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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 November 3, 2014 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 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
Another must-have Extended Edition Blu-ray from Peter Jackson and Warner Bros...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, November 3, 2014
And so we come to yet another Peter Jackson extended cut, with the same burning question we always have: is it better than the theatrical version? The Lord of the Rings extended cuts perhaps set an impossibly high bar. Essential. Definitive. And for many fans, the only way to watch Jackson's first three Tolkien adaptations. Fast forward a decade, though, to a different time and the start of a different trilogy, and you find a decidedly different experience. The extended cut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey plays more like a run-of-the-mill extended cut; one packed with too much deleted material, some of which works, some of which proves distracting. So how does The Desolation of Smaug fare? Its new cut isn't essential or definitive. The theatrical version is fine as is, and doesn't really feel as if it's missing any plot points of great worth. But the extended version also isn't nearly as problematic as its Unexpected Journey predecessor. The scenes that have been reinserted -- some 25-minutes worth -- feel slightly more crucial to the plot, and feature more vital character beats and welcome story expansion. The additional bits and pieces are still rather hit or miss on the whole, but the hits are more impactful and the misses aren't as bothersome. Desolation's extended cut didn't strike me as significantly better or significantly worse, just more of a good thing. If you didn't enjoy the theatrical release, though - - if the words "good thing" just made you wince -- nothing in the new version of the film is likely to change your mind.
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).
Elephant in the room: 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.
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 The Battle of the Five Armies 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 unreliable Desolation can be. But 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? Goodness no. Desolation is as troubled as Journey, even if for completely different reasons. Fun? Thrilling? Eye-gouging and jaw-dropping? Yep, yep and 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
The Extended Edition release of The Desolation of Smaug includes three BD-50 discs: the first featuring the new 186-minute cut of the film (with no breaks or disc swaps to be had), and the other two devoted to more than ten hours of high definition bonus content. Thankfully, the quality of the AVC-encoded presentation is virtually identical to its April 2014 theatrical version counterpart.
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, the two transfers are excellent examples of the benefits high definition affords; each one 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), 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 also remarkable, 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.
Better still, artifacting, banding and other significant enemies of the crown are held at bay. There are a few negligible instances of banding and artifacting, but nothing that takes a serious toll, and nothing that will be noticed by anyone who isn't scanning the shadows, smoke and fog looking for something to overreact to. (A half-dozen unsightly, lower definition GoPro Camera shots pepper the barrel escape sequence, and irritate me every time I watch the film. But each one only appears for a split second and, again, should be laid at Jackson and Lesnie's doorstep, not Warner's.) 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
Like the theatrical version of The Desolation of Smaug, the Extended Edition features an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track. 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 don't have a single complaint.
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 oh how the first film loved to go skipping off through the forest. 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. The filmmakers deliver. The cast delivers. The crew, production design, visual effects and music deliver. And the film, flawed as it may be, delivers. And the new extended edition? It isn't as strong as the LOTR extended cuts, but it's better than its Unexpected Journey predecessor, and less problematic. As to Warner's second Blu-ray release of The Desolation of Smaug... wow. With an excellent video presentation, powerful DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track, and more than 13 hours of extensive special features, fans couldn't ask for much more. (A few more commentaries maybe, but who's counting?) If you have any love for The Hobbit, there's no good reason to let this release pass by.
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• This Week on Blu-ray: November 4-11 - November 2, 2014
For the week of November 4th, Walt Disney Home Entertainment is bringing Maleficent to Blu-ray. Other titles include Warner and New Line's extended-cut release of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, HBO's complete-series set of The Sopranos, and ...
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