The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ★★★

I'm always impressed by how strong and enjoyable Peter Jackson's directorial identity is; the long, loop-de-looping airborne cameras, wistful sunlit close-ups, Hong-Kong-style action gags rendered in clean tracking shots... it's a good job he's got all this, because his storytelling ability has gone to pot.

Whereas the first Hobbit movie was anchored solidly in Bilbo and Thorin's twinned stories, this one cuts messily and abruptly from the dwarves to their pursuers to Gandalf fighting a big ink blot in a ruin to a political schism among elves (no, really) to a fishing village labouring under the corrupt yoke of Stephen Fry. The result is that characters and subplots get lost. It's hard to invest in the idea that Thorin Oakenshield will change anything in Middle-Earth when the filmmakers seem to forget he's there half the time.

It's a mystery how a film Jackson claimed to have "found in the editing room" can be so devoid of flow and rhythm. A scene in which Orcs chase the dwarves down a river comes to a natural end point twice, before pausing awkwardly and continuing for another ten minutes of gorgeously orchestrated but ultimately hollow action.

The saving graces, apart from Jackson's confident direction, come with the cast. Martin Freeman continues to yoke heroism and humility to great effect, arriving cast members Luke Evans and Lee Pace make strong impressions, and then there's Smaug, voiced with a subsonic rumble by Benedict Cumberbatch. Finally, when the dragon appears, there's a sense of mystery and dread in the film again. Strip away the state-of-the-art CGI and this is a beast whose heft and personality Toho Studios would be proud of.

Graham liked these reviews