Director Peter Jackson gets his mojo back in the latest installment of the "Hobbit" series. "The Desolation of Smaug" recaptures the alluring mixture of mythical adventure, fantastic landscapes and epic struggle that made Tolkien's books into the enduring franchise we have today.

This episode centers on the race of Dwarves seeking to retake their kingdom from the vicious dragon Smaug. Hobbits, Elves and Humans join forces to combat the brutal Orcs trying to thwart the mission. Spectacular special effects rule the screen as shape-shifting creatures, giant spiders and demonic forces reveal their presence.

Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf anchors the spiritual war between good and evil that remains the core of the story. But Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly steal the show as the fearless Elf warriors who save the day many times over. The action scenes are relentless and the pace is often frenetic.

It's all very well crafted. But for some viewers, a good thing goes on far too long at more than 2 1/2 hours. Nevertheless, this top-notch effort is sure to please avid fans of this legendary tale.

—John Depko

*

Guess who's repeating the formula

Tyler Perry has created a multimillion-dollar money machine playing Madea, a cantankerous, all-knowing 6-foot-plus senior with no filter. She tells it like it is with her own wacky mix of malapropisms and potty mouth.

In "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas," Perry pulls out the formulaic bag of tricks used in all of his movies — risqué humor mixed with traditional family values and a soap opera script. There is always a "sinner" who will either be brought to justice or Jesus by the end of the film.

A pretty teacher with impeccable makeup (Tika Sumpter) is married to a placid white man on an Alabama farm and afraid to tell her overbearing mother. When mom and Aunt Madea make a surprise visit to the poor girl the same day her in-laws (a cute Kathy Najimy and Larry the Cable Guy) show up, it's a redneck version of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Minus great dialogue and acting.

A subplot about keeping the true spirit of Christmas in the school's holiday festivities keeps things lively.

The movie has a few funny moments, but mostly it's just a jumble of jokes that got Perry some laughs before. While he always gets a decent cast, he may want to change up his formula when even the requisite outtakes feel stale.

I won't say "A Madea Christmas" is a totally bad movie for this time of year. After all, nothing says the holidays like the KKK, cow milking and flatulence.

—Susanne Perez

JOHN DEPKO is a retired senior investigator for the Orange County public defender's office. He lives in Costa Mesa and works as a licensed private investigator. SUSANNE PEREZ lives in Costa Mesa and is an executive assistant for a company in Irvine.