The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a company of thirteen dwarfs led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) continuing the journey to The Lonely Mountain they started in 2012’s An Unexpected Journey. In their quest to reclaim the Kingdom of Erebon, the Company encounters many perils along the way: giant spiders, orcs, and elves and assorted other evils lurking in the shadows. All pose great danger to the traveling troupe but may pale in comparison to the threat awaiting them within the Mountain: a greedy, fire-breathing dragon known as Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
When The Hobbit was originally announced as a two-film series, I was more than fine with that. When it was later announced that two films would become three, my enthusiasm dropped faster than you could say “studio greed” (was Smaug running Warner Brothers at the time?). My apprehension proved to be somewhat warranted after viewing An Unexpected Journey (the crappy 48fps 3D presentation did the film no favors). Despite the best efforts of a solid ensemble cast and some fun, adventurous sections, I found Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth to be a lumbering Fellowship of the Ring wannabe that possessed little of that 2001 film’s visceral – or emotional – impact. As the credits rolled and indifference hung over my head like a fog, my friend turned to me and summed up the film perfectly in two words: “The Sloggit.”
What a difference a sequel makes. Darker, more exciting and somewhat involving, The Desolation of Smaug is anything but a drag. Whether Jackson learned from the mistakes made with An Unexpected Journey or it was simply a case where he got his middle earth mojo back, the second Bilbo adventure is a big step forward. It’s shorter in length (ten minutes makes all the difference sometimes), lighter on the exposition and quite successful when it comes to expanding upon the first film’s characters, themes and story threads. The returning cast members appear more comfortable in their roles, Jackson’s directing is more confident and the big set pieces, in particular the creepy-but-exciting giant spider attack in the forest of Mirkwood and the concluding showdown with Smaug, possess the same sense of adventure and fun found in the Lord of the Rings films.
Does The Desolation of Smaug raise the Hobbit trilogy to the same level as Lord of the Rings? No. The first act still feels a bit off in its pacing, a romantic subplot involving a dwarf and two elves is utterly useless (it only serves to remind us that Orlando Bloom as Legolas was the weakest part of the previous series) and no matter how hard Jackson tries, the source material for this trilogy simply isn’t the stuff of expansive epics. That said, it’s hard to dismiss the level of fun and adventure that Smaug delivers. It’s a fun “bridge” film that hopefully is leading us to a satisfying conclusion with There and Back Again this December.
The High Definition Presentation
The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of The Desolation of Smaug is every bit as gorgeous as you would expect. As the story grows darker, so does the color palate, which helps make the scenes with vibrant color all the more impressive. Black levels are strong and picture detail is first rate.
If there is a downfall to the Blu-ray transfer it is that it makes some of the effects look a little too obvious for their own good. It also makes the handheld shots during the barrel escape look like the low-quality video it is. That isn’t a knock against the Warner transfer, which is an absolute beauty.
Standing tall alongside the video is the DTS HD-MA track. It’s strong, clear and immersive. The LFE channel is stronger than it was on the Unexpected Journey theatrical cut Blu-ray, but it still could have been a tad stronger in the film’s earlier sections. Once the action amps up, things get lively really fast.
Beyond the Feature
You know the drill: the theatrical cut of the middle earth films get some extras and the extended editions get the immersive bonus material. The nice thing about Blu-rays for Peter Jackson films is that the theatrical cuts don’t get 10-20 minutes of electronic press-kit (EPK) fluff. You actually get close to 2.5 hours of supplemental material that won’t be on this fall’s Extended Edition set. Plus, you get all of the theatrical trailers. To this I say thank you, Mr. Jackson.
- Peter Jackson Invites You To The Set (41 minutes): Broken down into two parts (In the Company of ‘The Hobbit’ and All In A Day’s Work), this is an enjoyable look at a day in the life of the saga’s production. Similar in style to the exhaustive docs found on the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey, these are two entertaining features that are both fun and informative.
- Production Videos (37 minutes): Introduction to Pick-Ups Shooting, Recap of Pick-Ups Parts I & II and Music Scoring are four short featurettes that were posted as video blogs on the official Hobbit website last year. The three “pick up” shorts cover the process of additional shooting following principal photography while Music Scoring deals with scoring the film and features an interview with composer Howard Shore.
- Live Event: In the Cutting Room (38 minutes): If you picked up the theatrical version of An Unexpected Journey last March, you may have noticed a sticker touting a live event with Peter Jackson where he fielded questions from fans worldwide. If you missed the event, now is your chance to check it out.
- Music Video: “I See Fire” (6 minutes) The official music video for Ed Sheeran’s terrific closing credits song.
- Theatrical Trailers and Previews: Three theatrical trailers for Smaug, a commercial for the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey and a humorous spot for the LEGO Hobbit videogame are included in this section of promotional material.
- New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth Part II (7 minutes): Another promotional spot for the land of middle earth, New Zealand. Placing this on the Hobbit home video releases doesn’t bother me. But when they pop up on releases like Man of Steel, I find it a bit perplexing (was there a scene of Superman destroying populated buildings in New Zealand in that film?).
The Desolation of Smaug restores the middle earth grandeur that was diminished by the lethargic Unexpected Journey. It’s fun, exciting and a promising preview of things to (hopefully) come in There and Back Again. Warner’s Blu-ray release of the theatrical cut looks and sounds great and has a nice selection of bonus material that will tide fans over until the Extended Edition arrives this fall.
Shop for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on Blu-ray or Blu-ray 3D combo for a discounted price at Amazon.com (April 8, 2014 release date).