Unlike the last film, where the beginning is somewhat a recollection and a chance to bring in the likes of Ian Holm and Elijah Wood once more, the second hurls you headlong into the story. There is no backtracking and no long-winded back-story; you are straight where the story of the first film ended. This makes the film much faster in terms of pace and settles you in to what is actually a very well-made middle film.
The plot of the original book is followed very nicely. No part is missed out (unlike in the Lord of the Rings, where a greater part was missed out due to timing issues) and in fact extra parts that piqued our curiosity in the book have been put in, such as Gandalf's adventure in Dol Guldur where he attempts to deal with the Necromancer. New ideas have also been added, and while I felt that the inclusion of Legolas is unnecessary, it does bring together the two sets of films so people who have never seen the Lord of the Rings will have extra people to recognise. Fans of the LOTR films will love this inclusion, as Legolas is a very well-loved character. Gimli is even mentioned, which is amusing as I was debating how old he might have been at this point and was entirely right.
There are a couple more new bits thrown in for good measure; A huge action sequence with Smaug (which I feel went on for a tad too long) but it was all very watchable and quite intense, a she-elf by the name of Tauriel, whose storyline is actually very interesting and quite lovely, and then there is the fact that not all of the dwarves go to the Lonely Mountain. This part is very different to the book, but I liked it nonetheless because the story had several plot-lines rather than it focusing on one thing for too long.
So now we get on to the visuals. As always with adaptations of Tolkien's novels, the scenery, the design of costumes and the effects are simply magnificent. For me, though, I particularly liked Laketown and Mirkwood, despite the fact we see quite little of it. Oh and Smaug? He is just as terrifying as I ever imagined him to be, and yet not really as clever as he should be thanks to that enormous action sequence where Smaug is simply following the dwarves about and getting confused by the fact there are so many of them.
The actors in this are all excellent. Martin Freeman shines again as Bilbo, as he discovers he has more courage than he thought; this time tables are turned as Bilbo begins saving the dwarves. Luke Evans also does a great job as Bard the Bowman, and Bard's story is a given a little bit more significance too (but you'll have to see the film to find out how!) Aiden Turner also comes into his own with a flexibility that I can only marvel at. How is it that one man can play a vampire and a dwarf and play the characters in an utterly different style? Kili is an extremely likable dwarf and is given his own subplot in this particular installment. It leaves me secretly hoping that the third film ends up slightly different to the book (again, spoilers!)
There is one tiny little thing I think this film, as well as it's predecessor, lack. The book was for children originally, and so it had a large amount of comedy in it. Most of the dwarves were amusing, the conversations with Smaug were witty, the barrel sequence was hilarious and highly memorable. I think the film has left out most of the hilarity in favour of the darker mood that encapsulates the LOTR franchise. I think I would have liked to see lighter moments in this film as it would be much more in keeping with the book.
In a nutshell, The Desolation of Smaug is everything I could have asked for. It is full of references to the other books, new plot-lines to add interest and has a vast amount of action. Apart from the lack of comedy, the film is a roaring success in my eyes. It is certainly something that most people would like, particularly people who are fans of the fantasy genre and of Tolkien. 9 out of 10.