Opening as it does on a bearded, handsome figure attracting furtive glances from fellow patrons inside the candlelit Prancing Pony Inn, it's plain from the get-go that Peter Jackson's second Hobbit instalment will serve nostalgic Lord of the Rings fans well – references to the trilogy abound. But where last year's An Unexpected Journey steered too structurally close to Fellowship and suffered by comparison, The Desolation of Smaug feels Ringsier in tone while forging entirely its own narrative path, marrying breathless action with shrewd character building.
It's a moodier, more anxious story that gives Martin Freeman more dimensions to play with, as Bilbo and the band of dwarves journey on towards their confrontation with treasure-hoarding dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), beset by a laundry-list of perils including giant spiders, a temperamental bear-man, treacherous rapids and a "less wise, more dangerous" breed of Elves.
But as became the case for Elijah Wood's Frodo, it's the internal conflict that cuts deepest, with the ring beginning to take a psychological toll on Bilbo and Thorin (Richard Armitage) increasingly ruthless in his determination to safeguard his long-lost homeland. Both characters – whose relationship was the cornerstone of An Unexpected Journey – being separately undone by gold offers a sturdy emotional footing on which to build the rollicking action.
And build it Jackson does. Kicking into gear with a genuinely creepy sequence inside the sickly, hallucinogenic forest of Mirkwood, with giant spiders not far behind, Desolation sees its director showing off his horror credentials with gusto. An extended set piece where Bilbo & co escape from their elven prison by floating down-river in barrels is smoothly, thrillingly executed, Orlando Bloom's Legolas reporting once again for GIF-worthy battle duty as elf-on-orc warfare breaks out on the banks.
But there's no getting around the fact that this story has been mercilessly padded. Evangeline Lilly, who famously spent six years at the centre of an interminable love triangle on Lost, is introduced as the newly conceived Tauriel, a theoretically fierce warrior elf whose main function is to be caught between two suitors. Will she choose the species-appropriate Legolas or the besotted dwarf Killi, whose ethereal good looks make him indistinguishable from an elf in any case? The more compelling question is: exactly what audience is this storyline meant to be serving?
What's remarkable is that his sheer size on-screen doesn't undermine the sinister intimacy of his face-off with Bilbo, a genuinely thrilling scene that will carry a weird extra weight for fans of the BBC's Sherlock.
It's only in the moments that Freeman's grounded, open-hearted performance gets sidelined that you spot the cracks in Desolation's foundations - Gandalf diverts off into a side-plot involving the shadowy Necromancer that mostly fizzles, while the dwarves' adventures in Lake-town feel like setup for the third film's action. But Jackson is so plainly relishing the chance to create new corners of Middle-earth, painting as ever in meticulous and ravishing detail, that it's engaging enough to sit back and soak in the world.
"Darker than the last one" has become a cliché for family franchises, but The Desolation of Smaug is also a whole lot zippier and wittier than its predecessor, even as it builds towards a third act in Smaug's lair that's as much about mind games as physical peril. It's scattershot in places, but for fantasy storytelling with scope, heart and sheer technological wow factor, Jackson and his team remain the gold standard.