After the lackluster but admittedly decent The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson comes back with the epic but flawed The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
The film itself looks beautiful. Smaug himself is a CGI creation to behold, and the orcs are decent but it is much better than what the first film looked like, which was along the lines of a cartoon.
The performances are top-notch, with Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) and Richard Armitrage (Thorin Oakenshield) bring their A-game and really develop as characters. Benedict Cumberbatch, who voices the titular character, is amazing as Smaug, a psychopath or the Hannibal Lecter of dragons as described by Peter Jackson himself. The last 30 minutes or so minutes with Smaug come in right when you feel the movie should be ending, and luckily does not disappoint. Though they changed the scene around a bit, it was very enjoyable and kept you on the edge of your seat, even though you knew everyone was gonna be just fine.
Some key scenes: the barrel-riding scene, in which some laughter occurs (no spoilers). The spider scene, which does feature a moment that could make viewers "jump." There are actually more moments to that than most would expect, and the tone and feel of it really sets it up for what is to come.
The cliffhanger ending will want to make you build a time-travel machine and fast-forward to next December, 'Smaug' has a lot to offer, including ground-breaking action scenes, a terrifying dragon and above all the adventure that the first film wasn't. That's it. It's what the first Hobbit should have been. For those of you whose bridges were burned with 'Journey', I can fully understand your frustration with Peter Jackson but give him one more chance, when the material starts to come to life. It's not close to the book, not by long shot. It's been called an adaptation, but I prefer it as a trilogy of films inspired by the book. Tauriel, who some critics welcome, doesn't really have much to do except for a romantic sub-plot that gets lost in the ever-growing shuffle. The dragon confrontation dominates the third act, but sometimes it cuts back to some other settings, which is annoying as the film changes from this to that. Radagast was there just to be there, as he has only a few minutes of screen time. I'm sure he'll be popping up to surprisingly save Gandalf in the third film. The Battle of the Five Armies will be a spectacle when There and Back Again hits multiplexes, but for now we can bathe in Smaug's treasure.
Consensus: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a step-up from the original Hobbit while also being a relentless action picture and a visual spectacle.