Dec. 13, 2013 at 7:38 AM ET
The title could be better. Designation of Smog? Desecration of Sog? Evolution of Fog? But name aside, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is bound to pull in dragon-sized bucks at the box office once it opens Dec. 13.
J.R.R. Tolkien superfans probably already have their tickets, but for those who aren't fluent in Elvish, the movie is still worth seeing. Forget the negative reviews of 2012's "An Unexpected Journey," which took its own sweet time getting Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves out of their massive food fight and on the road to the Lonely Mountain. This second film is much sharper, tighter and more action-packed, and Smaug the dragon is indeed worth the wait.
Here's a spoiler-free primer for those who plan to see the film.
Hey isn't that...
If you want to catch famed director Peter Jackson's cameo, don't have your head buried in your popcorn when the film starts. Jackson shows up almost immediately, chomping a carrot. And late-night fans should pay close attention to the Laketown scenes. Rumor has it Stephen Colbert, a giant Tolkien fan, has a cameo there, though we couldn't find him.
Which showing to choose?
Sometimes 3-D isn't worth the ticket surcharge, but it's worth a few extra dollars here — IMAX 3-D if it's offered. There are the basic 3-D effects — giant bees seem to fly into the audience, an orc head tumbles menacingly towards viewers — but there's also a sense that you're traveling with Bilbo and his band through Middle-Earth, that you're sitting at table with them, not just watching from afar. And like the first "Hobbit" film, "Smaug" uses a higher frame rate for enhanced clarity, though some say it makes the film resemble a TV movie. (Tip: You may find yourself overly fixated on the fake noses and foreheads of the dwarves, which seem to show up more in this frame rate.)
Warn the babysitter you'll be late
By now, fans know that Jackson doesn't like to cut things short. The first "Hobbit" movie was 2 hours, 49 minutes; "Smaug" runs 2 hours, 41. (And remember, there's a third film coming, all this for a 19-chapter, 300-page book.) But if you're making a concession run or bathroom break, the earlier the better. Once the film approaches the two-hour mark, action is running fast and furious, and no one will look kindly on you pushing past them to get to the aisle and blocking their view of the big battles.
It's just like the book, right? Wrong!
If you haven't read the book, you might actually be at an advantage. True Tolkien fans may be frustrated as characters and events that weren't in the beloved novel pop up. Case in point: Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel, the head of the Elven Guard and pal of Orlando Bloom's Legolas. When filmmakers decided to split a relatively short book into three films, they felt they needed to pad out the plot and cast, and Tauriel was just one of their additions.
What if I haven't seen (or can't remember) the first 'Hobbit' film?
It doesn't matter. The first film was criticized for getting the trilogy off to a slow start, with plenty of food fighting and dwarf brawling at Bilbo's house before the epic journey ever began. This film catches viewers up quickly and then is off to the races. You won't even need to be able to keep the dwarves' names straight to be able to follow the action.
Should I bring the kids? Grandma?
The film is rated PG-13 for "extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images," exactly the same rating and reasons given as the first "Hobbit" film. There is a lot of fighting, but this is no "Walking Dead" episode. Orc heads do fly, creatures are struck with arrows, one of our heroes suffers a bad (but not that visible) wound — but blood and gore is minimal. The scariest scene might be a horrific battle with enormous spiders if you suffer from a tinge of arachnophobia. Too scary for the youngest grade schoolers, but anyone who can handle "Star Wars" can handle this.