I will freely admit that after last year's introduction to the Hobbit I was a left a little deflated; it wasn't what I was expecting and certainly nowhere near the quality of Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy. I was left wondering is this one middle earth trilogy too many? Well, all fears of that being repeated again are quelled virtually from the very beginning. The Desolation of Smaug hits the floor running and does not stop until the end credits, more akin to its previous trilogy rather than its previous movie. It's a 2 hour 41 minute rollercoaster of a ride. Working from a script that not only has Tolkien's The Hobbit for reference, but also his work The Quest of Erebor, the movie is packed full of fun and adventure, but unlike its predecessor it does not feel long winded and hollow.
All the major players return; McKellen's portrayal of the enduring Gandalf is always a pleasure, and keeping up with reprising characters from LOTR is Orlando Bloom as Legolas. However, it is Martin Freeman who really does take centre stage a fuller more mature performance, now Bilbo is almost an equal among the party, unlike the first movie where everything seemed to revolve around the dwarves who liked to look down upon the Halfling, he now stands tall (pun not intended) and they seem to have a certain amount of respect for the burglar from the Shire. There are some notable new faces as well: Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elf that does give a bit of femininity to an almost all male cast, and the rather vile Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) with his snivelling sidekick Alfrid (Ryan Gage), but best of all is Luke Evans as the bargeman Bard a character that has his own tale to tell.
One thing shining brighter than the Arkenstone itself are the action sequences. Whether it is elves fighting orcs or dwarves white rafting in barrels down a river being shot at with arrows, they shot so well that you feel like you're a part of it yourself. CGI throughout is as you would expect of any Jackson film, superb, but even he has raised the bar for the last scene, inside Smaug's lair. Submerged in a sea of gold, the first time you set eye upon him you sense the evil his presence has had on the valley below for so many years. Added with Cumberbatch's booming almost demonic voice over "I am fire, I am death", leaves you in no doubt this is one beast not to be messed with.
Peter Jackson once again has shaken his magic staff and brought middle earth to life yet again. The Desolation of Smaug is right up there with his telling of The Lord of the Rings and may be the best of the five so far.