When it came time to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit to the big screen, Peter Jackson didn’t go for a straightforward adaptation. Pulling from appendices to The Lord of the Rings, he and the writers reshaped the story in the image of his own incredibly successful Rings trilogy, but last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey didn’t quite pull off the feat. Heavy on grandeur but light on the drama and memorable characters audiences fell in love with 10 years ago, the film raised a new question: could Jackson and his creative team build a more robust adventure now that they had the initial set-up out of the way.

As a feat of sheer technical excellence, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a marvel: imaginary creatures come to life, fantastic worlds are realized, and breathtaking sequences demonstrate what an accomplished action director Jackson has become. At the same time, it doesn’t transcend the fundamental problems that plagued the first outing. The result is an entertaining adventure with some truly masterful moments — but they still fail to justify the film’s nearly three-hour running time.