[alert-announce] Verdict: 3.5 stars out of 5. Action packed, and visually stunning, especially once Smaug the Dragon turns up. It takes a while to get going, but at least it’s not the snore fest that the first hour of An Unexpected Journey was. Bilbo Baggins takes something of a back seat here, getting slightly lost amid the myriad of dwarves and elves and orcs and whatpot. This time round, there is less conflict between the source material and the desire to make an epic, but they really are streeeeetching out the story. [/alert-announce]

It begins with another split second cameo by director Peter Jackson, who is still chewing his carrot. Gleeful fanboys will note that there is also an echo of Fellowship of the Ring, as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) goes to the same inn that Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the Hobbits frequent. And it’s also there that he comes to meet Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen)….

When last we left Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his merry crew of dwarves at the end of An Unexpected Journey (check out our review here), they had embarked on a quest to retrieve the Arkenstone. It’s a great white jewel that will give Thorin the right to reclaim the Kingdom of Erebor. Unfortunately, the Arkenstone is guarded by Smaug the Dragon (voiced by the sexy, sexy Benedict Cumberbatch) beneath the Lonely Mountain.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
“So you’re saying this key doesn’t work?” ©New Line Cinema

So our intrepid heroes take a long journey to Lonely Mountain. And what a looong quest it is, leaving you restlessly checking your watch at times. Fortunately, the tedium is broken up by some outstanding set pieces, starting with the giant spiders of Mirkwood. “This forest feels sick, as if a disease were upon it,” says Bilbo. I think it’s the giant spiders wanting to eat you and your friends, mate.

Enter Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) to the rescue. But this is a very different elf from the Legolas we know – he’s cold, contemptuous and he has the hots for Tauriel (a sort of Arwen Light, who doesn’t actually exist in the books, incidentally). But in what may be the most pointless sub-plot of the LOTR franchise, Tauriel only has eyes for Kili (Aidan Turner). What are the odds that Thranduil (Lee Pace), King of the Woodland Realm and Legolas’ daddy, will disapprove of this?

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
“Compare me to Liv Tyler again and I’ll shoot you.” ©New Line Cinema

But on to the next thrilling set piece, when the dwarves escape from the Wooden Realm in wooden barrels floating down a water fall while being chased by Azog The Defiler and his henchmen. And that’s the occasion for another iconic Legolas moment, when he literally steps on the heads of the dwarves to stay afloat, while firing his arrows. Cue collective sigh from female members of the audience.

Peter Jackson then treats us to the astonishing sight of Laketown, a literal floating town on the road to the Lonely Mountain. But it appears that everyone in Middle Earth has been taking archery lessons,  as we are introduced to Bard the Bowman (a very dashing Luke Evans, nonetheless).

Then at around the 90 min mark, Bilbo takes centre stage as he finds his way into the Lonely Mountain to take on Smaug, and remind us of just how good an actor Martin Freeman is. Just as Frodo was the heart of the LOTR movies, so his uncle Bilbo is the heart of The Hobbit. Bilbo, as Gandalf says, has changed. This time round, he’s fighting, scheming, setting his friends free from their captors, and yet still very much vulnerable. Meanwhile, the Ring is ever present, slowly, insidiously poisoning Bilbo from the inside.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
“You mean this is all just chocolate?” ©New Line Cinema

Finally, belatedly, Smaug enters stage left around the two hour mark, and what an entrance it is. Simply seeing Smaug is worth the price of admission, and when he literally breathes fire, it is a sight to behold. “I am fire. I am death,” declares Smaug in a slithery, slithery voice. But the creature that sleeps in a mountain of gold and treasures hasn’t reckoned with Bilbo yet…

All in all, you will be enthralled and amazed, but you will also yawn at some points. The sense of the great battle of good versus evil in LOTR is also missing here, though The Hobbit is a very different story. One can only hope that the final installment of The Hobbit will be sharper and more concise, and put Martin Freeman at the centre of everything.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens in Singapore tomorrow. It also opens in Malaysia and Korea on the same day, and India and Indonesia on Friday. Do let us know what you think of it!