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'Hobbit' sequel has comic touch

Bilbo turns tougher and more cunning and “The Hobbit”turns altogether more entertaining in “The Desolation of Smaug,”Peter Jackson's livelier, funnier and action-packed middle film in his trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's slight delight of a novel.

It looks more like a fantasy — fantastical, with more murk and the otherworldly light of those mass-produced Thomas Kinkade paintings. Characters feel more distinct, with Martin Freeman's Bilbo making the transition from mere passenger on this dwarf's quest “beneath the Lonely Mountain” to the brains of the motley crew.

And there's just more going on. Jackson and company wisely tamper with the Holy Writ of Tolkien to invent a lady elf and to find Orlando Bloom's elf Legolas a part to play. They're more concerned with making this all a prelude to “The Lord of the Rings,” so foreshadowing and the suspicions of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) step to the fore.

That ups the ante, creates urgency and sets up a love triangle, just one of several elements that become cliffhangers before “The Desolation of Smaug” ends.

The company of quarrelsome dwarfs led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) stumble through Mirkwood as they make their way through spiders, suspicious elves and Lake-town toward the Lonely Mountain, where they have a date with a dragon who wiped out their kingdom and stole a vast treasure. Bilbo, who found this magical ring he refuses to tell them about, saves their biscuits time and again.

Gandalf, worried that “The enemy has returned,” leaves them on their own, of course. So they stumble into Wood-elves, which is where Legolas and the lovely-but-deadly Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) enter the story. Tauriel takes a shine to the tallest of the dwarfs. (No, it's not who you think.) Fans of the novel will be impressed with the gloom of Mirkwood (“Fell things creep beneath these trees.”) and the vast complex of the dwarf's city beneath The Lonely Mountain.

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