THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (12A) The middle part of The Hobbit trilogy really gets the series back on track
A DECADE ago, Peter Jackson made our Christmases with his astonishing realisations of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
This time last year he came to us more like Scrooge or Alan Rickman in Robin Hood with his cry of "call off Christmas", with the plodding, ruinously boring The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part of his new prequel trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved (but quite thin) book.
With so much extraneous gubbins crammed in, fears grew that Jackson was milking a dead cow, but miraculously he's managed to get the series back on track with this second episode.
It begins with a flashback, which could be viewed as just another piece of stuffing designed to justify what is yet again a hefty running time. But it's a fairly brief tidbit that shows us how the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) met dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) to persuade him to try to unite the kingdoms and reclaim the throne that was taken from him.
Also give thanks that this serves as a very potted recap of all the set-up done in Unexpected Journey, so that we can then get straight back in to the action and not have to worry about Jackson's indulgences on the level of what we witnessed first time, when Elijah Wood's Frodo and old Bilbo were wheeled out for no justifiable reason whatsoever.
So we find Gandalf, hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his newly acquired dwarf pals being chased across Middle Earth by murderous orcs as they continue deep into their quest to reach the dwarf kingdom, Erebor.
This is an immediately pleasant reminder of what many have come to love about these movies: brilliantly costumed and made-up actors running across breathtaking New Zealand landscapes being filmed by swirling helicopters.
And it's as a visual spectacle that The Desolation of Smaug really triumphs. It's clear from the first frame that this is a richly textured world, brim-filled with exceptional production design, albeit much of it of the computer generated variety.
That's particularly true if you avoid the heinous High Frame Rate presentation that so hamstrung last year's movie, making it look not so much like Middle Earth as a home-videoed pantomime.
The quest itself has also turned into a far more compelling one, as we bounce from chase to fight in a whiz-bang opening hour that introduces us to bear-men and giant spiders while backgrounding the threat of the Necromancer, a malevolent force hanging hanging over the world.
We also never lose sight of the dark power of the Ring, the trinket binding these movies together, and the effect this has on Bilbo. His encounter with the spiders reminds us that this isn't just an action fantasy, but a work unafraid to tackle themes of greed and corruption, and we're blessed to be in the hands of such splendid actors as McKellen and Freeman, though they do disappear for a stretch in a midsection that represents one of the few dips in pace as we arrive at a man-village.
But again, bigger themes are at hand, as we pause to blend in a real-world message of poverty and the gulf between the rich and the underprivileged, wrapped in the politics of a fantasy village. We even get an appearance from Stephen Fry.
Plenty has been added, as is Jackson's way, but not too much that seems pointless or superfluous - silly dishwashing scenes and the like that slowed the first film to a crawl.
But otherwise the movie rarely loses sight of its primary action goal. There's loads of peril, even among the numerous pitstops, and the threat of a deadline helps too. And outwith that slight middle sag, this is rattling, exciting and executed with near-unparalleled technical bravado.
And Jackson has remembered how to do action again.
A dwarf-orc-elf fight alongside and down a raging river is a masterclass in momentum, thrust and imagination, and stands as one of the highlights of all our time in Middle Earth.
Bilbo the character earns his corn too, after being a bit of a passenger in his own movie first time out.
He displays increasing courage and fortitude, and actually does some burgling, fulfilling the role he was brought into the quest for in the first place.
The titular Smaug, the dragon that laid waste to Erebor, is a fine creation too, and we get to see plenty of him in a second half where the raised stakes really come into play.
Mind you, more than half the dwarfs are still anonymous or interchangeable, perhaps inevitable with so many of them. Other new characters work fairly well though, particularly the snobby, dwarf-hating elves, each with their own motivations and desires.
Old Fellowship member Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns alongside newcomer Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) to knock countless orc heads together (this is a remarkably violent film, by the way, surely setting the record for decapitations in a 12A certificate), one of a few nice touches to tie us in with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
And we're back to honouring those great films after the initial misstep. Though the decision to break a slim Hobbit story into three films is still an ethically shaky, financially driven one, at least audiences will be getting something for their money this time around. Christmas is saved, for now.
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 161 mins