It's coming up to Christmas, so it must be time to return to Middle-earth. Since the first Lord of the Rings movie arrived in December 2001, Peter Jackson's epic adventure saga has become almost as synonymous with the season as mince pies or mistletoe. And this cinematic Santa remains dedicated to rewarding the good little boys and girls who have made this a very lucrative franchise indeed.
With neither the set-up nor the denouement to play with, it's easy for part twos to get bogged down in exposition and inaction. But Jackson faces the challenge head-on with his second Hobbit film, based on JRR Tolkien's 'prequel' to The Lord of the Rings (which was written in 1937, some 17 years prior to The Fellowship of the Ring).
The Desolation of Smaug defies the paucity of its source material (The Hobbit is around 320 pages long, compared to The Lord of the Rings' epic 1,200 or so) to emerge – for the most part – an exciting and engaging adventure.
The story picks up where 2012's opening episode left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) and the Dwarves embarking on a journey to the Lonely Mountain to locate the Arkenstone, a mythical jewel that will restore the Dwarf kingdom to its former glory. Meanwhile, the wizard Gandalf (McKellen) goes off on a solo mission, leaving Baggins and co to fend for themselves.
Casual viewers – if such a creature would go to see a Middle-earth flick – may occasionally be unclear as to what the characters' motivation is, or what exactly it is they're even doing. Often, the plot plays like a computer game, with one challenge to overcome after another. It's certainly easy to see the film's giant spider battle, river barrel ride and dragon encounter being replicated in the inevitable Xbox or PlayStation spin-off.
But by this stage, these movies are quintessential comfort cinema, transporting audiences to another world, where honour, bravery and companionship rule. Non-converts are unlikely to be convinced that it is anything other than nearly three hours of portentous intoning about "warriors of old" and "hearts of men", but Tolkienites will drink it all in.
Freeman remains excellent as Baggins. Admirably, rather than aping Ian Holm's mannerisms (the actor played an older version of the character in previous pictures), Freeman puts a lot of himself into the role, and it's oddly akin to watching Tim from The Office in fancy dress. McKellen, playing Gandalf for the fifth time (above), gives his usual committed performance, even if the 74-year-old's screentime is reduced. But the most impactful work comes from the newcomers. Luke Evans livens up proceedings as a Han Solo-esque bargeman named Bard, and there's a nicely eccentric appearance from Stephen Fry, as the pompous Master of Laketown. As well as being great to see the QI host acting again, the character offers light relief from the sometimes overly serious atmosphere.
James Nesbitt (below) returns as the Dwarf Bofur, though the Coleraine-born star doesn't have much to do this time round. While he's there for most of the action setpieces, his appearance is more of an extended cameo.
3D-wise, a running battle with an Orc army at the gates of the Elven kingdom makes the most of the whizzing arrows and decapitated heads, but as ever, it's the stunning New Zealand scenery that is the real feast for the eyes. Yet again, Jackson does the Kiwi tourist board's job for them, and the lush landscapes are every much a part of this franchise as McKellen or computerised beasties.
On that note, the showpiece monster, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is technically impressive, but quite dull. And unfortunately, the battle between Baggins and the CGI behemoth drags on for at least 15 minutes too many. Indeed, the film as a whole suffers from being overlong. Its 161 minutes could probably have been condensed into a tight two hours, and no doubt there's a longer cut to come on DVD. Well, that's next year's Christmas present sorted,