The best way to describe the DoS I'm finding is to start by comparing it to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This seems to be the litmus test everyone is using and for good reason. DoS should be measured not only as a single film but also as a sequel and a prequel to LotR. In terms of pacing, action, and visuals the DoS totally trumps AUJ almost consistently, but that's expected. We already have the setup and most of the characters' back stories, so that's almost a given...not to mention you have a Benedict Cumberbatch dragon to spice things up. Getting past that, you have to get to the real money which is the story. We get exposed to a lot more of the Necromancer plot and by extension we see how The Hobbit as a trilogy is truly setting the groundwork for the LotR trilogy, as it should. These latest films are very exciting, and you naturally expect the latest movies in a franchise to be the biggest and best, but the truth is The Hobbit is really only the setup story for the big events of The Lord of the Rings which reshapes Middle Earth and all the races within it. Anyway, I digress! The DoS also drops some little references to characters and places that are part of LotR and therefore further sets the relationship with those films and I feel helps in immersing you deeper in this one, a theme that lies at the heart of the DoS' genius.
Immersion! From the Mirkwood forest to Beorn's house to Laketown to Erebor and the Lonely Mountain, the DoS pulls off immersion in such a fantastic way. That's really what makes this film feel so much more like the LotR than AUJ did. As the company gets closer and closer to the Lonely Mountain you feel like you're beginning to taste it with them. Of note, the barrel riding scene was so flawlessly executed and exciting I would see the movie a third time just for that! (Truth be told I'll probably see it a third time because I haven't caught it in HFR yet...but that discussion is for another day).
As far as characters and plot not included in the original The Hobbit, I believe everything worked. The biggest of these additions that seems to have purists climbing trees is Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly. I'll admit I was a little skeptical of PJ and the crew throwing in this she-elf, but after seeing the movie I agree with the decision. The story arc she's involved with borders on unnecessary in my eyes, but still sneaks in and doesn't ruin the flow or overall story for me. Also, critics of the screenplay who argue "that wasn't in the book" left and right should stop and read The Hobbit again (or for the first time) and also take a peek at Tolkien's Unfinished Tales because I've been finding that people do not realize how much of the story is actually directly from Tolkien.
To wrap it up, Smaug was flawless! I am a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch and so the voice work alone made me jump with fanboy delight; however, the design of Smaugh and the articulation of his face and body are all that we have come to expect and love from motion capture and Peter Jackson...so enjoy!
Where the movie ends is unexpected but excellent none the less. No more on that subject as this is a spoiler-free review! Oh, and it goes without saying but the 3D is unmatched in these films...nothing changed there.
STINGER: none (but Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire" is worth staying through)