Even rote fantasy blockbusters can and usually do feature the showdown of good and evil. To conjure true darkness, however, is a trickier feat. Early on in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), having proved his mettle as a budding thief and honorary comrade to Thorin's band of dwarves, finds himself at the top of a tree in the forest of Mirkwood, where he spies an idyllic vista of autumn leaves. Then he drops into a huge, sticky web, and a pack of giant spiders attempt to eat him alive. These monster arachnids have a fearful presence, like something out of a nightmare devised by Ray Harryhausen.
A year ago, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey got the job done, but it was too bright and busy and noisy, with creatures that kept popping up as if out of a jack-in-the-box. The Desolation of Smaug is a more grandly somber movie, and also a much better one, with forces of boldly intense and unified malevolence. J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, on the eve of World War II, and his book is suffused with a sense of evil looming up in the world. This time Jackson nails that tone: the feeling that Bilbo, who's been recruited to steal back a wondrous gem called the Arkenstone from the dragon Smaug, is up against a cosmic storm of black forces. The dragon has ravaged the land, the angry, hulking orcs are on a power trip, and the elves led by the imperious Thranduil (Lee Pace) are isolationists who trap the dwarves in a dungeon, setting up a great escape via wine barrels on white rapids.
The dwarves, thirsting to return to their homeland (they could almost be pre-WWII Zionists), are portrayed with a crusty urgency that takes them up dizzying stone peaks and pits them against one another. Does The Desolation of Smaug meander? Of course it does it's a hobbit movie! Yet Jackson's direction is spiky and majestic, and the risky move of inventing his own Tolkien character the elf guard Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) as a love interest for Legolas (Orlando Bloom) pays off. These two bring some badly needed heat to the woodlands. Speaking of heat, the dragon is, quite simply, a marvel: gargantuan yet balletic, hoarding his mountain of gold with a razor-toothed smile, breathing not just flame but an inferno, and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch with the most delicious, insidious knowledge. Bilbo, as played by Freeman, suggests a sly-dog Dana Carvey without irony, and he is certainly overmatched, but that doesn't mean he's outplayed. Desolation is now his business. A-