The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (M) ****
Director: Peter Jackson.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Luke Evans.
WE'RE five films into Peter Jackson's journey through Middle Earth and it's bleedingly obvious he could lead the way with his eyes closed.
The Kiwi director deftly nagivates a path between the dark perils of JRR Tolkien's fantasy world and the necessary jokey lighter moments. He knows the landscape, the history and the races probably better than his native New Zealand, and he understands the stories of Middle Earth on both the small scale and the large.
Because of this, The Hobbit Part II is a walk in the park for him, albeit a park filled with shapeshifting bear-men, large spiders and an even larger dragon.
The flaws of it are the same as those of the first film, but the peaks and strengths are the same as we have seen throughout the rest of the acclaimed Middle Earth movies - in fact, these are things we've come to take for granted.
So as hobbit "burglar" Bilbo Baggins (Freeman), venerable wizard Gandalf (McKellan) and the 13 dwarves continue their journey towards the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarves' home and wealth, we are again treated to a film that looks amazing, is well performed, and is immensely enjoyable.
The biggest issue coming into each installment of Jackson's Middle Earth films is managing our own expectations - we've been so spoilt with the previous works, plus so many people are so familiar with the source material, all of which works to set the bar pretty high.
With The Desolation Of Smaug, Jackson clears the bar with ease.
Two of the key components of this section of the story - a wild barrel ride down an Elvish river and the introduction of the toothsome firebreather Smaug himself - are triumphs of the film, with the former turned into an epic and impressive running battle, and the latter a wonder of CG animation and given voice through Benedict Cumberbatch and some impressive audio trickery.
The liberties taken with the original text, such as the introduction of new character Tauriel (Lilly) and the expansion of Gandalf's side adventure, serve to make the tone of story sit closer to Lord Of The Rings, rather than the kiddishness of Tolkien's book, and drawing more out of the simplistic tale.
The flipside of this is the biggest flaw of the two Hobbit films so far - trying to stretch such a slight book into a trilogy means that there is a bit of excess padding.
There are no songs this time around, but Jackson takes his sweet time with every character and every plot point, which is not totally a bad thing and the padding is less obvious in part two, but the pacing does slow to a crawl every so often.
It's a minor quibble and let's face it - Jackson's Middle Earth is a pretty cool cinematic universe to hang out in and kill some time, largely because of the director's insane attention to detail, particularly evident in the art design and set creation involved in bringing Lake Town to life.
Amid all the epic fantasy, it's easy to overlook the performances, but again they are solid.
Freeman continues to prove an inspired piece of casting, McKellan's Gandalf is once again outstanding, Armitage leads the dwarves admirably, while the additions of Lilly as Tauriel and Luke Evans as Bard are welcome.
Strangely, it's only Orlando Bloom - a veteran of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy - who doesn't quite seem at home, as if he's wondering what he's doing back in Middle Earth.
There are other issues, such as the fact radiant heat seems to be non-existent in Middle Earth (particularly evident in the final showdown with Smaug) but it feels silly arguing about physics in a movie with a huge dragon and a man who can turn into a bear.
If you've been enjoying Jackson's ride through Middle Earth, you won't be disappointed with The Desolation Of Smaug.
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