with nary an army to thwart it.
The point, dear reader, is that it's folly to assume "The Desolation of Smaug" knows what its characters are doing and why, because it does such a threadbare job of communicating these basic tenets of story. Why does the only female character of any consequence, the raging badass Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), fall immediately for the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner)? Why — really, like, specifically why — does Gandalf (Ian McKellen, greyer than ever) wander off to go muddle around an orc fortress alone? Why doesn't Legolas (Orlando Bloom) exhibit any more personality than a garden gnome?
Not everything here plods. Smaug, the trilogy's raison d'être, is animated and voiced spectacularly. There's an awesome, gruesome showdown between the dwarves and a gaggle of giant spiders. The floating lake town of Esgaroth is a triumph of set design and construction. But the movie's missing something. If we may quote Tolkien back to Jackson, we could pull a line from "The Hobbit," in which the author describes the titular race: "There is little or no magic about them." Sounds about right.