Sequels are often mixed bags, but this follow up to last year’s “The Hobbit” is fast paced and highly entertaining, even if it’s no match to “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy. With so much exposition out of the way (which was part of the problem in the first movie), director Peter Jackson now has the opportunity to explore and expand on the basics of the first installment while introducing some colorful new characters. We’ll have to wait another year for “The Battle of the Five Armies,” but “The Desolation of Smaug” gets the job done alright. Here’s the tease: the movie opens with a mouth watering prologue and then picks up right where the last one ended, with Bilbo, Gandalf and their company of 13 dwarves trying to reach the lonely mountain where waits the dragon Smaug. Along the way, they encounter giant spiders, elves and many more obstacles. Among the newcomers are such charismatic actors as Evangeline Lilly as an elf warrior, Orlando Bloom who reprises his role from “The Lord of the Rings” movies as Legolas, and Benedict Cumbertatch who voices the dragon Smaug and steals every scene he appears in. In a way, the presence of such solid actors adds to the film’s credibility and success. So what doesn’t work this time? Some characters are underdeveloped (again) and the movie hits a few bumpy patches (again). The good news is that Jackson never lets it fly off the rail and keeps the action going. I even found myself more invested in the story and the characters than I was with the first movie. I guess my biggest fear was that the follow-up would just repeat itself (a built-in pressure for a hit that grossed around one billion dollars). Instead, the sequel brings out the mischief in Peter Jackson and the result is a thrillingly entertaining movie that will definitely satisfy fans of the series. So forgive the rough patches and an ending as frustratingly abrupt as The Two Towers’. As for Gandalf, he’s a character worth a handful of sequels. And Martin Freeman lights up the screen as Bilbo. You’ll follow that little guy anywhere.