The Hobbit
Five Stars (out of five). Released by Warner Brothers Home Video. Running time 161 minutes. Rated PG-13. Equipped with closed captions. This was reviewed as an iTunes download on April 9, 2014.

Last thing I remember was asking him to step outside.... I almost didnít want to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, because, to be blunt, I was Hobbited out. I had just re-watched the entire Lord Of The Ring Trilogy back to back (the extended versions) and after spending a week in Middle Earth, the last thing I needed was to go on another tour of this wondrous land. But the second Hobbit film, also directed by Peter Jackson, wound up being even better than the first. While the decision to expand the Hobbit series can be cynically seen as studio executives squeezing more money out of the fans, Jackson still delivers more bang for the entertainment buck.

The next big ride at Lake-Town amusement park! Where the evil Saron--the central villain from the Ring trilogy whoís seen as a great, glowing eye--was merely hinted at in the first Hobbit film, in the second movie he finally steps into the spotlight (and we get a visual explanation of sorts as to why he looks like a giant glowing eye) when Gandalf (played by the always-great Ian McKellen) investigates the strange goings-on at a supposedly abandoned castle. What could have been a dopey scene with a major character snooping around a spooky old castle that recalls the old Scooby Doo cartoons, becomes instead a chilling foreshadowing of the darkness to come, thanks to Jacksonís capable direction.

You called? The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels more and more like 1939--which contained the last few months of peace (at least in the West) before the entire world was plunged into the Second World War. In the midst of this, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still struggling to help the dwarves win back their home from the mighty dragon known as Smaug. In contrast to Saron, whom we briefly see, we finally meet Smaug in all of his glory, thanks to a great voice performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness), who perfectly plays the dragon as a real psychotic bastard whom you canít wait to see whatís coming to him.

What do you mean, don't kill him? You hear what he said about Lost?! Orlando Bloom returns as the elf-warrior Legolas, and Evangeline Lilly (who played Kate on six years of LOST) appears here as Tauriel, a brand new character created by the filmmakers because these movies were becoming way too testosterone-heavy. Sheís a welcome addition who fits in quite nicely as a female elf-warrior, handling herself very well in several exceedingly stylish battle scenes, as well as making us believe she fits right in this fantastical world. Lee Pace is also very good as an elf ruler with a hidden agenda, and Richard Armitage shines as Thorin, the conflicted Dwarf leader. This middle film is darker, leaner and far better than the first Hobbit, leading up to a major climax in the third film, one that I just canít wait to see. --SF

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet Combo Pack)