Orlando Bloom in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Orlando Bloom in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

When it comes to CGI characters, it's tough to top Gollum, the slimy sad-sack standout of The Lord of the Rings and the best part of an otherwise lukewarm The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Smaug, the slithering dragon who lays claim to the Lonely Mountain in the superior sequel The Desolation of Smaug, is even more impressive.

The massive scaly creature makes the stone pillars inside his mountain home look like toothpicks, so you can imagine how minuscule a hobbit like Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) looks by comparison. Armed with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is intimidating, sardonic, angry and cool -- very much like Scar in The Lion King, if Scar was 500 feet tall and bathed in piles of gold coins for hundreds of years.

Ian McKellan in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Ian McKellan in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The movie does take a while to get to its primary antagonist, but the scenes zip along (for the most part). You can almost always sense the forward momentum, which wasn't the case in the overlong first installment. Bilbo, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the team of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) are well on their way to Erebor, where Thorin can acquire the Arkenstone and a whole bunch of gold so he can become king, like he's in a video game or something.

The agile elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) makes a welcome return to the series, most notably in a thrilling chase/battle sequence involving a river, wine barrels and a whole lot of dismembered Orcs. It's a testament to Peter Jackson's direction and Bloom's effortless athleticism that everything Legolas does looks so freaking cool.

Bilbo essentially gets pushed aside in this film, character-wise, as he's only really there to volunteer for something every once in a while. But one new character shows up, and he actually feels real! Bard (Luke Evans) is a bowman in Lake-Town, a depressed suburb of the Lonely Mountain. His father's decisions long ago have influenced his reputation, much like many other fathers have done in Middle-Earth. Near the end, he looks primed to redeem his family name. Of course, we'll have to wait another year to find out if he does.

Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.

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