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'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug' is a huge improvement over the last flick

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The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug

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Release date: December 13, 2013

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson

Starring: Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Official website: TheHobbit.com

Hype is such an ugly word. Unfortunately, with a movie like "The Desolation of Smaug", the second installment in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" trilogy, hype is to be expected. The good news is that while it still isn't quite up there with Jackson's last go-round in Middle Earth and the Oscar winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, it succeeds in being a far better film than the first chapter.

Picking up after the events of 2012's "An Unexpected Journey", Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still wandering Middle Earth in search of the Lonely Mountain so they can face off with the dragon Smaug, get the film's macguffun, the Arkenstone, so that Thorin (Richard Armitage) can be a dwarf king and be done with it. Why they didn't just hitch a ride with those falcons that bailed them out at the end of the last film remains a mystery. But then there would have been no need to split this into three movies, thus rendering this pointless.

Thankfully, while most of this movie feels like filler just to not only expand into a trilogy but to bloat the running time --"Smaug" clocks in at nearly two hours and forty minutes. Ouch. -- the movie is far more exciting and engaging this time around. It's entertaining enough that it makes it all worth while, which is a drastic improvement over the last outing. "Smaug" benefits from a few new characters, and a familiar face from the previous trilogy. Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas, while Evangeline Lilly (Kate from "Lost") plays a character written specifically for the movies that is torn between Legolas and an infatuation with one of the dwarves.

And there is quite a bit more action from a chase involving an escape in barrels while fighting with orcs, to a confrontation with huge spiders that are peppered throughout that break up the slow pacing. This is a huge difference this time around. Even when nothing seems to be happening, something is happening. Gone too, is the childishness that plagued the first flick.

Flashback: 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' is a long, slow return to Middle Earth

But it's still way too long.

And that's the big drawback to not only this movie, but this new "trilogy". There's enough going on in the original source material book to keep the audience engaged, but for some reason Peter Jackson feels compelled to bridge these movies with "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, not only with lines of dialogue and obvious moments that directly mirror the previous films, but with a needless subplot that does nothing but set up the LOTR movies.

For example, Gandalf spends much of the time investigating the dark forces that are building that will lead to the resurrection of Sauron. It has some merits of entertainment, but feels entirely unnecessary and only distracts from the thickening plot of the main story involving Bilbo's blossoming courage, the ultimate fate of our hero Throrin, and a newly introduced character, Bard (Luke Evans), who has a personal vendetta with Smaug.

But it's all about getting to that mountain and the dragon, Smaug. For all of it's build up, the confrontation between Bilbo, Thorin, and Smaug is well worth the wait. The final hour of the film are some of the finer moments of this new series of movies. Everyone's favorite go to guy right now, Benedict Cumberbatch, provides the voice of Smaug. The special effects of the dragon, combined with Cumberbatch's cold as ice voice, will help easy any concerns that PJ and company wouldn't have Gollum to fall back on this time around.

Be prepared though, this one ends with a pretty abrupt cliffhanger. So, when you get to that moment where the screen fades to black and you think, "that can't be it...". It is. As sudden as it is, it leaves for a nice opening for next year's final installment, "There and Back Again".

"The Desolation of Smaug" is a huge improvement over the pointless snooze that was the first "Hobbit" flick, but it still isn't quite as good as the other films. But it makes for a fun trip for those who have enjoyed previous journeys to Middle Earth.

Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

Running time: 2 houra 41 mins.

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