It’s been 10 years since Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won the Best Picture Academy Award and his original fantasy film trilogy concluded. It seems that Hobbit Mania peaked a decade ago, with Jackson’s second prequel trilogy receiving mixed to indifferent responses so far, even from most die-hard Ring fans. I find myself in a strange position, as I spent 2001-2003, like most film fans, giddily awaiting each installment. My anticipation has given way to obligation.

The story so far: Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a group of dwarves and Gandolf (Ian McKellen) find the latest leg of their journey involving a pivotal encounter with a dragon named Smaug (whose digitally manipulated voice and motion-captured movement belong to Benedict Cumberbatch). In addition to the army of angry Orcs on their trail, our heroes have a bigger problem: Bilbo has secretly kept possession of a certain ring…

The problems that plagued the unsteady prior entry are still an issue. Freeman is giving a droll, low-key performance that would sort-of work for a romantic comedy but not here. His modest performance can’t carry the movie. Bilbo’s pivotal attraction to the all-powerful ring doesn’t come across and Freeman’s feature-length performance isn’t half as interesting as Ian Holm’s brief but memorable Bilbo in the earlier films.

Everyone here suffers in comparison to the earlier performances. McKellen’s still got it, though his appearances are jarringly on and off. Richard Armitage’s Thorin can glower intensely but he’s no match for Viggo Mortensen. Even with the gallery of goofy dwarves, the depth and range of emotions Elijah Wood and Sean Astin brought as Hobbits is badly needed and truly missed. Evangeline Lily plays Tauriel, a battle-ready Elf, created entirely for the new film series; her Vulcan-esque ears are fetching but her character and performance lack the soulfulness Liv Tyler brought to Arwen.

There’s a romantic subplot forced on Lily that never develops the emotion it should. For that matter, aside from some knockout action sequences, no one on screen can stir the audience  the way the original cast did. Bringing back Orlando Bloom’s Legolas isn’t much help: aside from his skill for killing foes quickly, he’s one of the least interesting characters in these movies.

As an action movie, Jackson demonstrates his craftsmanship at staging astonishing set pieces of enormous scale. A giant spider attack is as gag-inducing as his arachnid set piece from the 2005 King Kong remake. A river barreling escape is the movie’s high point, a genuinely thrilling, delightfully off-the-wall barrage of arrows, decapitations and bodies bouncing and falling everywhere. Jackson may fail to recreate the chemistry of his original, unbeatable ensemble players but he still orchestrates the carnage and chaos with the playful finesse of his earlier works.

The narrative drags its feet getting to the talking, fire-breathing dragon, with too many side characters and narrative distractions. Once Smaug is finally unveiled, he proves to be an impressively vivid special effect. Cumberbatch is no Andy Serkis but he renders Smaug an interesting, arrogant creature and it’s amusing how much the monster resembles the actor. Fantasy film lovers will note that, for the all the technological breakthroughs in film effects, nothing here beats the 1981 Dragonslayer.

For that matter, even though the action sequences give you your money’s worth (so does the 3D, if you desire things thrust into your face), this is only essential for Tolkien completists. You’ll witness Jackson’s passion for creating new worlds and providing popcorn movie thrills, but the heart, character dynamics and emotional impact from the initial trilogy are gone.

Just as George Lucas spent too much time in a Galaxy Far, Far Away with a second cast that didn’t measure up, I hope Jackson eventually finds purpose in reigniting his franchise. But we may need to stop him from making The Hobbit Holiday Special.

Score: ** (1-5 Star Scale)

Rated PG-13

161 min.

Photo: Movieweb