Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe ignores the burden of expectations and returns to Middle Earth...
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues his journey with the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on an epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Having survived the beginning of their unexpected journey, the Company travels East, encountering along the way skin-changer Beorn and a swarm of giant Spiders in the treacherous forest of Mirkwood. After escaping capture by the dangerous Wood-elves, the Dwarves journey to Lake-town and, finally, to the Lonely Mountain itself, where they must face the greatest danger of all – a creature more terrifying than any other; one which will test not only the depth of their courage, but the limits of their friendship and the wisdom of the journey itself – The Dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). (From WB/New Line’s official synopsis)
The fact that I’m reviewing the second film in a trilogy of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is, in itself, an indictment of the cinematic treatment of the material. The Hobbit is a 310-page children’s book that is tonally and structurally very different from Tolkien’s more long-winded Lord of the Rings books. Treating it as a proper prequel to that series and stretching it over three already lengthy films smells more like studio greed and a creative team’s inability to let go of the franchise (from the beginning of pre-production on The Lord of the Rings through the completion of the final Hobbit film, Jackson will have spent more time with these stories than Tolkien did). I wouldn’t say that the Rankin/Bass animated version of the book was a good movie (it isn’t), but its brevity was more apt than Jackson and company’s sluggish, over-wrought treatment.
Though my interest had waned following the loss of Guillermo del Toro as director and the institution of a three film structure, I still saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in theaters. Despite an almost unconditional affection for the three Lord of the Rings movies – in their extended form, I might add – I was overwhelmed with the listless, anti-momentum of Jackson and long-time collaborators Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens’ adaptation. The rich, character-driven spectacle of the Lord of the Rings series had been distilled into a series of meaningless episodic action adventures – each more exhausting than the last. The references to the rising evil of the Lord of the Rings himself, Sauron, was tepid and distracting, officially pressing the already bloated saga beyond the brink. However, I still consider myself a Peter Jackson fan and Peter Jackson fans need to recognize that bloat is an enduring ingredient in his formula. He traded the chunk-blowing excesses of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Braindead for the CG action and plot excesses of his later films – not to mention that every one of his post- Feebles features were made available in extended versions (except The Lovely Bones, which was already too long all on its own). When I revisited There and Back Again on home video, I was able to pause the film for bathroom breaks or to make a sandwich or to watch something else for a while, and it was then I realized that Jackson’s bouts of gravity-defying action are still very entertaining, just in smaller, more bite-sized chunks.
So, I skipped The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in theaters and waited for my chance to experience it in the comfort of my own home. This is a dishonest way to watch movies, because it ignores the filmmakers’ editorial prerogative. Still, in this case, Jackson, Walsh, Boyens, and editor Jabez Olssen have set such an episodic precedent that I believe it’s fair for me to take a couple of sandwich breaks. The Desolation of Smaug’s strengths are in a series of mini-adventures, each of which could sustain an entire evening of Cheeto and Mountain Dew-fueled Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. Peter Jackson plays the role of Dungeon Master:
‘You see a giant bear. It is too big to battle and your party’s wizard informs you that there is a house nearby where you can seek refuge.’
‘We run from the bear to the house!’
(Rolls dice) ‘You successfully beat the bear to the house and barricade the door’
(Later) ‘The elves take your supplies and imprison you.’
‘I hide my dagger under my cloak.’
(Rolls dice)‘The elf maiden notices your dagger and takes it’
And so on.
The problem, of course, is that The Desolation of Smaug isn’t actually interactive. I suppose this equates the experience more with watching Jackson play D&D by himself and doing a very good job of describing the adventures he or his fellow writers chose for their characters. These random adventures are constantly interrupted by melodramatic exposition dumps that recall videogame cut-scenes, complete with endless scenery-chewing, mustache-twirling, and other acts of ham & cheesiness that, while perfectly amusing, don’t match the genuinely moving drama of the Lord of the Rings series. The entire narrative experience is hampered by a lack of suspense, because, unlike a D&D campaign, we all know exactly where this story is leading, no matter how many little ‘extended universe’ bibs and bobs Jackson and company added to the plot. No one vital is going to die and the biggest bad of the bad guys is, eventually, going to ‘win.’ I am forced to give the writers credit for finding a reason for Gandalf to keep disappearing throughout the story (something that always bothered me about Tolkien’s book when I was a kid). Regardless of the narrative excesses, all of which could’ve been very easily cut in favour of the book’s perfectly concise plotting, Jackson keeps the story moving so quickly between ridiculous action beats that the editing takes on an artsy, hallucinatory quality that actually serves the dopey constant urgency.
I can only barely tell the difference between the dwarves and think that actors like James Nesbitt, Graham McTavish, and Jed Brophy are wasted in invisible, tertiary roles, but the leads and returning cast members are still standouts, especially Martin Freeman, who, like Ian Holm, appears to have been born to play Bilbo Baggins. The new recruits are fine additions, as well, especially Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, Luke Evans as Bard, and Stephen Fry as Master of Lake-town. I’ve never been a fan of Lilly, myself, and found her performance the most surprising. True to their source, these films aren’t very friendly to the fairer sex, so it’s nice to see Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens succeeding with an action-oriented female – it’s just too bad that she and Legolas are among the film’s most extraneous elements. Evans, who left Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives for a part on this blockbuster, exudes the same heavy burden of heroism that Viggo Mortensen brought to the original trilogy as Aragorn (he’d probably have been a more effective Thorin than Richard Armitage, who I’m afraid I’m not particularly fond of). Fry is always great and successfully stunt-cast as the Master. He is underutilized in this film, but helps keep the overly heavy subject matter light. I assume he will have more to do in the next one.
The Hobbit films probably won’t be as enduring as the Lord of the Rings, but have earned their place in history for their technological advancements. Like the other two films, Desolation of Smaug was shot in 5K (not 2K or 4K, but 5K) and 3D using Red Epic cameras. It was also shot 48 fps instead of the usual 24, ensuring that the theatrical clarity was more extreme than any other major release ever. Personally, I hated the look of the high frame rate, but that’s neither here nor there, since it doesn’t seem that current Blu-ray technology can support HFR. This 1080p, 2.40:1 2D Blu-ray is limited only by the film’s occasionally unattractive digital photography.
Colour grading has been an important part of Jackson’s Middle Earth, but even An Unexpected Journey had a handful of naturalistic sequences – The Desolation of Smaug is entirely overwhelmed by digital hue changes. Some scenes are monotone blue or green, while others are a duotone orange and green/blue. Too few scenes include enough actual colour to be considered eclectic. I am confused by the purpose of digitally augmenting the footage so severely if you are aiming for a realer-than-real cinematic experience and shooting on the most beautiful locations in the world. But the uncanny, cartoonish colours and super-plush gradations certainly look crystalline and are blended smoothly without overwhelming the more important differentiations. The bulk of the extra features have been moved to a second disc, ensuring the 161-minute movie has plenty of space on the BD50 disc. There are not any major compression artefacts, not even banding or posterization effects in the dreamy, hyper-defused highlights. The high rate of detail is normally a good thing, especially during those dark and spooky shots, where dimension and background texture would’ve entirely disappeared in blackness, but some of the crisper details and edges look a bit over-sharpened to my eye. I believe this is due to the limitations of the 1080p format, not issues with disc compression.
The Lord of the Rings films remain sound system demo-worthy, especially on their Blu-ray re-release, so it is no surprise that the Hobbit films are even richer aural experiences. This DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is a great big feast for the ears. Every audio element is amplified, so that even the most simple effect, like a dead fish falling upon a dwarf’s head or the sounds of Bilbo’s fumbling through Smaug’s treasure, to a high volume twinge. The mix is brimming with aggressive, boisterous, and directionally-enhanced moments, specifically the action sequences, though softer moments are not without their multi-channel augmentations. The normally centralized dialogue is treated just as aggressively where it counts. The humans, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, et cetera speak clearly and blend quite naturally with their surroundings, while the more fantastical critters are given a full-channel treatment. Benedict Cumberbatch’s grumbling, deep-chested Smaug and Sauron voices are standouts that throb the LFE and flit smoothly throughout the speakers. Other highlights include the spider attack (featuring the twittering vibrations of webs and punctuated by screaming spiders), the barrel escape from Mirkwood (featuring whizzing arrows, rushing water, and growling orcs), and Gandalf’s Dragon Ball Z-like wizard battle with the Necromancer (featuring crackling fire and throbbing magic noise), but the Smaug scenes are the major demo-makers. Howard Shore’s score is an almost constant aural element that helps tie Jackson and Olssen’s occasionally excessive editing together. On the track, it has all the necessary warmth and pulse of Shore’s original Lord of the Rings compositions without any of the memorable or rousing melodies.
- New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2 (Disc one, 7:10, HD) – I assume that this is an extension of an extra that appeared on the first film’s Blu-ray. It features cast and crew interviews mixed with footage of the film’s location shooting.
- Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set
- In the Company of a Hobbit (18:10, HD) – A fly-on-the-wall, day-to-day look behind-the-scenes of the series, including glimpses of the physical effect orcs that were replaced by CG.
- All in a Day’s Work (22:30, HD) – Generally more of the same. I’m not sure why they divided the footage into two chapters, actually.
- ’I See Fire’ Music Video (5:40, HD)
- Live Event: In the Cutting Room (37:50, HD) – Footage from a March 2013 live-stream tour of the Hobbit production studios where Jackson fielded fan questions (hosted by Jed Brophy and Jackson).
- Production Videos – A series of behind-the-scenes videos with self-explanatory titles:
- #11: Introduction to Pick-ups Shooting (9:10, HD)
- #12: Recap of Pick-ups, Part 1 (8:20, HD)
- #13: Recap of Pick-ups, Part 2 (8:50, HD)
- #14: Music Scoring (10:30, HD)
- Three trailers
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey extended trailer
- Two game trailers
Desolation of Smaug was, overall, a more consistently entertaining experience than An Unexpected Journey, but I’m not sure it would have been, had I seen it while confined to a theater seat. It’s pretty clear that this trilogy isn’t going to have any of the proper pomp and circumstance of The Lord of the Rings trilogy – Peter Jackson is treating the process as an excuse to dabble in technical experimentation and Warner Bros. is using them as a surefire way to protect their bottom line in a post- Harry Potter and Dark Knight marketplace. I think I’m content to go along for the ride with my expectations firmly leveled from now on and am looking forward to the third film, There And Back Again, to hit home video. This 2D Blu-ray features a perfect picture and DTS-HD MA soundtrack, but is light on truly satisfying extras. I imagine the extended version will include a lot more, assuming you’re a big enough fan to watch an even longer version of an already excessively long movie in the center of an overstuffed trilogy.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 8th April 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish and French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set: In the Company of the Hobbit, Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set: All in a Day’s Work, Production Videos, New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2, 'I See Fire' Music Video, Trailers, DVD Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama and Fantasy
Length: 161 minutes
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