Peter Jackson‘s second installment of the The Hobbit is a huge improvement over the first episode of J.R.R. Tolkein‘s novel — which will be stretched to three parts despite having been contained in a single 300-page volume when written. A year ago, reviewers and fans alike bemoaned the half-hour long The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journeywhich took place entirely in the hut of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as a band of dwarves ransacked it for food. Things are looking up for the Warner Brothers franchise now as we approach the Dec. 13 release date which has a 99% “want to see” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Desolation of Smaug contains tons of action, and focussed on the expedition Gandalf (Ian McKellen) leads withe the dwarves to reinstate Thorin Oakensheild as monarch of the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. The big threat of course is Smaug — a massive dragon that lives in Lonely mountain. Freeman and McKellen step aside, letting Orlando Bloom as Legolas and Evangeline Lily (Lost) as Tauriel get much more important screen time.  And of course the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch practically steals the show as Smaug.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy writes: “Like some Bond villains who talked too much instead of quickly offing 007 when they had the chance, Smaug seems much enamored with the sound of his own voice.” He goes on to complain about the over reliance of CGI, but say some improvements have been made in the brightness of the 3D.

Justin Chang at Variety called the first installment “throat clearing and beat stroking” and says the saga picks up welcome momentum in this installment. He writes: “In pure action terms, the picture’s indisputable high point arrives when Bilbo leads the dwarfs on a daring escape from Mirkwood, floating downriver in barrels while fending off some particularly vicious orcs; it may be a Roaring Rapids-style theme-park ride in the making, but the sequence is thrillingly sustained, orchestrated with a giddy B-movie exuberance that feels like vintage Jackson.”

And Time Magazine has already called it one of the top ten movies of the year, saying, “In all, this is a splendid achievement, close to the grandeur of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.”

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