Balin: "That, my lad, was a dragon."
This was a thrill ride of a movie. It was exciting and action-packed. It didn't let up from practically the first moment until the last, with only a short lull in the middle to set up the stakes for the rest of the film. In other words, it was pretty spectacular.
Much like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers I thought this installment was much better film than either trilogy's first installment. It had the right action beats, it took the time to explore the characters more, and it even managed to introduce new ones without detracting from the story overall. Specifically, there were two sequences that I honestly had no real interest in seeing going in, that turned out to be way more than I expected: the Barrel ride, and the confrontation with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Whatever the trailers have shown, is only a taste of what is actually in the movie.
The barrel sequence was one of the silliest, most intense, most exciting and thrilling action scenes I've seen in a very long time. There was the absurdity of a bunch of grown men in barrels flying down rapids clinging to them to stay alive, yet the action was also visceral and engaging. Even though there was an innate goofiness, that disconnect kind of fell away after a few minutes -- until one of the characters did something outrageous that made me laugh again. Which broke yet again to a feeling of anxiety when their lives were literally hanging in the balance.
The scene with Smaug was even better, though. Smaug is an amazing villain. He's massive and articulate and fully realized as a character instead of just being a big talking monster. I'd almost go so far as to call him my favorite villain in the series thus far, including those in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Except for maybe Gollum, but that's really comparing apples to oranges.) They are both truly impressive CGI created creatures that embody the best of those kinds of effects.
Of course the live action performances were also fairly good all around. Ian McKellen as Gandalf was a treat as usual. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) had a slightly diminished role in this one, but the scenes he featured heavily in were some of the best in the movie. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) came out as one of the big heroes of the piece much like the first movie, but the rest of the Dwarves stood out this time as well. I also got a kick out of seeing Legolas (Orlando Bloom), proving once again that an elf with a bow is totally OP. For me though, it was Evangeline Lilly and her scene stealing elf Tauriel that I was the most impressed with. If she doesn't get a career boost from this film, I'd be deeply surprised.
There was one small issue with story flow, and it occurred roughly halfway in when our heroes ventured into a human village. The tone of the film changed a little then, and the shift from wilderness to civilization was a bit jarring. Yet it did introduce us to Bard (Luke Evans) who turned out to be a very interesting and complex character. Yet at the same time he and the whole sequence of events in his town felt slightly out of place.
In the end, although some of the same issues of bloating and excess details plagued this film much like the first installment, The Desolation of Smaug was very much an improvement. The pacing was better, the action was better, and even the effects were a bit better. I thoroughly loved it, though I do still wonder if this trilogy would've been better as a single film.
3 1/2 out of 4 Dwarven dungeons filled with gold and dragons.