Picking up where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey leaves off, The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t take long to get right back into the action.

Although roughly the same length as the first film (near three hours), Smaug feels much tighter and tauter. It’s the nature of a sequel (or second in a trilogy) to have more weight once the set up has worn off after the first entry, but The Desolation of Smaug seems to move more swiftly and the dark underbelly of Middle Earth slowly begins to encroach on Bilbo Baggins and his band of Dwarves. Feeling more like Peter Jackson’s original The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, it ups the adrenaline rush of its predecessor while adding depth to most of its existing characters, while welcoming familiar and new faces alike.

Although it veers from it’s source material from J.R.R. Tolkien, Jackson reclaims some, but not all, of the magic from his original trilogy and digs into the darker elements of the story. Still on their journey, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) follows Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his Dwarf brethren towards the Lonely Mountain that was taken by the dragon Smaug from Thorin and his people. And although the group, following their trusty leader Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen), have already had to overcome many roadblocks but the quest is far from over.

Along the way they continue to battle Azog (Manu Bennett), The Orc intent on killing Thorin, as well as giant spiders and even the Wood-Elves. Welcomed back into the fold is the Elven Prince Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Chief of the Guard, Taurien (Evangeline Lilly), along with Legloas’ icy father and Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace). Other new faces include Luke Evans as Bard, a human who aids the group enter Lake-town, which is under the watchful but drunken eye of The Master (Stephen Fry). Oh, and of course, there’s the seething voice-stylings of Benedict Cumberbatch as the fire breathing Smaug. All the meanwhile, there’s a darkness brewing which Gandalf can’t ignore and he must go off on his own to see for himself what’s brewing.

Thorin takes greater charge in the film but Armitage is never really able to imbue him with any real semblance of a personality outside of brooding. It’s a detriment that can hurt some of the more introspective scenes, especially set against those with Bilbo who begins a much more, and expected, codependent relationship with the ring. But his descent is in direct correlation to his coming into his own as one of the pack and manifesting greater courage.

Likewise, some side stories just aren’t given enough time to develop, like that of Taurien, although she is an overall welcome addition, especially aside Legolas, as they provide some of the better action scenes within the film, and some of the more self-reflective and goofy. Jackson feels more sure of himself after the shaky start of An Unexpected Journey and, although it doesn’t reach the heights of his breakout trilogy, is a welcome addition to their legacy. Fans and fanatics alike will be begging for more as the film cuts to black just as going really gets good.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5