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I’m not one of those book snobs or fantasy geeks that gets all bent out of shape when a movie version of a beloved tale takes liberties with the story. If it’s a good movie, it’s still a good movie, regardless of how faithful it is to the original material.

Even still, I’m convinced: Author J.R.R. Tolkien made a good book out of “The Hobbit.” Director Peter Jackson has not made a good movie out of the same tale.

Now, some have lauded “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” – the second in a three-part movie marathon made from Tolkien’s classic novel – as better than the first “Hobbit” film. They praise its non-stop action and creatively imagined fantasy setting.

And many compliments other fans and critics have proclaimed are accurate: It is much more engaging the first, rather plodding film. The spider scene is intense. The river-barrel action is thrilling and hilarious. And when Smaug the dragon finally takes center stage in the film’s third act, it’s absolutely magical, ending on a high note with a dramatic crescendo – both in the story and in the quality of filmmaking.

But, oh, the agony of the first two acts.

To begin with, the camerawork, for example, is extremely distracting. Whether it was the controversial new frame rate, the new 3D cameras Jackson used or whatnot, the details on the screen are simply too crystal clear. The Styrofoam rocks used to build fantasy landscapes … look like Styrofoam. The makeup artists’ brushstrokes can be seen on the actors’ cheeks. The horse-hair wigs look like horse hair, and you can practically see the wig line. All this makes the overuse of computer-generated characters in several scenes appear all the more fake.

By improving the cameras well beyond the capability of its special effects technology, “Desolation” looks and feels like a 1970s BBC “Chronicles of Narnia” special – and no, that’s not a compliment.

My biggest beef, however, is that Jackson and the scriptwriters – until Smaug appears to redeem this film – have completely lost the story.

If I remember correctly, Tolkien wrote about a Hobbit. I think his name was Bilbo.

In “The Desolation of Smaug,” however, Bilbo gets shoved into the background while we focus instead on the dwarf king Thorin and an odd love triangle between Legolas the in-the-wrong-movie elf, Tauriel the whole-cloth fabrication and one of the dwarves. Meanwhile, we run down rabbit trails with Gandalf the wizard and Thranduil the elf king, and … why is this movie called “The Hobbit” again?

Oh, yes. That’s the guy who shows up in the third act for a wonderfully delicious confrontation with Smaug the dragon, which, despite everything that’s wrong with this movie, still makes it worth the price of admission. Thank you, voice of the dragon, Benedict Cumberbatch, for kickstarting this movie franchise at its darkest hour.

From a worldview perspective, it’s hard to really evaluate it when the storyline is so jumbled and lost. But a few themes did seem to run through it, including the notion that all our “good guys” are inherently flawed and suspiciously untrustworthy.

Thorin the dwarf king, for example, is clearly about to swing to the dark side, ala Anakin Skywalker. It appears as though Legolas is about to shoot one of the dwarves for stealing his girlfriend. And when Gandalf faces off against the evil Necromancer, the specter declares, “There is no light that can defeat darkness,” and then pretty much proves it.

But I’m going to give this film a bit of a pass in that regard, because it’s only the second part of a three-part story. It’s the darkest-before-the-dawn moment. Our heroes need their moments of failure, so that they can be redeemed heroically in the final chapter. It’s a pattern Tolkien and Jackson followed in their “Lord of the Rings” endeavors, and it’s a common thread in good storytelling.

Let’s just hope Jackson gives audiences more scenes like Smaug and less like Legolas, before the great thread Tolkien began completely unravels.

Content advisory:

  • “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is rated PG-13, but not for obscenity or profanity, of which there is none (in English).
  • There is only a small bit of sexual content, consisting of one lewd comment and a naked man seen in moonlight without much detail visible.
  • The film is abundantly violent and often gory, however. The plot is laced with warfare, and several orcs are seen brutally killed, beheaded and bloody. One scene also contains several shots of human-like corpses, including the rotting bodies of children.
  • The movie contains no significant religious content, but does include several magical scenes with foreign incantations – by elves, wizards and the creepy, dark spells of an evil force. There is also the boasting of some evil forces, reminiscent of biblical demons, in the statement, “Our master is everywhere. We are legion.”

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