Film and TV

The new Hobbit -- and its dragon! -- is a thing of beauty

Elves snore, it turns out. Their maidens make teensy-peen jokes and pine for the hottest of dwarves. And Bilbo Baggins, so concerned about his doilies just three hours of screen time ago, now punches his sword right through the trachea of a goblin — and then looks rather proud of himself. Now more than ever, the Middle-Earth films of Peter Jackson are less adaptations of the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien than the fullest realization of the fantasy-entertainment complex the Oxford don's pastorals have inspired. Here are the proper nouns and broad outlines of Tolkien's gentle stories, but playacted with the thunderous swords-and-sorcery heroics of the pulps, the creature-building zeal of Ray Harryhausen and young George Lucas, the wouldn't-it-be-cool riffing of cosplay and fanfic, and a belief in self-improvement through joyous, comic violence.

That last one is so profoundly American that, as the orc heads fly and the characters discover their courage, there's high comedy in the realization that a Kiwi director mined all this relentless, inventive mayhem from the work of a mostly pacifistic academic's fairy stories yearning for a pre-industrial England. Many people worried about the state of modern cinema share something of Tolkien's nostalgia: an ache for Hollywood before Industrial Light & Magic. That's fair. But I still adore much of Jackson's latest Christmas pudding, despite its garish extravagance, its moral cluelessness, its disorganized bulk, and its discomfiting belief that battle is a kind of weaponized freeze tag.

Sure, all the studios offer anymore are big, dumb adventure spectacles, but that's not a knock against the achievement of this one, which at least parades wonders before us, not the least of which is the greatest dragon in the history of movies. Before this miraculous Smaug expectorates his flames, orange smolders between the scales of his neck — and you might be tempted to duck in your seat.

This Hobbit dwarfs its sleepy-eyed predecessor, An Unexpected Journey. It's as packed with highlights as the last one was stripped of them: better-than-usual orc raids, a horrific spider attack, much more dragon than you'd expect, an exuberant river escape, and a too-quick visit with a were-bear. Seriously, here's a Peter Jackson movie where we actually spend too little time with one of the monsters.

Again, much of the character drama feels stiff, especially when Ian McKellen is not on screen. But no previous Jackson Middle-Earth extravaganza has had so little of it. Last year, Jackson lingered over that Shire feast like he was making My Dinner With Bilbo, and the Rings movies invested what felt like an age of man in the ennui of elves. Now he's touched with something of a showy too-muchness. He packs the frame with his riot of dwarves, then fractures it in a disorienting sequence in the sepulchral tangle of the Mirkwood forest, where he arranges his heroes above and below each other on different snarling paths, an image so rich and fearsome you'd return to linger over it again and again if you were a last-century kid lucky enough to find it in a picture book.

Such grandeur abounds. Relish Gandalf spelunking into a ghoul's trapped prison, Martin Freeman's Bilbo freaking out in the first throes of his ring lust, the long and thrilling dragon climax, or Jackson's signature swoops over mountain vistas, a move copied in every nature documentary to hit since The Fellowship of the Ring. At moments like these, Jackson demonstrates that his true competition isn't Thor or the Transformers. It's every fantasy or adventure film ever made, including the ones that will be dreamed up by kids weaned on this.