The Desolation of Smaug picks up almost exactly where the first film left off. Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan), and the Dwarves have narrowly escaped the Goblins in the Misty Mountains, but they're not out of danger yet. The Goblins are in pursuit. The Dwarves and Bilbo must make their way through the dark forest of Mirkwood, and the domain of King Thranduil (Lee Pace), if they are to have any hope of reaching the Lonely Mountain in time. If they do not find the secret door to the dragons lair before Durin's Day (the last day of autumn), then all hope if entering the mountain will be lost. Meanwhile, Gandalf can no longer ignore the threat of the dark power in Mirkwood, and sets off on his own to investigate the Necromancer...
The second in this epic trilogy was packed with more action, more characters, and visuals that could put many a fantasy film to shame. The depth (especially with the 3D) and the intricacy of it all will leave you absolutely awestruck. The level of detail in the Elvenkings Halls, in Laketown, and most importantly of all, in Smaug's lair, are enough to match anyones wildest dreams. The action is kept tight and fast-paced, despite the films overall length, and nearly every moment is absolutely enthralling.
Where Smaug is able to expand upon and better the first film, is in character development. Some of the dwarves, especially Fili (Dean O'Gorman), Kili (Aiden Turner), and even Balin (Ken Stott), stand out from the group, but the development is particularly strong when it comes to the main players of Bilbo and Thorin (Richard Armitage). Bilbo has changed a lot since his journey from the Shire - he has grown braver and bolder, but there is still the touch of the finicky hobbit about him, which Freeman brings across wonderfully in the smallest of gestures and movements. Now however, Bilbo has also found the ring. There is an absolutely brilliant moment in Mirkwood, in which Bilbo feels its evil influence, acts, then realises what has happened and what he has done. He's mortified - those familiar with The Lord of the Rings will recognise what is happening, and for those who aren't it's a shocking moment, brilliantly done. In the meantime, Richard Armitage brings new dimensions to Thorin, in a subtle but powerful performance. The Dwarf King, who in the previous film was so regal and aloof (even a little cold) has warmed up to Bilbo considerably, but the lust of gold is growing upon him, and his stubborn nature brings about more trouble than good, especially in his confrontation with Thranduil.
Speaking of Thranduil, the newcomers are all brilliant too. Lee Pace brings us a practically sinister take on the Elvish King, showing us that while Elves may be considered the wisest and fairest, they are just as capable of selfishly looking after their own interests. He was a joy to watch. Luke Evans is Bard, a merchant and archer of Laketown, whose personal history is closely tied to that of the Dwarves. He is instantly likable. Orlando Bloom, returning as Legolas, is solid, but the real standout for me was Evangeline Lilly as the Captain of the Guard, Tauriel. She brings a much needed female presence to what is essentially an all-male movie, and it's great to see one who is smart, capable, and strong. I adored her. The entire cast are excellent on their own, but together, they form meaningful and emotional bonds. Thorin and Bilbo, Bilbo and Gandalf, Tauriel and Legolas, Tauriel and Kili - the audience becomes completely and totally invested in these friendships and relationships, which are at the heart of this monumental journey.
I can't end this without saying a little about Smaug the magnificent - his appearance is suitably jaw-dropping, and his deep, guttural voice (courtesy Benedict Cumberbatch) resonates long after he has disappeared from sight. He does not disappoint.
I stand by my love for An Unexpected Journey, but on a re-watch I did start to feel the length. I started to feel the length on this one towards the end as well, but overall I thought it was spectacular. These films are fantasy at their most epic.