Director Peter Jackson's grandiose vision of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth reaches a crescendo with this thrilling second installment in "The Hobbit" trilogy. "Smaug" ignites the excitement missing from Jackson's sluggish first "Hobbit" flick, and the stunning visuals -- cinematography, costuming, set design, effects -- set it apart as one of the most impressive fantasy films ever made.
Jackson does Tolkien proud in bringing some of the author's most memorable scenes to life, including a sticky encounter with a horde of hungry spiders and a parade of dwarves literally barreling down a white-water river. Several new characters and one familiar elf energize the action that seemed all-too-fleeting in "An Unexpected Party."
When viewers last saw hobbit burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, wonderful) and his dwarf companions, they were headed for the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarf kingdom from the murderous dragon Smaug. Led by dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and guided by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the dwarves are a rag-tag lot that includes father-figure Balin (Ken Stott), robust Bombur (Stephen Hunter) and brothers Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner), among others.
As the group's journey continues, the obstacles mount. A trek through the befuddling forest of Mirkwood leads to a clash with the aforementioned arachnids and, later, capture by an army of woodland elves. Among the elvish hosts are Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his role from "Lord of the Rings") and feisty she-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly of TV's "Lost").
A clever escape and surprise orc attack lead to a reluctant alliance between the elves and dwarves, and soon the party is well on its way to the small village of Laketown en route to the Lonely Mountain. Another ally arrives in Laketown man Bard (Luke Evans), who helps the company finally reach the Lonely Mountain, where a confrontation with Smaug awaits. Freeman again proves a stellar casting choice as Bilbo Baggins, lending the picture the innocence and humor it needs. Stott brings a certain emotional sincerity to his portrayal of Balin, overshadowing the other dwarves. Lilly also shines as Tauriel, especially in the fast-moving battle scenes, though she has little chemistry with Bloom. And while Bloom's Legolas is a welcome addition, the actor plays it angry this go-round, shedding the charm that made the character so likable in the first place.
Visually, "Smaug" is simply outstanding, from the orcs to the landscape to Smaug himself. The greedy dragon from Tolkien's tale does not disappoint, especially as voiced by rising star Benedict Cumberbatch ("Star Trek Into Darkness"). Some moments could be mistaken as having come from "Lord of the Rings" if taken out of context, such as orcs marching in the night or Gandalf offering words of wisdom. And, let's face it, two hours and 40 minutes is still a long time to sit through a movie.
The somewhat bloated runtime and mirror-image "Lord of the Rings" material notwithstanding, "Smaug" is a phenomenal cinematic feat. Jackson and his team deserve a wealth of credit for redeeming themselves after the disappointing first film, and doing so in a big way.
Keep an ear out for Howard Shore's excellent score and especially English singer Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire" during the closing credits. It has a nice ring to it.