‘The Hobbit’ picks up the pace in part 2

As holiday movie titles go, “The Desolation of Smaug” is a less-than-catchy handle for an evening’s buoyant entertainment. But only to the uninitiated.

To the throbbing fanbase of “The Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s fun and relatively compact fantasy novel, those words portend sheer fire-breathing awesomeness.

By now you know that “The Hobbit” has been elongated into three hefty movies by “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. “Smaug” is the middle section, and it improves on last year’s rambling “An Unexpected Journey” by sticking to a clean, headlong story line and jettisoning much of the juvenile humor of Part One.

Our hero, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is traveling with his crowd of bumptious dwarfs, intent on finding a magical stone inside a mountain crammed with treasure.

Wee wrinkle: The mountain is home to a dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who likes to periodically emerge from his lair and burn down neighboring Laketown.

This is really the only plot. Our wizard leader Gandalf (Ian McKellen) breaks off from the travelers for his own jaunt, elfin archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns to the fray from his “LOTR” stint, and a new elf character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) provides woman-warrior action.

Jackson once again wrote the (rather overly talky) script with Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, and they’ve dialed back on the funhouse action just a bit — although one zany escape involving dwarfs riding barrels down a rushing river is a glorious blend of Chuck Jones-style cartoony gags and Steven Spielberg’s dream of a Wild Waves park.

The tightened storytelling (even at 161 minutes!) is welcome, and the movie looks cool.

From the opening scene of Gandalf conspiring with the presumptive dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) in a grungy pub to the wonderfully tumbledown design of Laketown, Jackson’s eye for epic locations (New Zealand-shot, natch) is right on.

I saw the film in conventional 3-D, although in some theaters it’s available in the bizarre high-frame-rate version deployed in “An Unexpected Journey.”

One serious caveat: Jackson misplaces Bilbo Baggins. In the bustle and the rapid-fire closeups of the dwarfs (you still won’t be able to tell them apart), good old Bilbo is relegated to member-of-the-gang status — but this really is his journey, isn’t it?

We miss his solid center, amidst all the breathless archery and scar-faced Orcs.

There’s a final bold move by Jackson: the ending.

The “LOTR” episodes and other such multi-part franchises generally round off each chapter with some combination of resolution and a what-happens-next? factor. “Smaug” is pure cliffhanger. The faithful are unlikely to complain.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (3 stars)

The middle section of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy once again elongates J.R.R. Tolkien’s storytelling, although this one’s an improvement on Part One. Here, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) journeys with his dwarf companions in the direction of a mountain guarded by a fearsome dragon. The script’s a little talky, but the movie looks great and the cliffhanger ending is bold.

Rated: PG-13 for violence.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Pacific Place, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Blue Foxx, Cascade Mall.

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