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Even after more than 12 (!) hours spent in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth over the course of four films, Peter Jackson still finds ways to surprise us with breathtaking visuals. Meet Smaug, a greedy, paranoid dragon who enjoys lazily sleeping in a sea of gold – and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, no less.

The dragon is the most wondrous creature in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” an entertaining, meticulously crafted, exhausting bit of CGI-driven storytelling. In some ways, this is a stronger film than its predecessor, “An Unexpected Journey,” with more action, less scenes of dining dwarves, and some of the most thrilling set-pieces of its director’s career.

But while “Smaug” is sure to rake in Orc-loads of cash and generally please Tolkien diehards, it is now abundantly clear that Jackson and company will not come close to approaching the cultural impact of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, or creating as memorable a cinematic experience.

“Unexpected Journey,” remember, was greeted with surprisingly negative publicity on several fronts. There was the decision to turn “The Hobbit” – one 300-page book – into three separate films. And confusion and criticism greeted its use of a 48-frames-per-second projection rate. (Most theaters projected it at the standard rate of 24.)

“An Unexpected Journey” was by no means a bad film – I quite enjoyed it. But it was an unwieldy one that faced the unenviable task of setting the stage for installments two and three. (Watching the dwarves arrive at chez Bilbo, dine, clean up and snooze felt longer than a blind date with Gollum.)

“The Desolation of Smaug” arrives in theaters with less baggage, and while it, too, cannot help but feel flawed and inessential, to some degree, Bilbo Baggins gets his groove back.

Following a nicely atmospheric prologue, Jackson picks up right where we left off, with Bilbo (the ever-droll Martin Freeman) in possession of the ring, and dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (the glowering Richard Armitage) and the omnipresent Gandalf (Ian McKellen) leading the likes of Oin and Gloin. (If you remember which is Oin and which is Gloin, I salute you.)

After Bilbo and friends encounter a strange “skin-changer,” Gandalf departs on wizard business, leaving the group to enter a strange, hallucinogenic forest populated by horrific, giant spiders (prepare to feel queasy, especially in 3-D).

Next, they are taken prisoner by elves, including one audiences will remember well: Legolas, played once more by Orlando Bloom. It is here where we encounter one of the film’s most involving and exhilarating faces, as well as its most controversial – a new character, the elf Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly (“Lost”) in a breakout performance.

Tauriel might be the strongest female in all five films, a smart, tough, compassionate slayer-of-Orcs who is the opposite of a damsel in distress. (While she is saddled with a love interest, it is Tauriel who does the saving.) Lilly is perfect in the role, and I think fans of the novel will applaud her addition.

An uproarious escape involving fast-moving barrels (think water park, plus Orcs, dwarves, and elves) follows, leading us to Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a narrow-eyed but helpful figure who sets the stage for the film’s climax – a venture into the Lonely Mountain, face-to-face with Smaug.

The dragon, first glimpsed in “An Unexpected Journey,” is wonderfully voiced by the great Cumberbatch, who, like Lilly, Luke Evans, a nicely Falstaffian Stephen Fry, contribute much. This is important, because even with an increase in action and a shorter running time (well, 161 minutes instead of 169 minutes), there are moments in which the film seems to slow to a crawl.

Surprisingly, many involve McKellen’s Gandalf, as well as the endlessly sneering Orc kingpin, Azog. (We get it, Azog. You’re mean.)

But when it moves, it moves, especially once we enter the Lonely Mountain. Then … it’s over. To be continued. While every member of the audience is surely aware that this is film two-of-three, it is hard not to feel a tad let down.

Each film in the “Rings” saga was based on a separate novel, and each had a conclusion that both moved things along and felt satisfying on its own. But “Unexpected Journey” and “Desolation of Smaug” merely stop.

Like “Unexpected Journey,” then, “Smaug” never quite achieves the highs of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This prequel trilogy seems tacked on, and that feeling – that we have been down this road before, and it mattered more – is difficult to overcome. Quite simply, “The Hobbit” trilogy will be forever dwarfed (no pun intended) by the more emotional, more epic “Lord of the Rings” saga.

However, most audience members will say, “So what?” As well they should, for “Desolation of Smaug” is a big, immaculately constructed bit of holiday fun. Forget its place in history, and just enjoy. See you in a year, for “There and Back Again.”