Editor's note: Actor Luke Evans last name was incorrect when this review was published.
Peter Jackson has reached the middle of his journey through the Middle-earth of "The Hobbit," and he's having such a good time, he put himself in the opening shot of the film. This being a bridge movie after the expositional "An Unexpected Journey," we expect a bullet-train pace toward the finish line, and "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" delivers some scenes of rip-roaring action.
It also hops the local here and there.
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Evangeline LIlly.
Rating: PG-13, for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.
Jackson and his Oscar-winning special effects team, led by Aliquippa's Joe Letteri, spend some of the film's 156 minutes just plain showing off, the better to stretch J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved but slim novel into a trilogy. Seen in standard 3-D, a giant bee pops off the screen in an effect that's never repeated, and the confrontation between the title dragon and the Dwarf-Hobbit fellowship goes on and on in the darkened caverns under The Lonely Mountain.
But when "Hobbit 2" gets a head of steam, it's a rousing fantasy adventure without a conclusion. That's coming in the 2014 finale, "There and Back Again."
Fans of the book and Mr. Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- three movies for Tolkien's three-book sequel to "The Hobbit" -- can find many reasons to applaud the director's vision. For example, the nail-biting, white-water barrel escape by Bilbo Baggins and 13 Dwarves from the realm of the isolationist Wood Elves. Mr. Jackson throws in the pursuit of murderous Orcs and a helpful hand from sympathetic Elves, and the result is a theme-park ride waiting to happen. Another capture and escape, involving the giant spiders of Mirkwood, is an arachnophobe's worst nightmare, in the best sense of jump-out-of-your-seat cinema.
Having adapted "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy first, with "The Return of the King" grabbing 11 Academy Awards, Mr. Jackson and his writer/producer/partner Phillipa Boyens have the confidence to be more playful with technological innovation and storytelling.
"The Hobbit" sets all in motion, as the sweet-natured title character, Bilbo, is recruited by the wizard Gandalf and a company of Dwarves to help reclaim their homeland and treasure, stolen by the fire-breathing dragon Smaug. In the first film, Martin Freeman captures the initial innocence of Bilbo before he rises to the occasion and earns the Dwarves' trust. In the movie at hand, he secretly possesses The One Ring that can deliver the world into evil, and it's changing him. Gandalf sees it but can't put his finger on the reason, but we know Bilbo is being seduced toward the dark side.
Thorin Oakenshield, the Dwarves' leader, also is under a spell -- of revenge and desire -- as he lusts to return to Erebor and retrieve the Arkenstone that will bestow his rightful place as king. The dragon is just one of the obstacles thrown in his path by an evil that is mounting in the world and is further addressed in "The Lord of the Rings."
After adapting the earlier films, screenwriter Boyens came to the realization, as did Tolkien, that something was missing from "The Hobbit": women and romance. To that end, we are introduced to the fierce Wood Elf Tauriel, played by the spunky, athletic Evangeline Lilly. Purists will balk at the change, but she's a welcome addition, as is the return of Orlando Bloom as Legalos.
Aidan Turner, a beguiling vampire on BBC's "Being Human," plays Kili, Thorin's nephew and the easiest one of the Dwarves to spot -- he's the cute one, the one with no facial prosthetics. His sparks with Tauriel may infuriate purists, but their connection adds a welcome touch of humanity.
Among the strengths of the franchise are Mr. Jackson's casting choices, including Richard Armitage as the regal Thorin and Luke Evans as the compassionate Bard, the bargeman with a past. He is a welcome addition as a devoted single father and the voice of reason among the bumbling townspeople of Laketown, the last leg before the company reaches The Lonely Mountain.
Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf leaves the group to fend for itself long before Laketown, a bothersome habit of the wizard. He is off to face down the Necromancer, the source of a growing darkness in Middle-earth.
The shadowy Necromancer has something in common with the dragon Smaug -- both are voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. The reptilian flying dragon puts a much fiercer face on Tolkien's cartoonish drawing of the creature, but like a Bond villain, he chats quite a bit before getting to the task at hand. Knowing that Mr. Cumberbatch and Mr. Freeman are the Holmes-Watson of the terrific BBC TV series "Sherlock" adds to their gentlemanly cat-and-mouse showdown on a mountain of gold coins before Smaug finally cuts loose.
The scenes in Erebor, with flashes to growing troubles in Laketown, address the title of the film and the dangers of waking a dormant dragon.
Along the journey, before the group enters the dangerous forest of Mirkwood, Gandalf warns the travelers to stay on the true path or there will be dire consequences. He might also have added that too much of a good thing is still too much, an admonition that holds true here, there and back again.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.