A vast improvement on its predecessor, this second adventure in the Hobbit trilogy jumps straight into the action required to hurry along its multitudinous cast and interlocking storylines.
Moving at breakneck speed (with a breather thrown in here and there) it underlines the various factions of Middle-earth and lays bare the essential suspicions that keep elves, dwarves, men and hobbits from helping one another. And while it lacks an overwhelming sense of dread – though Ian McKellen’s Gandalf mutters darkly whenever a shudder is required – it nonetheless packs a wallop whenever our brave band do battle with orcs and dragons. Noble dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is getting closer to his goal: reclaiming the lost land of Erebor. Standing in his way is the dragon, Smaug, plus sundry other foes seemingly controlled by an evil necromancer.
Having set up the building blocks of his story in part one, Peter Jackson is free to explore the wider issues afflicting Middle-earth and the history therein. Thus there is much talk of old legends, dead heroes and ancient betrayals. But there is padding, too. One key sequence sees Thorin, hobbit Bilbo and the rest plunging through the rapids in a succession of beer barrels, all the while fighting marauding orcs. Assisting in the melee are elf warriors Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly making a big impression). It goes on and on, just as another setpiece has Thorin and his fellows ranged against the dragon.
One wonders how much expansion has gone on. Jackson also appears to have swapped live make-up effects for CGI. All too frequently images of rampaging orcs have a video game quality to them. They lack the solidity of the earlier Lord of the Rings films. Smaug has a genuine presence born of incredible effects and the vocal talents of Benedict Cumberbatch who sounds like he’s channelling the tones of Basil Rathbone. It’s perfect casting.