Love is in the air, along with the sulfury smell of dragon breath, in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," the middle movie in Peter Jackson's latest Middle-earth trilogy. Romance may not be what fans of this fantasy franchise want, but it's a blessing for the rest of us. In a movie driven mostly by kabillion-dollar special effects, it's nice to feel a human emotion.
Well, not human, exactly. But we'll get to that.
"The Hobbit" picks up with its diminutive hero, Bilbo Baggins (the charming Martin Freeman), still tagging along with a dwarf crew led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, compactly macho). The nasty orcs are closing in, and the highfalutin elves aren't helping, but the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a kindly boatman (Luke Evans) will help the little guys reach their goal: the mountain lair of the dragon Smaug. Therein lies the glowing Arkenstone that can restore Thorin to his throne.
Got all that? "The Hobbit" takes nearly two hours to explain its backstory, and the going can be slow. Jackson and his co-writers, including Guillermo del Toro, alternate scenes of exposition (often in subtitled Orc) with elaborate battle sequences, but this only rushes the story to make room for the action. A pivotal moment on the mountain of Erebor, for instance, arrives with so little buildup that we barely recognize it as the movie's emotional climax.
As in the previous "Hobbit," there are welcome moments of humor (a Looney Tunes barrel-ride down a raging river) and some fine support players (Orlando Bloom is icy cool as the swashbuckling Legolas, while Lee Pace plays an elfin king as a campy queen). And when "The Hobbit" finally picks up speed, it really roars. That's due mainly to Smaug, a spectacular-looking creature with napalm-spewing lungs and the sneering voice of Benedict Cumberbatch.
As for the romance, it blossoms bashfully between the willowy elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the just-tall-enough dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Human or not, they're a nice break from the thunderous fantasy cliches of "The Hobbit."
PLOT Bilbo Baggins and his band of dwarves reach the lair of the dragon known as Smaug.
CAST Martin Freeman, Evangeline Lilly, Ian McKellan
PLAYING AT Opens Friday at area theaters, some in 3-D, high frame-rate and IMAX. Many theaters will have midnight screenings Thursday night.
BOTTOM LINE The second in Peter Jackson's latest J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy may strike nonfans as a slow journey: It ends with a bang but takes its time getting there.