There is something akin to high ritual to entering the cinema to see another in Peter Jackson’s sumptuously-realised visions of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
You must suitably prepare yourself for another epically-long journey into the wilds of the lands of the dwarves, the elves, the orcs and of course Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) and the determined, if constantly befuddled looking hero of the story, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman).
And much as the company of the dwarves of Erebor led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) must ready themselves with supplies both militaristic and nourishing in their quest to liberate their lost kingdom from the fiery wrath of Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), you must drink little, pay scrupulous attention to the roller coaster adventure before you and expect a multiplicity of threats and characters to emerge when you least expect them.
In the case of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, your observance of these viewing rituals will be richly rewarded by a tale that is far more taut, tense and engaging than it’s still greatly enjoyable predecessor The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
While it still suffers from a surfeit of storytelling ideas, a legacy of Jackson’s admirable attempt to flesh out Tolkien’s Hobbit-sized book detailing Bilbo’s character-shaping adventure to Erebor with any amount of tantalising backstory and history gleaned from Tolkien’s more referential and densely-detailed books, it rips along at a more gallant pace, piling enemies upon foes upon miraculous escapes in its just another three hour running time.
And Jackson doesn’t let the narrative reins sag once, investing every scene from the dwarfish troops encounter with the terrifyingly large and ravenously hungry spiders of Mirkwood, their capture by the Wood Elves led by the isolationist Elvenking Thandruil (Lee Pace), father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and their eventual arrival into Laketown near Erebor ruled over with buffoonish self-interest by Stephen Fry’s Master, with all the edge-of-your-seat fingernail-biting tension you could ask for.
As with the first film however, the almost cartoonish whimsy of the company of dwarves is well exploited, leavening the tension at key points with the sort of humour we have come to expect from the race who value their weaponry and food with almost reverential respect, and their quests with holy awe and grim determination.
Along with the quest this time, which finally sees the dwarves reach Erebor where they face the mighty, overwhelming wrath of Smaug who is determined to keep his stolen wealth and kill Thorin’s company into the bargain, the gathering darkness hinted at An Unexpected Journey is brought far more to the fore with Gandalf heeding Galadriel’s (Cate Blanchett) call to investigate the ominously dark ruins of Dol Guldur a little more closely.
With the aid of fellow wizard, the delightfully offbeat, bird-wearing Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), Gandalf discovers far more is afoot at the ruins of Dol Guldur than meets the eye and that the increasing presence of Orcs, led by the murderously vengeful Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), whose minions dog Thorin, Bilbo and the others every step of the way, portends far more than just a few skirmishes with the massing forces of evil.
It is richly wrought and realised with the sort of grave reveals more commonly found in the events of Tolkien’s far more weighty later Lord of the Rings trilogy, though it does sit a tad uneasily next to the more lightweight adventures of the dwarves (not to take away from their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom but it pales in comparison to the rising once again of the poisonous Sauron).
Still, even though it often feels as if you are watching two quite different movies, both strands are brought to life with the sort of rich attention to detail, passion for Tolkien’s storytelling and sumptuous imagining of the lands of Middle Earth that are the hallmarks of Jackson’s movies.
That is what makes any of the slight criticisms of the movie’s overly-long running time pale into insignificance – while there may be a bit too much extraneous plot including an odd love triangle between Legolas, renegade Captain of the Elven Guard Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Thorin’s nephew Kili (Aidan Turner) to go around, in the end you are given an extended stay in Jackson’s gloriously beautiful, mystical, and stunning recreation of Middle Earth.
And that is never a bad thing, even when you are dogged by Orcs, a murderously enraged dragon facing his comeuppance, and the taunting whispered evil of the One Ring, all of which will find their culmination in the well set up third instalment The Hobbit: There and Back Again in 2014.