Release Date(s)2013 (April 8, 2014)
Studio(s)New Line/MGM/Wingnut Films (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B-
The problem with middle chapters, in the classic dramatic sense, is that there’s no beginning and generally little resolution. The story usually starts abruptly, with events already well underway, and it often ends with a cliffhanger. The added problem of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original book version of The Hobbit is that it was largely written as a children’s story, with little of the dramatic weight and stakes of his later The Lord of the Rings novels.
Modern Hollywood films have, of course, turned the deficiencies of “middles” into strengths. Throw your audience directly into the mix from the get-go, dare them to catch up, and shock them by raising the stakes. The Empire Strikes Back is the classic pop culture example, though Peter Jackson has used this to his advantage too, first in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and how here with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Thankfully, he’s also tried to make up for the lack of dramatic stakes in the original novel by much more directly tying the events of this film into those we know are coming in The Lord of the Rings.
As a result of all this, I’m pleased to say that The Desolation of Smaug is a better and more engaging cinematic experience than An Unexpected Journey. It’s less ponderous, it never once stops to break into song. It’s more familiar too – Orlando Bloom’s Legolas makes an appearance and factors strongly in the story here, and a certain dark lord (opaquely referred to as the Necromancer in the last film but we all knew who he really was) finally shows his fiery eye. Refreshingly, the film has a strong female character too in the form of Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel, an original creation of Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh. It also helps that this film features a great on-screen “level boss” in Smaug to pay off the action. Not only is he arguably the most fully realized fire-breathing dragon in the history of cinema, but he’s voiced with a serious side of relish by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays off Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins perfectly (to the delight of Sherlock fans everywhere).
Yes, there are still moments where the film plays out a little too much like a video game (in this case, it’s a sequence in which the dwarves barrel-ride down a rushing rapids while a seemingly endless supply of orcs and elves battle to the death all around), Gandalf disappears for far too much of the film (a product of the original novel, unfortunately, though Jackson does his best to justify this in the story in a way Tolkien doesn’t bother), and yeah… once again, fifteen axe and sword-swinging characters charge through all kinds of fantasy dangers and only one gets so much as a scratch. You just kind of have to set any issues you might have with the realism of this aside – again, it’s a product of the fact that these films are based on a children’s book. Still, in spite of its issues, The Desolation of Smaug is an undeniably fun film.
Warner’s Blu-ray release includes it on a single BD disc, with original aspect ratio (2.40.1) 1080p video and 7.1 DTS-HD MA audio in English (Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also available in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, with subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese). The video quality and clarity is spectacular, with rich color, deep and detailed blacks, and abundant detail. Only a few times (specifically in the aforementioned barrel sequence) does the image really betray the fact that it was shot on HD video rather than film, though – as was the case with the first Hobbit film – the extreme clarity resulting from its High-Frame Rate image capture might be a little off-putting to some. Sonically, this presentation is terrific with a big wide sound field, terrific bass, precise imaging, and smooth and immersive use of the surround and surround back channels. I have no complaints on the A/V score at all – this is demo-quality material, just as you’d hope and expect.
The only extra on Disc One is the New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth, Part 2 featurette (7:11), which follows the cast and crew around the country as they show where scenes were filmed and rave about the landscape. That’s fine because it allows for maximum data rates in the image and sound of the film itself.
Disc Two delivers about two and a half hours of additional bonus content, starting with the Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set documentary (40:36). It’s in two parts – The Company of the Hobbit (18:10) and All in a Day’s Work (22:25). Together they give you a look at what a typical day was like working behind-the-scenes on the production for the cast and crew, from the first pre-dawn make-up call for the actors to the camera crews packing up the cameras for the night and getting the gear ready for the next day (just as the construction crew comes in for an overnight shift of set building for the next day’s filming). More behind-the-scenes content is available in the form of additional online Production Videos (continued from the last theatrical cut Blu-ray), including #11: Introduction to Pick-Ups Shooting (9:06), #12: Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 1 (8:20), #13: Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 2 (8:46), and #14: Music Scoring (10:28). Moving on, those of you who watched the live In the Cutting Room online event (from back in March 2013) will be pleased to know that it’s included here in full (37:52). Jackson and actor Jed Brophy take you on a tour of Weta Digital’s post production facility and mo-cap stage, ending in the cutting room where they answer fan-submitted questions and reveal a few surprise guests. Disc Two round off with Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire music video (the closing credits song – 5:42), a trio of trailers for the film including an extended 3-minute preview, a promo for the Unexpected Journey: Extended Edition Blu-ray, and promo trailers for the LEGO: The Hobbit and The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-Earth videogames. All of this content is in full HD, with audio in English and optional subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. It’s not a voluminous package of bonus content, but – aside from the game trailers – it’s all enjoyable, very much in keeping with the previous film BDs, and it’s certainly stuff diehard fans would want to have.
The Blu-ray set also includes a DVD version of the film (with no extras other than the New Zealand featurette) and an UltraViolet digital download code. If you buy the Blu-ray 3D combo, you also get the film in 3D HD split over a pair of BD discs.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels much closer to the big screen Rings trilogy in terms of tone and spirit. Fans of this cinematic world should more than get their money’s worth here, and even non-fans ought to enjoy the action, humor, and visuals. The Blu-ray release delivers the A/V goods with some nice bonus content too. Best of all, while there are special SKUs with Steelbook packaging and swag, it appears that there’s no retail-exclusive disc-based content that you have to chase down. Just buy the disc anywhere you like secure in the knowledge that you’re getting everything. (I’m sure Warner Home Video wanted to do retail-exclusive bonus content, so our thanks to you for talking them out of it, Peter.)
I’ll certainly be curious to see what’s added to this film to the Extended Edition Blu-ray later this year (look for it in November), and I’m looking forward to seeing how Jackson finishes this story off with the final film, There and Back Again, come Christmas. Meanwhile… here’s your Theatrical Cut. Buy and enjoy.
- Bill Hunt