"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" an improvement, critics say

Furry-footed hero Bilbo Baggins is back for another adventure in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."

Based on J.R.R. Tolkien's acclaimed 1937 novel, the second installment in Peter Jackson's trilogy comes to theaters this weekend, picking up the story from the franchise's last film, "An Unexpected Journey."

Martin Freeman makes another turn as Baggins while Ian McKellan reprises his role of Gandalf. Orlando Bloom is also back as Legolas.

And there are some noteworthy additions to the cast. The filmmakers have created a new female character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who develops a crush on the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). "The Fifth Estate" actor Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice of the villainous dragon Smaug.

The critical consensus for the most part has been that this sequel takes a step in a better direction from "An Unexpected Journey":

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: "A year ago, Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' got the job done, but it was too bright and busy and noisy, with creatures that kept popping up as if out of a jack-in-the-box. 'The Desolation of Smaug' is a more grandly somber movie, and also a much better one, with forces of boldly intense and unified malevolence."

Richard Corliss, Time: "The first film in the trifecta, 'An Unexpected Journey,' was often content to duplicate the book’s characters and situations, like the Xerox of an illuminated medieval manuscript. In 'Smaug,' the characters step from the book’s pages and leap vividly out of the 3-D screen."

Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post: "The second part of Peter Jackson’s 'The Hobbit' trilogy goes a long way —- and at 2  1/2 hours, I do mean long -— toward righting the wrongs of the first movie, which was even longer."

Betsy Sharkey, The Los Angeles Times: "In the wake of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,' last year's dreary, dense, disappointing slough through Middle-Earth, 'The Desolation of Smaug' comes as a relief. Peter Jackson's newest installment of the Tolkien trilogy is set afire by the scorching roar of a dragon."

Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times: "The moviemakers create a world that you just want to jump in to, even if it means facing down the King of the Orcs."

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: "Results are all that matter, and the result here is that 'The Desolation of Smaug' fails in almost every way, as a story, as an adventure, as a piece of art direction and as a visual spectacle."

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Director Peter Jackson is an undeniable master of special effects. In 3-D, whizzing arrows and hovering insects make a playful presence. But not much happens in this second part of Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 book."

Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter: "Nearly everything about 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' represents an improvement over the first installment."

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "The first 'Hobbit' was quite a success at the box office ($1 billion worldwide). But if we're being honest, we'd admit it was a little boring and a lot long, at 169 minutes. 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' is a little less long and a little less boring."

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    Ken Lombardi is an entertainment reporter for CBS News. He has interviewed over 300 celebrities, including Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks.

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