o-THE-HOBBIT-2-POSTER-570It’s such a terrible title. For a start, I’m not quite sure how I’m meant to pronounce Smaug. And I’m not alone, because the actors in the movie can’t seem to agree either. We get Smog. Smowg. Shmowg. Smohg. Secondly, when he finally appears, he’s not that desolate. A more apt title would’ve been The Hobbit: Oh, He’s a Grumpy Dragon.

That notwithstanding, after a short and informative prologue, we pick up the story shortly after the end of the last movie, where you may remember being confused as to why the band of interchangeable Scottish dwarves and their hobbit burglar were dropped off by some massive birds who insisted on doing the Middle Earth equivalent of “refusing to go south of the river”. This leaves our merry band with a spooky, spider-ridden forest to contend with and a corrupt human island settlement before they reach their goal of Lonely Mountain, the titular dragon and the dwarves get a chance to get back what’s rightfully theirs. Or something.

It’s long. It’s 2 hours and 40 minutes long. But hey, the first one was pretty long too, right? Well, right. But this installment is not only long, but it also suffers from a chronic case of middle-episode-in-a-trilogy syndrome. Remember that excitement of returning to Middle Earth with An Unexpected Journey? Yeah, we don’t really get that any more. We’re here. We’re settled. We want an ending. We’re not going to get one. The Two Towers suffered from this to a certain degree, being as it was a travelogue of walking from one tower to another in an attempt to set-up the third part. Here, there’s less walking, although fair warning: there is some. But where The Hobbit differs from Lord of the Rings is that the former doesn’t have three endings. It doesn’t really have two. So there’s a sensation from the outset that we’re pretty much heading for an anticlimax. You’ll have to wait 2 hours and 40 minutes for this to be confirmed. And it will be.

It bears repeating that this takes us up to hour six of an adaptation of a 300 page children’s book but the good news is this second chunk kicks-off in a far more satisfying manner than last year’s An Unexpected Journey. Thankfully we’re saved from 40 minutes of set-up, mostly indulging interchangeable Scottish dwarves and their propensity for singing and eating buffet. We land in the middle of action and it has to be said that the writers and Peter Jackson do a pretty spanking job at keeping the octane levels high throughout. There’s little in the way of a lull in proceedings as we bounce from one sequence to the next and this is done while maintaining a reasonably clear narrative flow.

Visually, it’s as stunning as ever, Howard Shore’s sweeping soundtrack is predictably immersive, the direction and cinematography is as on the money as you’d expect if you care to ignore an occasional awkward-looking CGI beast or two. But it’s Martin Freeman’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Bilbo Baggins that, once again, is likely to stay in your mind to the foyer and beyond. Freeman himself plays down Peter Jackson’s assertion that he’s the only person on earth who could play Bilbo, but it’s hard to argue against the director. Every expression, every twitch of the nose, every baffled double-take, every arched eyebrow are all slap bang on the money. Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo Baggins is Martin Freeman. It’s a more courageous Bilbo we get in this movie, he’s more of a hero, he’s pivotal throughout to the band’s progress, and this makes the role even more enjoyable.

The movie is not, however, a perfect viewing experience, chief amongst the spoiling culprits being a bizarre inter-species love story angle between an interchangeable Scottish dwarf and an elf who isn’t Liv Tyler (and who is, in fact, Evangeline Lilly — the freckled one out of Lost). A dishonorable runner-up is Orlando Bloom’s ever-dull portrayal of Legolas, who never looks remotely interested in anything that’s going on around him and dispatches a cohort of orcs with hardly flicker of emotion or a hair out of place. I know he’s probably attacking the role as directed but his lackluster approach manages to suck a bit of excitement from his scenes. Third place goes to Gandalf and his wandering ways. Again.

More positively, Stephen Fry is a welcome addition as the Master of Laketown and the introduction of Smaug and his realisation is hugely impressive. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the ending is a letdown and judging by the collective tut in the screening I attended, I’m not the only one struggling to come to terms with the fact that I need to wait until next Christmas, and another three hours, before I get a decent ending.

The Hobbit: You’re Going To Be Pissed Off. Yeah. That would’ve worked too.