In the second marathon leg of Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of The Hobbit the dwarves, led by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), enter territory darker and more dangerous than the first by-the-Tolkien outing. With ever-more powerful Orcs hot on their little heels, they have to run the gauntlet of giant spiders, hallucinogenic woodland, capture by the Wood-elves and a white-knuckle white water barrel ride. Getting firmly into its stride, this looks more like a worthy prequel to The Lord of the Rings and boasts a worthy ally in elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). And, of course, there's Smaug.
The sight of director Peter Jackson - the "ring" master himself - mischievously slipping out of The Prancing Pony hostelry in a brief cameo at the beginning of his second Hobbit movie suggests that it won't be as faithful an adaptation as the handsome opener.
And so it proves. This is a far more purposeful affair, mostly devoid of the longeurs that often drained momentum from An Unexpected Journey and winningly unafraid to depart from JRR Tolkien's text to enrich the mix of characters.
When we catch up with them (just ahead of the Orcs), the company of thirteen dwarves, led by the Wizard Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage), are still very much on the road to hell, forced to take refuge from their ug-bug pursuers in a cottage belonging to Beorn, a sometime man, sometime gargantuan bear "skin-changer" who only grants them reluctant sanctuary because he hates dwarves less than Orcs.
Pushing on, they part company with Gandalf, who heads off to the abandoned fortress of Dol Goldur, a stunningly eerie combination of deconsecrated cathedral and granite mausoleum, where he believes he will discover a terrible threat to Middle-earth in the form of the Necromancer - ancient but alive and reborn.
Meanwhile, the dwarves plunge into the soulless depths of Mirkwood, a sullen tangle of trees contaminated by the evil has been seeping out of Dol Goldur and posing its own threat in the form of vast, carnivorous spiders who mummify the disorientated gang and prepare them for a fate worse than death. And we're only about an hour in.
With 100 pages of the 276-page children's story dealt with in the more playful first instalment, these heavier, darker themes begin to emerge as it becomes chillingly obvious that there are grander, more diabolical forces at play than at first thought.
The vicious melancholia induced by the ring increasingly afflicts the tougher minded Bilbo, played with great nuance and sneaky wit by the excellent Freeman in a richly detailed performance, while the arrogant Thorin's isolation and increasing lust for power as rightful heir to the throne of Erebor puts his fellow travellers in harm's way.
Crucially, with the main characters firmly bedded in, there's room for a welcome new face: Tauriel (Lilly), a Wood-elf who doesn't share her race's distaste for the dwarves and finds herself drawn - to the consternation of fellow elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom, back and looking rather too old to play his original character) - to Thorin's nephew Killi.
Neither Tauriel nor Legolas appear in Tolkien's original book but without this feisty female character the adventure runs the real risk of turning into a boys-only affair.
As ever, it's the action set-pieces that enthral - an extended scene where the dwarves literally barrel down a raging torrent while being attacked by Orcs and defended - quite violently - by Tauriel and Legolas skipping from rock to rock is thrillingly rendered, even if younger fans may wince at the number of arrows slicing into (Orc) flesh and bone (mainly heads).
Visually, it's up well up to Jackson's high standard, with special mention going to Lake-Town, a decaying cross between Venice and a Tudor village and the home of another reluctant dwarf ally Bard (Luke Evans), an apparently streetwise Welsh bargeman (if bargemen can be streetwise) who wisely fears what Thorin's warlike intentions will reap.
Divertingly, Stephen Fry crops up as the watery town's corrupt Master and yet another obstacle to the dwarves getting to Erebor and their scaly nemesis.
Ah, the scaly nemesis. Well, without giving too much away, Smaug - languorously voiced in Benedict Cumberbatch's growly baritone - doesn't disappoint...and the scene is set for a genuinely enticing climax.