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Peter Jackson picks up the pace with the second instalment of The Hobbit trilogy – and so does Martin Freeman’s unassuming hero Bilbo Baggins – as the quest to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor gathers momentum.

Where the opening episode, An Unexpected Journey, sometimes felt like a dreary trip to the panto, The Desolation of Smaug is thrillingly cinematic from start to finish. The first film dragged; this one flies, as Bilbo and his dwarf companions fend off attack by giant spiders, repel marauding orcs – with the aid of elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) – and steel themselves for a fateful encounter with terrifying dragon Smaug, voiced sinuously by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ian McKellen’s wizard Gandalf has his own share of hair-raising encounters and the implacable Gollum (Andy Serkis) is lurking in the shadows.

The visual effects are stunning throughout, but they never, ahem, dwarf the actors and the superb Freeman and McKellen, and their co-stars, continue to breathe vivid life into Tolkein and Jackson’s awesome fantasy.