I remember, somewhere around the fourth or fifth movie, when the Harry Potter film series started to lose its charm for me. I still loved the books, don’t get me wrong, but going to see the movie adaptations came to feel more perfunctory than anything else. I went to see all of the films in their big screen releases, but there was no surprise in the experience. After the first few go-rounds, I had developed an expectation of what every subsequent movie would look and feel like, and the films all more or less met those expectations exactly.

I feel like the Lord of the Rings film series has reached a similar point.

If you’ve seen the first trilogy (or, y’know, read the books) then you already know exactly where the story is going. And after four movies, Jackson’s consistent approach toward production design, casting, script adaptation, and even score composition should be familiar to anyone who’s paid the least bit of attention. Hell, between the rampant hype, the detailed production diaries, and the series’ overpowering effect on pop culture at large, even people who’ve somehow been able to avoid actually watching the films would have a pretty good idea of what to expect by now.

Yet I still went to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 3D on an IMAX screen, and my theater was absolutely packed. I suppose there is still entertainment to be found in the safe and familiar, much as I’ve come to value innovation and ambition in movies.

Then again, Jackson’s ventures to Middle Earth never lacked in ambition. His production design is still detailed as ever, Middle Earth still feels like a wholly populated world unto itself, and Jackson is still committed to delivering set pieces on the biggest scale imaginable. Of course, Jackson’s tendencies for melodramatic moments and bloated pacing are still in effect, but you take the good with the bad.

Even so, the pacing doesn’t drag down quite as often here. Because the previous chapter was so horribly overburdened with exposition, this movie had far less to convey before it hit the ground running. This makes for a film that relentlessly keeps building the stakes while offering one action scene after another. And man oh man, the action is fantastic. There’s a whole sequence in which the dwarves float down a river to escape imprisonment, and it’s all manner of jaw-dropping. The encounters with Smaug are also superbly exciting, but I’ll get to him later.

Another benefit of the leaner pacing is that it allows for character development through action instead of exposition. In a film with a cast this huge, that does all manner of help. After about five hours of runtime, the dwarves are finally starting to develop their own distinct personalities. Of course, it certainly helps that we see the dwarves work together as a team in so many creative and entertaining ways.

Special mention is due to Bilbo (Martin Freeman once again), who’s quickly growing into a more confident and aggressive hobbit. Yet the film implies that Bilbo’s stronger nature may be due in some part to corruption from the Ring. This was a brilliant move. Not only does it add a compelling layer onto Bilbo’s development arc, but it elegantly sets up what we already know about the Ring and its relationship to Bilbo in his later years. This also serves as a neat parallel with Thorin (Richard Armitage), who’s going through something similar with the corrupting allure of the Arkenstone. Wonderfully done.

Speaking of Thorin, I hasten to add that Thorin’s righteous indignation and his questionable greed for the Arkenstone give Armitage something interesting to work with. This is a huge step up from the stone-cold boring “leader” archetype we saw in the previous film.

Moving from dwarves to elves, it’s no secret that this film marks the return of Legolas. But if you thought that Orlando Bloom was just showing up for a cameo, think again. Bloom thoroughly earns his paycheck in this picture, with a significant amount of screen time and a decent effect on the plot. His acting skills haven’t improved, I’m sorry to say, but his action skills are sharp as ever.

Lee Pace also appears as Thranduil — Legolas’ father, incidentally — who gets a lot more screen time after his brief introduction in the previous film. Pace does an elegant job of playing a character who’s selfish and short-sighted, but not cartoonishly evil. His movements are quite graceful, but in a way that’s very serpentine. Pace makes it clear that Thranduil is a corrupt elf, and he finds a way to make the apparent contradiction work.

Unfortunately, the film’s third main elf character doesn’t fare nearly as well. Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a character made entirely out of whole cloth for the movie, and the fact is painfully obvious. She’s a female character in a cast that’s otherwise completely male, and that’s her only worthwhile contribution. Tauriel does nothing for the plot that Legolas couldn’t have done just as easily by himself. She also has a half-assed, watered-down quasi-romance arc with Kili (the dwarf played by Aidan Turner) that’s hopelessly ludicrous. Kili does get a bit of character development out of it, but this is one time when the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits.

Also on the subject of comic relief, Stephen Fry pokes his head in. His attempts at humor aren’t that much better, but it’s still at least somewhat entertaining to see Fry play an unrepentant sleazeball. Luke Evans makes a much stronger impression as the charismatic Bard, and Mikael Persbrandt’s portrayal of Beorn is memorable as it is brief.

I’m sorry to say that Radagast the Brown and Gandalf the Grey (still respectively played by Sylvester McCoy and Ian McKellen) are still primarily tasked with setting up the next trilogy. Still, at least Gandalf gets some neat scenes out of the arrangement. Which leads me to the villains.

You may already know that Benedict Cumberbatch provided the voice and motion capture for Smaug, but I was surprised to learn that he also provided the voice for the Necromancer himself. Yes, Sauron may only be onscreen for a short while, but his appearance blew me completely out of my seat. As for Smaug, don’t worry. I know the ads did a lot to conceal Smaug’s full appearance, but you will see every magnificent detail of the dragon through all of his abundant screen time in this movie. I promise you that between the vivid animation, the splendid design, and Cumberbatch’s mesmerizing voice work, this character is well worth the wait.

Though I’m sure the film would be perfectly fine in two dimensions, I enjoyed the 3D enough to recommend the upgrade. I don’t know if the visuals are worth the IMAX premium, though the sound design probably is. I was eager to skip the HFR option after seeing how it worked last time, and I didn’t regret that option. Even so, there were some swooping shots that were clearly meant to be seen in 48 fps, and I’m sure the diminished blur would have helped those scenes a great deal. I said as much in my review of An Unexpected Journey and I think it bears repeating: High Frame Rate is not a “one size fits all” tool. Use 48 fps for action scenes and huge swooping camera shots, use 24 fps for slower moments of characters walking and talking, adjust different elements in a shot accordingly, and we’ll be fine.

On a final note, you should definitely be ready for a cliffhanger. That’s not exactly a surprise, since we’re dealing with the middle part of a trilogy, but this chapter’s cut to black will still feel like slamming into a brick wall at 60 MPH. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this film is a better “middle” entry than The Two Towers was, however.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is one of those critic-proof movies, such that there’s really no point to any recommendation one way or another. At this point, you know exactly what to expect and you’re either on board or you’re not. Passing judgment is even more useless in this case, since the film depends so heavily on the chapters on either side of it. Still, I’ll grant that this movie is very action-packed, with a lot more character development and marginally less padding than we saw in the previous installment. Also, Smaug is one of those rare times when a tightly-kept mystery somehow turns out to be worth the anticipation.

If you’re already set to go see the movie, I’m almost completely certain that you won’t come away disappointed. That’s really all I can say about it.

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