THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (12A)
Director: Peter Jackson Running time: 161 minutes Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Mikael Persbrandt
In the prologue to this second instalment of Peter Jackson's sweeping Tolkien trilogy, the director makes a brief cameo, wandering through night-time streets on the borders of the Shire.
It's a fleeting glimpse – a rare moment of brevity that, sadly, eludes the rest of this over-bloated epic.
Admittedly, there is a greater sense of urgency to The Desolation Of Smaug than its prequel, by virtue of a time limit imposed on the characters reaching the Lonely Mountain before the last light of autumn to locate a secret door that leads into the dragon's lair.
But that doesn't stop Jackson and his co-writers from padding the script, introducing a gung-ho female elf, who doesn't appear in the book, in order to establish a dwarf-elf-elf love triangle that will presumably be resolved in next year's final chapter.
Legolas (Orlando Bloom) also becomes embroiled in various skirmishes here, even though he doesn't appear in Tolkien's source text.
The treading of narrative water is particularly noticeable during the climax when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) comes face to snout with the eponymous dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), and we have to sit through 10-15 minutes of verbal to-and-fro before the first bursts of fire ripple across the screen.
Jackson is a gifted director of action sequences and he orchestrates some breathless rough and tumble as Bilbo and co escape a pack of orcs by travelling down river rapids in barrels. There is also a skin-crawling encounter with giant spiders, guaranteed to have arachnophobes quivering in their seats.
The Desolation Of Smaug picks up where An Unexpected Journey concluded, with plucky hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), wise wizard Gandalf The Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) and the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) running for their lives.
As the adventurers head towards the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the lost gold from dragon Smaug, they encounter a shape-shifter called Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who aids them on the quest.
When the orcs storm Mirkwood, elves led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace) repel the invaders, allowing Bilbo and the dwarves to venture onwards, crossing a vast lake that separates them from the mountain with the help of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans).
Meanwhile, Gandalf discovers the identity of the necromancer in Dol Guldur.
Fans of Jackson's first forays into Middle Earth will experience a nagging sense of deja vu from The Desolation Of Smaug. The filmmaker and his collaborators, including cinematographer Andrew Leslie and composer Howard Shore, have cast this second film in the mould of The Two Towers, replete with a cliff-hanger ending that sees the forces of evil marshalling an army and preparing for war.
Technical aspects are impeccable and visual effects look crisp, even in 3D. As an emotional roller-coaster, the second film is also more satisfying than its predecessor.
Yet, for all its grandeur, this instalment doesn't touch the heart in the same way the Lord Of The Rings films do.
Freeman fleshes out his role as the ring continues to exert its pernicious control over Bilbo while McKellen is reduced to growling one-liners that state the obvious: "We have been blind and in our blindness our enemy has returned".
Having come this far, audiences will want to reach the end as swiftly as possible in There And Back Again.
Somehow though, I doubt Jackson will be in any hurry to tie up loose ends.