Scary fun whets your appetite for more
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (PG13)
161 minutes/Opens today
THE STORY: In this second film of a trilogy, the 13-member dwarf party and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) carry on their quest to reclaim the dwarves' homeland of Erebor, having escaped an orc attack in the previous film. After a battle with giant spiders in Mirkwood, they are captured by the Wood-elves, led by their king Thranduil (Lee Pace) and captain of the guard, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).
Bilbo helps them escape, through invisibility powers granted by the ring he took from Gollum. They are helped by a human boatman, Bard (Luke Evans).
ONE complaint about the first film of The Hobbit trilogy was that there was too much scene-setting and cultural colour - singing, skits with cockney dwarf-eating trolls, gloating goblins and whatnot.
Director Peter Jackson seems to have said: Well, now that it is done with, here are the goods.
If the first film was like an English variety show (exit trolls, enter goblins with their try at physical comedy), then this film - with its gleeful depictions of nightmarish, car-sized spiders and orc decapitations - is more like Jackson returning to his horror- and monster-movie roots.
He is in his element here. He is having a good time and the audience gets to join in the fun.
The monster-arachnid attack recalls a similar scene in his remake of King Kong (2005), while the orcs here can be seen as faster, more agile zombies - a theme he visited in Bad Taste (1987).
Jackson handles these scenes without the silent-movie physicality of the first film and they are all the better for it.
Except for one indulgent scene of a river escape in barrels, probably executed to give 3-D patrons their money's worth, the dwarves have largely progressed beyond being shown as roly-poly little circus clowns and are becoming real characters.
Tauriel, as the captain of the guard for the Wood-elves, is a character invented for the movie and inevitably conforms to the template for fantasy heroines set by Pixar and Disney, being a mix of Merida (Brave, 2012) and Fa Mulan (Mulan, 1998), with a touch of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (2012-2013) films.
She is a proto-feminist warrior who needs no man to validate her sense of self-worth - but who, oddly enough, is willing to toss out all the respect she has earned for the man (or dwarf) she cares for.
Ably played by Lilly, Tauriel is an echo of Eowyn, who disguises herself as a man to slay the witch-king Angmar in The Lord Of The Rings series (2001-2003).
Like Eowyn, Tauriel brings a different and very welcome energy to the story. Jackson and co-writers, thankfully, give Tauriel more than a token presence or else she would have felt naggingly anachronistic.
Close to three hours in length, the movie is probably about 15 minutes longer than it needs to be, and would have been better served by shorter action sequences.
But this middle film more than does its job - it pays off on the promises made in the first movie and makes one hunger for the next and final instalment.