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'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug': What the Critics Are Saying

The middle chapter in the Peter Jackson-directed trilogy hit U.S. theaters on Friday.

It's time to go back to Middle Earth for the latest chapter in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug marks the return of Lord of the Rings alum Orlando Bloom as Legolas and features the Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced title dragon in the epic.

The film, which hit theaters Friday, is expected to top the U.S. box office with an estimated $80 million in its debut weekend. Here's a snapshot of what critics are saying about the PG-13 release, which clocks in at 161 minutes: 

The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic, Todd McCarthy, found the epic to improve on the first prequel. 

"After exhibiting an almost craven fidelity to his source material the first time out, Jackson gets the drama in gear here from the outset with a sense of storytelling that possesses palpable energy and purpose," McCarthy wrote, noting: "Toward the end, his perennial tendency to let bloat creep in reasserts itself to an extent."

STORY: Inside 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Premiere 

Manolha Dargis, film critic at The New York Times, noted that Smaug moved at a more brisk pace than its predecessor. "The good Mr. Jackson dukes it out with the bad," Dargis wrote. "There are, once again, too many busy, uninterestingly staged battles that lean heavily on obvious, sometimes distracting digital sorcery. But there are also pacific, brooding interludes in which the actors ... remind you that there’s more to Middle-earth than clamor and struggle."

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal's longtime critic, Joe Morgenstern, dispensed a few words of wisdom to Tolkien fans. "My advice to Hobbit fans is not only to see this one, but to see it as I did, in 3D projected at the normal rate of 24 frames per second," Morgenstern entreated. "The film will also be shown in what's called High Frame Rate 3D, at 48 frames a second, but that made the last installment look more like video than a regular movie. Smaug is scary enough without a turbo boost."

In a review that will presumably run in local papers nationwide, The Associated Press national writer Jocelyn Novek also appeared to echo the theme of an improved epic. "[I]t all comes down to the climactic confrontation with the dragon; Unfortunately, the film sags somewhat here," Novek pointed out. "It's fun to hear Benedict Cumberbatch, as Smaug, hurl seething epithets at Bilbo, and Freeman is at his most pluckily adorable. Still, they really could have shortened this confrontation by a good 20 minutes."

Peter Bradshaw, film critic at U.K. paper The Guardian, gave the film four out of five stars in his take. The title "is a cheerfully entertaining and exhilarating adventure tale, a supercharged Saturday morning picture: it's mysterious and strange and yet Jackson also effortlessly conjures up that genial quality that distinguishes The Hobbit from the more solemn Rings stories."

In his three out of five star review, The Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper took issue with the expansion of the movie with extra material from outside of the book.

"Some of this stuff exists only so Jackson can stretch a 276-page book into a three-movie, eight-hour trilogy," Roeper wrote. "Sure, every time the dwarves clear a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, they’re just a little bit closer to the Lonely Mountain — but some of the diversions and distractions are there mainly so Jackson and his team of technical wizards can work their movie magic."