- by Jeff Beck
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (EE): A Marvelous Middle Chapter (Blu-ray)
The release of the first two films in Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” has inevitably brought with it the debate as to which film is better, with the consensus apparently leaning toward the latest film, “The Desolation of Smaug.” While I’d have to disagree, that didn’t stop this middle entry from being a wildly entertaining ride, featuring many memorable sequences. As with the last film, “Hobbit” fans have waited with great anticipation for the inevitable “Extended Edition,” which adds about 25 more minutes into the film, bringing its runtime to about three hours. Along with the anticipation came the hope that the new footage would be a little more substantive than what we got with “An Unexpected Journey,” where the 13 minutes of new material was made up mainly of songs and little bits that didn’t add much to the film. Well, fans can rest assured as what we get with this new edition is indeed more substantial, but as to whether it improves the film overall is another question.
“The Desolation of Smaug” finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the dwarves continuing their journey in an attempt to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor. Their adventure has them making new acquaintances, such as Beorn the Skinchanger (Mikael Persbrandt) and Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), and facing new perils including a dark forest full of large spiders and woodland elves who seem intent at stopping them. However, that’s nothing compared to the evil that awaits them at the end of their journey: a gigantic, fire-breathing dragon that has taken over the dwarves’ home and their immense collection of treasure.
In my review of the theatrical cut, my main criticism was that this film adopted a much slower pace than the previous film, in addition to throwing in a completely unnecessary and overly-long action sequence at the end that felt as though it dragged the film out a bit too much. However, when you look at it on the whole, it’s still a very enjoyable film that presented a number of problems to the filmmakers who had to somehow shape this into the “middle film” of the trilogy. In that sense, they needed to put together a climactic sequence so that it wouldn’t just end with a thud, which gave us the drawn-out fight between the dwarves and Smaug (a sequence that fans of the book will recall wasn’t in Tolkien’s original text). All this is to say that I understand why they needed to add it in, but that still doesn’t stop it from dragging the film down a bit.
That being said, let’s take a look at the many positive elements. First off, the sequences with Beorn the Skinchanger are done remarkably well. He’s one of the most memorable characters in the book, so it was incredibly important that he be just as memorable here, a task that they’ve succeeded in through the incredible visuals, a richly-detailed set, and, of course, Persbrandt’s performance. Another memorable sequence from the novel is the one in which our heroes travel through the evil forest of Mirkwood, in which they must fight off an army of enormous spiders, brilliantly brought to life in the film in an exciting action sequence that does fine justice to Tolkien’s writing.
However, arguably the two best sequences in the film are the barrel chase and Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug. The former is an interesting example of where the filmmakers took a little liberty with the material, expanding upon it to make it much more thrilling than it was originally meant to be. You may recall that the chapter in the book merely had the dwarves shut up in barrels and floating down the stream to Lake-Town. Here, they’ve done much more, adding in a battle that involves orcs and elves that takes place as the dwarves are trying to get away from the woodland realm, resulting in a thoroughly entertaining sequence. Any fan of the book will also remember the infamous encounter that Bilbo has with Smaug, which comes to life with amazing visuals and a bone-chilling vocal performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, who gives Smaug just the kind of personality that he had in the novel. It’s scenes like these that turn a film with very leisurely pacing into an exciting and engrossing adventure.
As for the new footage, this time around it’s used to expand upon certain portions of the film. Most notable are new sequences with Beorn, including the amusing scene from the book in which Gandalf attempts not to startle him by having the dwarves approach in pairs, and more of our heroes’ journey through the treacherous Mirkwood. Other interesting bits include more of the conversation that Gandalf and Thorin have in the opening scene of the film and a scene much later on that reinserts a character we didn’t get to see in the theatrical cut, at least not in the present.
Overall, this new footage is fantastic and actually adds a lot more to the film, unlike the footage for the extended cut of the first film. It still isn’t quite as good as the outstanding “An Unexpected Journey,” but there is a lot here to love, particularly if you’re a big fan of the book. The middle film of a trilogy is always the hardest to get right, especially when it’s a last-minute idea as it was here, but we still get everything we wanted and more, leaving us to anticipate what is sure to be one hell of a concluding film.
Here’s where this release makes for a slight improvement over the extended edition of the first film, which you may recall had a slight fuzziness to the picture throughout the presentation. For the 2.4:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of “The Desolation of Smaug,” the picture looks absolutely flawless, without a trace of fuzziness to be found. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally fantastic from the dialogue and Howard Shore’s beautiful score right down to the myriad of sound effects. Overall, it’s doubtful that the film could look or sound any better than how it’s presented here.
The Filmmakers’ Commentary: A spectacular commentary that features Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens divulging multitudes of fascinating tidbits about the making of the film.
New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth – Part 2: A brief featurette that shows off the gorgeous landscape of New Zealand, revealing what parts of the country were used for which scenes. There’s not much to be learned from it, but it’s still beautiful to look at.
The Appendices Part 9: Into the Wilderland – The Chronicles of The Hobbit – Part 2: As with the previous film, the appendices are where the vast bulk of the extras are contained. Part 9 features five hours of fascinating behind the scenes footage, revealing how certain sequences were filmed from Beorn’s house to Erebor. It also contains a multitude of wonderful interviews with the cast and crew, who share their experiences working on this epic project.
The Appendices Part 10: The Journey to Erebor: Part 10 of the appendices features five more hours of footage, this time dealing with how Smaug, Beorn, and other characters were designed and brought to life, in addition to how the lavish and extremely detailed sets were built. Finally, it concludes with about an hour that takes a look at Howard Shore’s score from his how he starts composing to how the orchestrated version is recorded.
Once more, these special features are worth the price of the release all by themselves, telling you just about anything that you could possibly want to know about how the film was made from design to execution. The combination of first-hand accounts from everyone who worked on the film (nearly every actor and a multitude of the crew are included in the interviews) and the behind the scenes footage make them just as engrossing as the film as it takes you from location to location, revealing all of the secrets behind their creation and how scenes were filmed. You simply could not ask for better extras than these.
“The Desolation of Smaug” may have its flaws, but it is still a great action-packed adventure and an exciting experience to behold, and with the inclusion of 25 additional minutes of footage that expand upon the story, it only becomes better. Not only do you get the amazing film, but you also get over ten hours of outstanding and informative extras that are sure to delight any “Hobbit” fan. All of this makes this release an easy must-buy for your Blu-ray shelf, one that will fit right in next to the fantastic extended edition release of “An Unexpected Journey.”
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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