Director Peter Jackson must do "spectacular" in his sleep.
Even with the thinnest of premises - this second Hobbit movie is reportedly based on a mere five chapters of that children's book - Jackson can spin a nearly three-hour film that's chock-full of stunning action sequences and extended bits of special effects wizardry.
It may not add up to all that much; in fact, it may not mean much more than an excuse to show off, but wow - when Jackson can do it this well, that may be enough. Maybe.
Jackson has now made five films of Tolkein's Middle Earth writings (three Lord of the Rings, and two Hobbits), with one more Hobbit movie coming out next Christmas. With all of them clocking in at 2 1/2-to-three hours long, Tolkein may be the best served writer Hollywood, or NewZealandwood, has ever seen. (Ian Fleming's James Bond may have clocked more hours before the cameras but I doubt many would challenge the claim that Jackson's Tolkein output is of a higher grade and quality.)
And even though I don't share Jackson's utter fascination with Middle Earth, I admit I admire just how seriously he takes the material and its cinematic renderings.
In "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," we have yet another journey - or quest. The Dwarves want to reclaim their long-lost homeland (Erebor) and they enlist a Hobbit (Bilbo Baggins) to help them.
For some reason, they have to venture through the Land of the Elves and that gets tricky because, I guess, the Elves and the Dwarves don't exactly like each other. In point of fact, the Elf King locks them all up but they soon escape, thanks to the help of that helpful Hobbit who - don't tell anybody - has that magic Ring, you know.
And if the Elves aren't trouble enough, the Dwarves also have to contest with bloodthirsty monsters called Orcs. Although these Orcs look ferocious, they seem only to exist to be killed, since they die by the hundreds in the film and never once seem to do any real harm to our on-the-run dwarves.
The Dwarves eventually make it to their long lost kingdom but they have to defeat a terrific and terrifying dragon named Smaug who guards over all the gold in Christendom it seems (or at least in Erebor.)
This rather meandering and arbitrary storyline nonetheless allows for some of the most spectacular sequences you'll see in film this year. There's an absolutely great assault by giant spiders who cocoon, one at a time, the entire Dwarf hunting party; an amusement-ride-like Dwarf escape involving a dozen barrels rolling down a river and over many a waterfall, and finally Baggins' confrontation with Smaug the Dragon, voiced perfectly by the suddenly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch.
This Dragon may be the best computer-generated special effect ever and when he becomes encased in liquid gold, it practically defines the word "spectacular." It is a stunning thing to behold.
But then the question is: Is that enough? And that all depends on what you want out of the movies, or at least out of the Peter Jackson/Tolkein movies. If it's spectacle you're after, you'll be hard-pressed to find something grander. But if character, complexity, and emotional resonance is what you seek, Peter Jackson doesn't even try to slay that dragon.