Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is often regarded as one of the greatest film series of all time, but his return to Middle Earth, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was met with far more criticism. Most critics, and audiences, complained that the movie suffered from an excessively long runtime and too much filler. While I fully agree with these criticisms, I still found An Unexpected Journey to be a fun, mildly diverting fantasy tale. Thankfully, Peter Jackson has stepped his game up and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a solid improvement over its predecessor. It certainly doesn’t match the heights set by the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it does remind us why we loved these films so much in the first place.

The film begins with a flashback to the town of Bree, where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) convinces Thorin (Richard Armitage) to reclaim his homeland by retrieving the Arkenstone that resides in the lair of Smaug, the dragon. It’s an entirely unnecessary opening and the first of several scenes that should not have made it into the finished product. After this flashback, we rejoin Gandalf, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin and the rest of the dwarves as they continue their trek to The Lonely Mountain. After a brief encounter with a large bear that can also change form into a peaceful man, the group enters the forest of Mirkwood, but not before Gandalf leaves the group to investigate the growing power of the Necromancer. His reasons for leaving seem fairly thin and the fact that he is separated from the rest of the group is a detriment to the film. He is gone for such long periods of time that viewers are likely to forget that he is in the movie at all.

Once Bilbo and the Dwarves enter the forest, the film begins to kick into high gear.  There is a short, but pleasing, sequence that showcases how The Ring that Bilbo found in the previous film is taking a toll on him, before moving onto one of the best sequences in the movie. Bilbo and the dwarves get attacked by a group of giant spiders and it is blood-curdlingly terrifying. The giant spider Shelob was showcased in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but the spider sequence in this film is just as terrifying, if not more so. It’s an incredibly well done scene, even if it does end up being resolved by a deus-ex-machina. After this sequence in the forest, the dwarves are captured, and held prisoner, by the Wood-elves. This group of elves is led by Thranduil (Lee Pace), who also happens to be the father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Here, we also meet a female elf named Tauriel. She is played by the incredibly likeable Evangeline Lilly, who the audience will fall in love with within her first few minutes of screen time. A love triangle forms between Tauriel, Legolas and the dwarf Kili, but it’s mostly uninteresting and the film probably would have benefited from its removal.

The eventual escape from the elf kingdom is one of the film’s major highlights. The dwarves climb into wooden barrels and leave their imprisonment through a series of rapids; all while being chased down by elves and orcs.  It’s goofy, exciting and most importantly, fun; the sequence is so thrilling that the viewer will feel like they are on a hugely entertaining waterpark ride. This scene of lighthearted adventure is exactly what the film’s predecessor was lacking.

When we finally get to see Smaug in the film’s third act, it is truly awe-inspiring. Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is simultaneously charming and chilling and the visual effects that were used to create him are impeccable. Unfortunately, the rest of the film’s visual effects cannot live up to this standard. Too many scenes feature a glaringly obvious use of green screens, oftentimes when they weren’t even necessary. There is an abundance of exterior scenes that Jackson chooses to use green screens for, instead of simply filming outdoors. It’s incredibly distracting, but the scenes that are filmed in the natural New Zealand landscape are nothing short of beautiful. Luckily, even when some of the visual effects border on cringe-worthy, the film’s impeccable art direction always makes it enjoyable to look at the screen.

It’s clear that the trilogy of Hobbit films will never live up to the standard set by the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, but The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a solid fantasy film that improves upon many of the mistakes made by its predecessor. The film’s ending feels insanely abrupt, cutting to black just as the film enters, what should be, its climax. It’s an unfulfilling cliffhanger, but it does leave me incredibly curious as to how the final chapter of this trilogy will play out. Next December feels like an eternity away, but hopefully Peter Jackson will make it well worth the wait.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug receives 3/4