With fans eagerly awaiting the upcoming finale of the Hobbit films this winter, many will cherish the opportunity to now revisit "The Desolation of Smaug," the second film in the trilogy, on Blu-Ray Disc. I know I was and when Warner Home Video sent over a copy for review I was eager to check it out.
As "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" ended, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and the dwarves surrounding Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) had just escaped the clutches of the Goblin King and the immediate sneak attack by the White Orc and his pack, proving the Bilbo brings more value to the band of adventurers than anyone had previously expected.
As they have their eyes firmly set on the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the Dwarven kingdom, lost to the fierce dragon Smaug, the adventurers press on, but find that no everyone supports their cause. Everyone fears the wrath of the dragon if the attempt to defeat the mighty beast and drive it from Erebor may fail. After all what are the odds of a few ragged dwarves, an old man and a hobbit defeating the fire-breathing dragon who has claimed the lands for generations?
From one encounter to the next, the group is held back, imprisoned or disregarded, until they finally reach the Lonely Mountain. Exploring the vast Dwarven kingdom it first appears quiet, as if the dragon is gone or dead, but soon enough Bilbo has to make use of all of his cunning and wits as Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) awakes and faces the intruders. Determined to protect his hoard and to incinerate those who tried to steal from him, Smaug decides it is also time to teach the people that Erebor and all of its riches within are his, and his alone. Just as everyone had feared, the dragon soon strafes the countryside and incinerates villages and townships with his breath, leaving behind nothing but death and devastation.
Unlike many other viewers I never had a problem with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." I never thought it was too slow or too long. I enjoy staying in Middle-Earth with Peter Jackson and I just can't seem to get enough of his living breathing world and the creatures within. The same is true for "The Desolation of Smaug." If anything, the film almost seemed too short for me. The story is heating up and things come to a head and you just don't notice how time slips by until you are confronted with the closing credits and you go "What? Already?" To me that has always been one of the hallmarks of great movies; to make you forget time and place.
As with the previous film, Jackson took some artistic liberties with the book upon which the film is based on. Not only does he flesh out certain character more than in the book, he also introduces entirely new characters and their story lines. For the most part, this materials is lifted from "The Silmarillion," a collection of stories Tolkien wrote between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," as well as various historic references in all Tolkien's texts. While purists may decry these liberties and changes, to me the matter is very simple. Why not? It helps create a richer world - which was Tolkien's purpose as well with all his cross-references and additional texts - and it allows us to stay in Middle-Earth just a little longer still. All the material Jackson has added feels organic and meshes nicely with the story itself, making it entirely transparent to those who are not - or no longer - entirely familiar with the book text.
Performances are awesome and with every new film, Jackson and his fellows at Weta Workshop seem to up themselves once more. Up to this point, the dragon from "Dragonslayer" has always been my favorite dragon on the big screen, hands down. He was mean, vicious, ferocious and beautifully majestic. As of now, Smaug has taken his place. Never have I seen a more amazing visualization of a dragon on the screen. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug has character aplenty and his nastiness is evident from the first moment, but Smaug, despite being a computer generated character entirely, also has weight and mass. The way he interacts with his surroundings, the way he moves, the way his scales shimmer, the way his skin folds, it is absolutely stunning. It is not that you can only see him. You can feel him, almost smell him, I would say. Why Weta did not receive an Academy Award for their work here is beyond comprehension, of course, but I suppose the Academy is once again playing the same game they did with "The Lord of the Rings," withholding awards until the third film is released, regardless of the fact that Peter Jackson and his team are outdoing other filmmakers year after year - a fact that should, in fact, be rewarded with an award of its own in my opinion.
As expected, Warner Home Video is presenting the film in a pristine 1080p high definition transfer on this disc, leaving absolutely nothing to be desired. Awash in color and detail, the high definition transfer is incredibly rich, turning the film yet again into a feast for the eyes. Deep blacks give the image solid depth, making sure the world of the Hobbit is rich and dimensional.
The audio on this disc is featured as a DTS 7.1 HD Master audio track that is equally impressive. Constant and aggressive use of the surround channels is only one part of the recipe here, but so is the wide sound filed and the extreme bass extension that will fill your living room with rumbling shockwaves. Dialogues are perfectly integrated and always understandable, while the film's music adds nicely to the overall presentation, completing the experience as a whole.
Warner is following the traditional route with this release, making this first Blu-Ray release of the film a straight-forward affair with the theatrical cut of the film and a minimum of bonus materials. Undoubtedly, a Special Edition version of the Director's Cut will be released when the third film in the series hits theaters this December.
Among the extras found on this version, there is asleection of production videos, and the featurette "Peter Jackson invites you to the set," in which you get a cool behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie.
The featurette "New Zealand - Home of Middle-Earth," which was started on "An Unexpected Journey" finds its second part on this release, once again visiting locations where the film was shot, giving you a close-up look at the grandeur of New Zealand.
The release is rounded out by an Ultraviolet Digital HD version and the DVD version of the movie.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is the perfect continuation of the Hobbit saga and is in many ways more energetic than the first film, with many more players and factions contributing to the evolving plot. In many ways, the second film in a trilogy is always the hardest, because although without actual setup and without real resolution at the end the filmmaker still have to tell a compelling story that can be viewed and understood by anyone, even those who missed the first part. This makes "The Desolation of Smaug" all the more meritorious because it excels on virtually all fronts. Clearly, this is a film everyone should own and watch.