Peter Jackson begins this second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's massive fantasy as resourceful Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues his journey with the Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and the Thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on their quest to steal a magical gem, the Arkenstone which will enable them to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and their lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Problem is: it's guarded by the fearsome, fire-breathing Dragon Smaug (sonorously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
En route, they're attacked by Azog's vicious Orcs, befriended by shape-shifting Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and captured by a swarm of giant Spiders in toxic Mirkwood forest. That's all in Tolkien's text. But screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson introduce a new character/subplot to enhance the narrative: Tauriel (Evengeline Lilly), a spunky Elf archer who flirts with hunky, handsome Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), igniting jealousy in Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Middle Earth purists point out that Legolas never appeared in "The Hobbit," but his presence here is captivating, while Evangeline Lilly (familiar from TV's "Lost") bears a startling resemblance to Liv Tyler's Arwen.
Undoubtedly, the most exciting chase sequence occurs when the Dwarves escape from imprisonment by the isolationist Elves and are swept down river in barrels, battling more malicious Orcs, until they're assisted by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into Laketown, ruled by the venal Master (Stephen Fry), before they can confront Smaug in his cavern. Meanwhile, Gandalf confers with fellow wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and Bilbo begins to realize the potential power of his gold Ring.
Biggest downside: there's little emotional involvement in this adventure, compared with "The Lord of the Rings." Heightened by 3D, Weta's CGI maintains visual continuity, highlighting Dan Hannah's dazzling production design and amplified by Howard Shore's score. Although Andy Serkis's iconic Gollum is absent, Serkis is again credited as second-unit director.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is an intense, action-packed 8, predictably concluding with an exciting cliffhanger.