Last updated: December 18. 2013 2:09AM - 2374 Views
By Pete Croatto Weekender Correspondent

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Opening in theaters this week:

• Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

• Saving Mr. Banks

• Walking with Dinosaurs

• Her

DVDs released Dec. 17:

• Elysium

• Prisoners

• Kick-Ass 2

• The Lone Ranger

The world of J.R.R. Tolkien is one I don’t feel particularly welcome in. Maybe it’s the layers of backstory or the names that come from leftover Scrabble tiles or the rabid fans. I feel I can’t enjoy these adaptations unless I don’t question anything – and make a considerable time investment. It’s why I jumped ship from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy before trying again with “The Hobbit.”

Watching “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was like signing a lease for a car with too many conditions. You watched one borderline unnecessary movie, now you have to watch them all. And be sure to do so at the multiplex, because the lush scenery and (3D aided) special effects don’t play so hot on your TV. The first “Hobbit” was a big, uninspired preface. With “The Desolation of Smaug,” director Peter Jackson finally rewards our commitment. Non-zealots won’t leave feeling teased.

We’re actually getting somewhere, which is nice. And it only took a bit more than five-and-a-half hours over two movies. Hooray!

“The Desolation of Smaug” continues where “An Unexpected Journey” ended. Hobbit and accidental burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still wandering Middle-earth with the Dwarven warriors, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who seek to reclaim Dark Mountain and their long forsaken kingdom of Erebor. The group is being pursued by the demonic Orcs, though Erebor isn’t exactly a gated community. It’s guarded by a gigantic, fire-breathing dragon named Smaug while a swirl of evil forces looms. And where the hell is Gandalf (Ian McKellen)?

We’re still moving toward a major showdown, though Jackson makes an effort to create a movie that can stand on its own. The action scenes – especially one where Bilbo and his companions flee for their lives down a raging river in barrels – crackle with energy. There’s a greater emphasis on creating characters – especially Bilbo, who is only, you know, the center of these movies – instead of an anonymous, forever-moving mass of elaborately constructed beards that must reach a destination. We learn that our heroes have families; they get love interests.

Of course, these kinds of story-driven details should share equal space with the big-budget aesthetics. Certain diehard fans can lie in wait, but that’s not enough for those who want to be entertained. Which is everybody. The emerging “Hobbit” trilogy should envelop us in its fantasy world. We should be twitching in anticipation for what’s coming around the bend.

Two movies in, we’re still not there. Jackson has put himself in a tight spot: The third installment, next year’s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” has to be absolutely perfect to justify the time and money we’ve spent parked in front of a screen so we don’t feel as if we’ve participated in a cash grab. (One book equals three movies? Um, OK.) “The Desolation of Smaug” is definitely entertaining, but it’s still not enough for Jackson to honor his end of the bargain. Time – and patience – is running out.

Rating: W W V

-To read more of Pete’s reviews, please follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.

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