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It’s back to Middle Earth for Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second film in Jackson’s second JRR Tolkien trilogy, following his massive worldwide success with Lord of the Rings.

In terms of spectacle and grandeur, The Desolation of Smaug is a smashing success. The new film may not win new converts to the franchise, but there are more than enough previous converts to make up the difference.

As he demonstrated with the earlier films, Jackson has an unmistakable affection and admiration for Tolkien’s stories, as well as the technical wizardry to bring them to dazzling life on the screen.

There are elves, dwarfs, necromancers, giant spiders, and one very large and mean dragon — that would be Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) — and the settings include a myriad of dungeons, caverns, castles and forests, all of them vividly depicted by Andrew Lesnie’s evocative cinematography and the best special effects money can buy.

Some franchise familiars make return appearances, including Ian McKellen in yet another authoritative turn as the wizard Gandalf, Orlando Bloom as the fearless archer Legolas and, very briefly, Cate Blanchett as the ethereal Galadriel. Martin Freeman’s back as the Hobbit of the title, the also happens to be in possession of the “One Ring,” a source of untold power in Middle Earth. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. (That line is from a different film franchise, to be sure, but is applicable here nevertheless.)

“The world is in grave danger,” one character remarks, thereby establishing what’s at stake and hinting at both the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy and the avenue by which Jackson can bring the entire six-film series full circle — and to an end.

There’s also a new character introduced here, that of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who does not appear in any of the Tolkien stories. Her inclusion provides the film with its only significant female character — all the better to attract a wider audience, and all the better to add a possible romantic interest.

Stretching The Hobbit to a trilogy may be a result of financial considerations rather than artistic ones, but Jackson and his fellow screenwriters (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, the latter of whom was originally set to direct the Hobbit trilogy) in no way insult the intent or impact of Tolkien’s stories to this end. Although The Desolation of Smaug is well paced and visually impressive, there are a few lags in an almost three-hour running time. Not that fans will mind, of course.

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