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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug(2013)
Return to Middle Earth where the dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug.
For more about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Blu-ray release, see the The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on March 28, 2014 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans (I)
» See full cast & crew
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Blu-ray Review
"It never ceases to amaze me, the courage of Hobbits..."
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, March 28, 2014
Let's get one thing out of the way from the start: as a faithful adaptation of the second act of Tolkien's beloved book, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug fails, and fails spectacularly. It not only represents filmmaker Peter Jackson's loosest Tolkien adaptation to date (far more so than An Unexpected Journey), it fundamentally alters key events, characters, themes and climactic encounters, sacrificing cherished story beats and subtleties for the sake of bigger, badder, grander movie magic and, worse, the expectations and attention spans of fickle audiences. Defenders of the Original Text will neither be pleased nor amused, and find Jackson has taken several steps too many to expand and energize the second entry in his Hobbit trilogy. The more you treasure Tolkien's work, the more your distaste for The Desolation of Smaug will grow as the film hurtles toward its action-packed endgame.
As a film, though -- particularly as the action-oriented midpoint of a much larger action-fantasy trilogy -- Jackson's second chapter works, and works quite spectacularly. Divorced from the text, which is treated more like a rough outline than a sacred tome (a la The Lord of the Rings), The Desolation of Smaug is a brisk, thrilling, well-executed adventure through the dark wilderness of Tolkien's Middle-earth. The drama of the dwarves' quest to reclaim their homeland has been heightened, even enriched, exponentially. The heart of Bilbo's tale continues to pump the saga's lifeblood, even when the brave little Hobbit is reduced to a less crucial hero in Thorin's company. Secondary heroes and villains that were once sketches on the page are fully developed and that much more intriguing. And the journey, for all its faults, is suddenly more gripping, progressing with a confidence, clarity of purpose, breakneck pace and dazzling craftsmanship that's entirely Jackson and entirely engrossing. Does Jackson make mistakes along the way? Absolutely, and plenty of 'em. Arguably more here than in An Unexpected Journey, although debate will rage as to what constitutes a mistake and what constitutes boldness. The real question is, does his ambitious imagination and at-times unchained id deliver? You bet, so long as you're willing to accept The Desolation of Smaug on its own terms rather than holding it to the flame of Tolkien's fire.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues his journey with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and a company of thirteen Dwarves 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, led by heir to the throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), travels East, encountering skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and a swarm of giant spiders in the treacherous, winding forests of Mirkwood. After escaping capture by the Wood-elves and their king, Thranduil (Lee Pace), the Dwarves journey to Lake-town, where they meet Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), and finally to the Lonely Mountain itself, where they must face the greatest danger of all: a creature more terrifying than any other that 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).
Desolation races towards the Halls of Erebor without taking so much as a breath, abandoning the longer, more character-driven stretches of An Unexpected Journey in favor of increasingly joyous, almost impish outbursts of rapidfire action and grand-scale peril. Jackson hasn't left much room for a scene between Bilbo and, well, anyone other than Smaug, but there also isn't the prevailing distrust between Bilbo and Thorin that required the first film to slow down and deal with simmering conflict within the Company. And with introductions out of the way, there's little reason to do anything other than dive right into the next leg of the journey. Our little Hobbit hero has officially proven himself worthy of Thorin's respect now, and Jackson thankfully doesn't retread familiar ground or dig up old angst. Thorin, meanwhile, takes full ownership of the Company's quest (albeit at the expense of poor, Ring-addled Bilbo, who's once too often demoted to supporting player). Armitage takes ownership as well, delivering a commanding, layered performance that's strong enough to justify the prince's promotion. Here he's a more complex and haunted would-be king than the gruff, tough to please nomad that scoffed and scowled at Bilbo throughout An Unexpected Journey. Freeman still finds plenty of scenes and passing encounters to swipe, though, chief among them an early moment in Mirkwood where the budding adventurer realizes the lengths to which he's suddenly capable of going with the Ring in his possession.
Not that the remaining cast members are deprived of opportunities to shine. McKellan is as warmly wizened and lovably crusty a wizard as ever, with a number of visually striking sequences to his name that rather successfully dovetail The Hobbit into The Lord of the Rings. (The biggest problem being a rampant case of prequelitis, wherein the known outcome of Gandalf's toe-to-toe with the Necromancer deprives the showdown of intended heft. Still, better than having a wizard who disappears for no reason when he's most needed. Ahem.) The dwarves are also showcased now and again, not to mention a bit easier to distinguish, with the perfectly cast Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin) and James Nesbitt (Bofur) making room in the spotlight for Kili (Aidan Turner) and Fili (Dean O'Gorman). Sure, John Callen (Oin), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), William Kircher (Bifur), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Jed Brophy (Nori), Adam Brown (Ori) and Bombur (Stephen Hunter) are largely comic relief and interchangeable background filler. So what? Each actor earns at least three memorable lines or gags that help set him apart from the rest of his colorful brothers in arms.
Then there's the ever-expanding Hobbit family. Orlando Bloom is effective in his return to the role as Legolas, even if everyone's favorite elf essentially enters the fray as an unlikable thug. (Personally, I dig Dark Legolas; if nothing else, Jackson is laying the groundwork for a redemptive turn-on-daddy arc bound to tie up nicely in the final installment of the trilogy.) Evangeline Lilly makes a fine Mirkwood elf, adding a touch of depth and welcome femme ferocity to the male-dominated proceedings. Her Tauriel may be wholly invented -- perhaps even wholly unnecessary, if a love triangle is all she turns out to be good for -- but, like Legolas' presence, that all depends on where There and Back Again runs with her character. Luke Evans plays a solemn but refreshingly fleshed out Bard the Bowman; racked with a smartly concocted mix of roguish nobility, generations-old guilt and quiet resolve. And both Pace and Cumberbatch rise to the occasion, crafting two very different but very formidable foes in the elf king and the titular dragon. Thranduil is on track to be one of the more nuanced villains in the trilogy, doling out fire and brimstone with an air of high-minded self-righteousness, while Smaug brings more weight to the table than the spiders, the Necromancer, Azog (Manu Bennett) and Azog's mangled son Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) put together.
Yes, a number of questionable plotting and storytelling decisions have been made. (The most unforgivable being those that revolve around Smaug and a wildly out-of-place third act skirmish in Erebor.) Yes, action most certainly trumps drama. And yes, the this but that critiquing littering this review is evidence of how hit or miss Desolation can be here and there. Here and there. It's hard to walk away from the film without some level of satisfaction; unless, again, your love of the text is such that you can't set aside thoughts of what The Hobbit could have been. (To quote a disgruntled member, "Jackson shoulda stuck with the damn book.") The liberties the filmmaker takes, though, free the film and allow it to flit about on the wind in a dazzling dance of swords, arrows, magic, flawed heroes, vile monsters, stirring music and sweeping visual effects. The more I focus in on the various pieces of The Desolation of Smaug, the more I feel the need to fly to the top of the page and lower my score. However, the more I suppress the urge to scrutinize every frayed edge or dwell on my attachment to Tolkien's original work, the easier it is to sit back, let go and embrace an invigorating ride through Jackson's Middle-earth. Perfect? No. Desolation is as problematic as Journey, albeit for completely opposite reasons. Fun? Thrilling? Eye-gouging and jaw-dropping? Yep. Enough to make the second part of Jackson's trilogy easy to digest, enjoy and, ultimately, recommend.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Blu-ray, Video Quality
Similar to the palette shift that occurs when moving from The Fellowship of the Ring to The Two Towers, The Desolation of Smaug is a much darker, bleaker film than An Unexpected Journey. The same goes for Warner's 1080p/AVC-encoded video presentation. Shadows are greedier, the cloak of night more oppressive, delineation less forgiving, and crush a bit more of a nuisance than before. Even so, it remains an excellent transfer, rich in detail, lovely to behold, and utterly faithful to Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie's dramatic digital color grading. Skintones are perfectly saturated (or desaturated, as is typically the case here), black levels are satisfying (albeit a touch muted in Mirkwood and Erebor), and contrast is spot on, with very little in the way of distractions. (The few that do arise trace back to the filmmakers and/or the FX.) Clarity is remarkable too, with crisp edges free from aliasing and ringing, refined textures that capture every last subtlety of the film's production design and costumes, and a pleasing veneer of grain that doesn't hinder the image in any way. Moreover, artifacting, banding and other significant enemies of the crown are held at bay. (A half-dozen unsightly, lower definition GoPro Camera shots unfortunately pepper the barrel escape sequence, but each one only appears for a split second and, again, is attributable to Jackson and Lesnie, not Warner's encoding efforts.) All told, The Desolation of Smaug is gorgeous. Jackson's rabid fans will be rewarded for their allegiance.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There was a small but vocal minority of audiophiles who expressed concern over An Unexpected Journey's lossless audio mix because its low-end output wasn't all it could be. I admittedly didn't notice anything amiss at the time of my review, and still find it difficult to discern any shortcoming when revisiting the first film's Blu-ray release. Did I encounter any such issue with Desolation of Smaug? No, although those who pore over specs and bitrates may find the same problem here. So why even bring it up? I too want the best that a studio can deliver, so bravo to those who uncover these sorts of things. It's important to know. I just wonder how much of the offending issue is actually perceptible to the human ear and how much is driven by the power of tech-spec suggestion.
But I digress. Having listened to Warner's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track multiple times (it's even playing as I write), I have yet to find a single fault. It excels in every area. Dialogue is intelligible, believably grounded in Jackson's Middle-earth, and meticulously prioritized. It doesn't have to compete with the many, many action scenes that threaten to overwhelm it at any given moment, nor does it suffer or struggle when rivers rage, dragons roar or castles crumble. Dynamics are terrific too, and the LFE channel bolsters each element that requires its aid, granting everything from Beorn's rampages to the windstorm of Smaug's leathery wings tremendous weight and presence. The rear speakers are just as prepared for any challenge Jackson presents. The skittering of Mirkwood spiders. A fluttering sea of butterflies atop a deadly forest canopy. The lapping of water in Laketown. The angry tendrils that hiss and screech at Gandalf's light shield. The shower of gold coins that rain down whenever Smaug explodes from his nest. The flames that fill the halls of Erebor when the beast attacks. Directionality is exceptionally precise, pans are wonderfully transparent, and the soundfield is as immersive as I could have hoped for. I'm more than satisfied with the results.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Desolation of Smaug isn't a perfect film, and certainly isn't a perfect adaptation of the middle stretch of Tolkien's book. It wanders farther off the beaten path than An Unexpected Journey, and that film loved to go skipping off through the forest now and again. Desolation is a thrilling action-adventure fantasy, though, with a whirlwind trip through Jackson's Middle-earth that's as exciting as it is energetic. Long story short, the filmmakers deliver. The cast delivers. The crew, production design, visual effects and music deliver. And the film, flawed though it may be, delivers. So too does Warner's Blu-ray release, thanks to a staggering AV presentation worth every penny. Yes, a must-have Extended Edition is inbound this fall; no doubt with hours upon hours of special features. That said, the two-plus hours of extras included here isn't too shabby. If you're anxious to add both the theatrical and extended cuts to your collection, you definitely won't regret the purchase. However, if you're more frugal with your BD dollar, you may want to wait for the Big Bad Edition due this November.
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