The prospect of Peter Jackson directing an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit was an exciting one. After all, this was the guy behind the brilliant Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now he had even more advanced technology at his fingertips to bring Tolkein’s world to life. That excitement, however, was dampened by the release of the first film in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, as the result was a bloated, CG-filled disappointment that seemed to relish in meandering instead of advancing the plot. The sequel, then, was released to significantly lowered expectations, and while Jackson’s second film is an improvement over An Unexpected Journey, it still carries many of the same faults. Hit the jump for my The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Blu-ray review.
The second chapter in Jackson’s expanded The Hobbit trilogy gets off to a strong start, as the film opens with a flashback to The Prancing Pony that shows us the first meeting between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage). The scene is tinged with foreshadowing and seriousness, which is where The Hobbit excels in relation to some of the more cartoonish aspects of the series. The crux of The Desolation of Smaug sees Thorin, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and the rest of the dwarves continuing their quest to the Lonely Mountain in the hopes of reclaiming their homeland. Their journey is fraught with misadventures, including detours involving the Wood Elves and the inhabitants of Lake-town, but we end with the companions finally entering Smaug’s lair and confronting the gold-loving dragon to bombastic, set-piece-filled results.
The Desolation of Smaug becomes far more engrossing when it turns its focus to new characters like the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) or Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). This is where The Hobbit trilogy’s most glaring problem becomes clear: the dwarves are uninteresting and indistinguishable. Jackson tries his best to give the individual dwarves more screentime in this installment, but it’s a fruitless endeavor. There are simply too many of them and there’s not enough time to develop individual personalities—the closest we get to an actual character (besides endlessly brooding Thorin) is with Kili (Aidan Turner), who strikes up a relationship with Tauriel, the MVP of Desolation of Smaug.
Lilly’s performance as Tauriel is a welcome jolt of both femininity and variety to the series, and the actress doesn’t try to make the character “kick-ass”, showing an understanding of what a strong female character really is. Another highlight is Lee Pace as Thranduil, which is imbued with a gleeful mix of ethereal grace and pure terror. Freeman is still on point as Bilbo, but again he gets lost in the shuffle of too many protagonists.
Jackson does manage to pull off a few top-notch set pieces here, and while the barrel sequence is fun, the early spider sequence is wonderfully scary, bringing to mind Jackson’s early work in the horror genre. The Desolation of Smaug is at its best when it looks like the actors are on actual sets, but far too often Jackson opts for CG-assisted acrobatics over practical stuntwork, turning his actors into animated characters. As a result, the characters look more at home in a Pixar movie than Middle-earth.
All of the Lord of the Rings-tinged scenes involving Gandalf’s side-quest to Dol Guldur are excellent, and the extended confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is thrilling, but by this point Jackson has been meandering around the inner politics of Lake-Town and other subplots for so long that we’re ready for the movie to just be over. The bloat of the film is most apparent when, just as Bilbo and the dwarves have arrived at the door of their destination, Jackson opts to extended the sequence of them looking for a keyhole just because.
And yet, thanks to intriguing new characters like Tauriel, the fascinating execution of Smaug, and a couple of swell set pieces, The Desolation of Smaug is a more enjoyable experience than An Unexpected Journey. The film even improved for me on a second viewing, though that could have been simply because I was able to hit “pause” and didn’t feel the length quite as much. The Hobbit series is still a far cry from The Lord of the Rings and is likely unable to touch the emotional investment of that initial trilogy, but The Desolation of Smaug marks a slight improvement over An Unexpected Journey. Here’s hoping that trend continues with the third installment.
The HD transfer of the film on Blu-ray is solid, but the CG divide is still quite evident in scenes where human characters are surrounded by green screen and/or interacting with CG characters. Nevertheless, the colors and contrast are great. As for the audio, the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is magnificent. Howard Shore’s score (also an improvement over An Unexpected Journey) soars and the sound mixing is incredible.
Obviously an Extended Edition of The Desolation of Smaug will arrive later this year packed with more bonus features, but this initial Blu-ray release isn’t just bare bones. There are some interesting, if not in-depth, features to be found.
- Peter Jackson Invites You to Set (41 Minutes) – A two-part behind-the-scenes feature that runs down a typical day on set. Jackson, cast, and crew all participate in the feature, which takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to the daily routine on the set of The Hobbit. It’s not incredibly involving, and it only encompasses the initial block of filming, but it does make you appreciate just how hard everyone on the crew worked to bring the films to fruition.
- Production Videos (37 Minutes) – A collection of the four Desolation of Smaug production videos that Jackson posted online in the lead-up to the film’s release. They offer a more intimate look behind-the-scenes, as Jackson is essentially the guide throughout each of them.
- Live Event: In the Cutting Room (38 Minutes) – A version of the live fan event that was broadcast in anticipation of the film’s release, which is basically a cross-country Q&A with Jackson and certain cast members. More promotional and surface-level than enlightening.
- New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth Part 2 (7 Minutes) – A short featurette that focuses on the location work of the film. It’s particularly disappointing to see just how many gorgeous locations were used and then painted over by CG.
- Music Video (2 Minutes) – The “I See Fire” music video by Ed Sheeran.
If you’re a Hobbit die-hard and are planning on picking up the Extended Edition Blu-ray later this year, there’s no reason to double-dip on this initial copy. However, if you don’t care about the extra footage or features, Warner Bros. has done a nice job of ensuring that this release isn’t bare-bones and includes at least some kind of substantial bonus features.