The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug4starsentertainment

The middle part of Peter Jackson’s 'The Hobbit' trilogy returns us to the Middle Earth that Tolkien created, but that Jackson has made his own. We see the Dwarves, led by Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) continue their journey to to the lost Kingdom of Eribor, aided by The Hobbit (Martin Freeman) in their midst, and it's as though we never left them.

On the one hand, it’s jam-packed with back-story, side-story, apes and dark shapes, grotesquely-sized spiders, characters with strangely-sculpted ears, and assumes our familiarity already with this whole environment.

On the other hand, with 161 minutes of screen time, it’s also a surprisingly leisurely stroll. By opting for three films to adapt a book not 200 pages long, Jackson has afforded himself the chance to wallow in every visual and narrative aspect available.

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Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage back on the trail to Eribor in the second part of 'The Hobbit'

Three enormous set-pieces punctuate the film - what will be known by everyone who sees the film simply as the 'barrels', the battle at Laketown, and, finally, the ultimate conflict, our first encounter with the deadly, snoozing dragon, Smaug.

The barrels are the means by which the Dwarves must escape from the elves in the first half of the film. We are treated to a breathtaking three-way battle sequence between Ogres, Dwarves, and Elves. Oh, and it happens to take place as the barrels are rolling down a gushing river, waterfalls and all, while the Elves, a sprightly Evangeline Lily and returning warrior Orlando Bloom, jump from rock to rock. It could have been choreographed by Nureyev, you can’t take your eyes off the landscape for a second, and I was almost laughing at the splendour of it all.

The conflict within Eribor is completely different, dark, glistening and claustrophobic, as the dragon Smaug, finally roused from his sulky snooze, is brought to life by the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, giving it his best Khan, and helped along the way to wickedness with some fire-breath. Smaug somehow finds his way around every pillar, while the Hobbit slip-slops over mountains of gold, as though he's got lost on one of those coin-machines on the pier.

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The Hobbit receives good and bad news. The good, there's piles and piles of gold inside Eribor. The bad news, it's guarded by a dragon...

Because of Peter Jackson’s grand palette magical touch, there is sometimes not enough praise left over for his cast, Andy Serkis excepted. There’s no Gollum in this one, but others shine in his place.

Richard Armitage enjoys a little air-pocket of quiet contemplation as a prince finally returned to his rightful place, but with the knowledge of what price has been paid.

And, at the centre of it all, Martin Freeman brings humour, joy and humanity to a role that could easily have been dwarved (sorry!) by all the banging and crashing pyrotechnics and green screen wonders around him. We recognise this man, and he carries us seamlessly through Jackson’s completely unearthly and yet familiar world. It’s a beautiful interlude, and I’m first in line for next year’s final piece of the puzzle.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug' is in UK cinemas from Friday 13 December. Watch the trailer below...