Peter Jackson veered awfully close to Star Wars prequel territory in the first part of his needlessly prolonged Hobbit trilogy. His original Lord of the Rings films had a wonderful sense of craftsmanship to them, with sets, scenery and monsters that felt real, tangible parts of the world he had created.
By contrast the first Hobbit outing was a CGI-heavy mess that barely felt like it existed in the same world. There was CGI in the Rings films of course, but only where there was no alternative. How else do you do trolls and Balrogs justice?
An Unexpected Journey was also overcomplicated, heavy on exposition and could easily have been half an hour shorter. It was a constant string of people running, explaining stuff and then running again.
The Desolation of Smaug by contrast is an absolute rip-roaring adventure. In many ways the first film is to thank for this – all the boring backstory has been laid out, so now we can get on with the exciting stuff without it being dragged down by another half an hour of Gandalf rambling about darkness, evil powers, hope and the legalisation of pipe weed.
Inadvertently the first film also eases the viewer into accepting that these Hobbit movies are a world away from the Lord of the Rings. Neither of The Hobbit films can claim to be epics like those first three, but Desolation of Smaug proves that they can still be fun on their own terms.
We start on the outskirts of a forest and barely look back. Along the way our 13 plucky adventurers fight spiders, evade elves and trouble a benevolent talking dragon. It bounds along at breakneck speed and is just a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
In Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel there's also a strong female character expressly created for this film. She's an even stronger and more believable female than series stalwart Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. Tauriel is partnered in the film by the returning Orlando Bloom as Legolas, whose role is apparently to be an awful person, make us dislike him and have very, very odd-looking eyes.
Martin Freeman is under-used as leading Halfling Bilbo, and several of the dwarves barely feature, but that's all okay because they're not even the real star. It's not called The Hobbit: The Flirtations of Kili or The Hobbit: The Growl of Thorin, it's called The Desolation of Smaug, and that's what people want to see - Smaug desolating the s**t out of stuff.
Smaug is of course the dragon sitting atop the pile of gold once the treasure of Thorin's ancestors. Thorin wants it back, and he needs a burglar (Bilbo) to steal a particular item – the Arkenstone.
It's the finale of the film that serves it best. It diverges greatly from the source but only ever to create exciting action. Some very dodgy CGI at the end however, slightly ruins what was otherwise a thrilling climax.
As the film closes we're promised immediate spectacle upon the film's return later this year, and I can't wait to see it.
As always, Peter Jackson and co provide lots of extras for fans to delve into. There are production videos, trailers, and a music video for Ed Sheeran's credits song, I See Fire. We're invited to walk around both the set and editing suite, and as always there's a delightful sense of fun among the filmmakers. That said, a lot is clearly being saved for the inevitable extended edition.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will be released on DVD and Blu Ray on 7 April.