By Josh Rottenberg
Updated August 09, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

The first installment in Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy trilogy, last year’s An Unexpected Journey, proved a massive success, pulling in $1 billion of worldwide box office treasure that would make the dragon Smaug himself jealous. But like the reluctant hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the 13 dwarves joining him on his perilous adventure, director Peter Jackson & Co. still have many miles to trek before they can rest. ”I don’t think the pressure is ever off — and I don’t think it should ever be off,” says co-writer and co-producer Philippa Boyens. ”We don’t want to sit back on our laurels. We’re getting to all the stuff that a lot of fans have been dying for us to get to.”

The second part of Jackson’s adaptation of the 1937 J.R.R. Tolkien novel promises to be even more action-packed than the first. Bilbo and the dwarves meet up with some new Middle-earth faces, like the man-bear ”skin changer” Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the heroic Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), and the fierce elf warrior Tauriel, a character created specifically for the movie and played by Evangeline Lilly. And then there’s Smaug, the arrogant dragon who greedily guards a hoard of gold that Bilbo and the dwarves are determined to reclaim. Benedict Cumberbatch was charged with (fire-)breathing life into the creature, employing the same motion-capture technology utilized to create Gollum. ”I was kind of a virgin to the whole [motion-capture] thing, but I absolutely f—ing loved it,” Cumberbatch says. ”I was in all my gear with the dots on my face like an aboriginal warrior of the future. You really feel free to play. It was extraordinarily fun.” Doesn’t sound like there was much desolation at all.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 161 minutes
  • Peter Jackson