Congratulations, Peter Jackson. You've redeemed yourself with "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."
The fast-paced second outing in the "Hobbit" trilogy runs rings around the rambling first episode, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Sure, it lacks a satisfying ending, and it's essentially a big old tease for the third act. That's OK. Well, mostly.
"Smaug" rivals its long-winded predecessor by being more focused and action-packed. Best of all, it makes us feel like kids again, especially when that fearsome dragon Smaug -- a magnificent special-effects creation -- rears its ugly head.
"Smaug" all but rids itself of the first chapter's clutter. In "Journey," Jackson appeared to suffer from a Gollum-like ring obsession with the world he had so meticulously created. The narrative suffered from his blind adoration for it.
But the "Rings" czar learned from that precious mistake. With "Smaug," he's tinkered under the fantasy hood, fine-tuning the engine, adjusting the pacing and making this blockbuster run more like a racehorse. Even though "Smaug" clocks in at a seat-squirming length -- more than 2 ½ hours -- it rarely feels padded.
Part of its appeal is how it takes us into new locations, from a wonderfully grim village constructed on water to a dangerous forest where mammoth spiders lurk. Much of what we see is ominous and creepy, setting the stage for a showdown between good and evil.
The 3-D special effects are sensational, only every so often overwhelming the spry, humorous screenplay from Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyer and Guillermo del Toro.
The story picks up after the last film with our dwarf friends, led by Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), traipsing around Middle-earth under the guidance of Gandalf (Ian McKellen). They're out to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost dwarf Kingdom of Erebor in the process. Jackson and his writing team draw convincing parallels to topical issues, including immigration.
In this chapter, Gandalf doesn't hang with the dwarves too much, instead splintering off where evil festers and Orcs hang out. Most of the film concerns Bilbo and company as they battle spiders in the forest of Mirkwood, tangle with wood elves and meet up with Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and sexy female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Later, they shoot down the rapids in barrels (a thrilling, hilarious sequence).
Tolkien purists likely will be outraged by the arrival of Tauriel, a new character created by Jackson and crew, but I like her. Besides, she's the only major female here -- and this boys' club needs her.
She isn't the best new character we encounter in "Smaug." That honor belongs to Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a single dad and Tolkien creation who smuggles the dwarves into his dreary, water-locked village of Lake-town, which production designer Dan Hennah makes so oppressive you can almost taste the decay. Evans makes Bard mysterious and brooding, a man harboring a secret.
The crowning achievement, though, is that cranky dragon Smaug (voiced with slithering evil by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be in every other movie this year). Smaug is a scaly marvel to behold, and one of the best villains of 2013, thanks to Cumberbatch's bellowing vocals and the special effects crew.
Were it not for the trapdoor ending that leaves us swinging unhinged until "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" opens in December 2014, "Smaug" could rank in the same big leagues as the first two "Rings" films -- which were virtual cliffhangers but just didn't end so abruptly.
Despite that, "Smaug" remains pure escapist fun, from beginning to its, well, almost end. Maybe Jackson should have saved one of the many endings of "The Return of the King" and just used it here.
Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images)
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch
2 hours, 41 minutes