Perhaps you've heard of "middle-film syndrome." That's my own terminology, but you've seen the signs in films infected with this ailment: superfluous plotting, lack of narrative drive, and general pointlessness. Fortunately, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is not content to be the filler in Peter Jackson's newest fantasy trilogy, and in some respects is a more exciting, confident film than its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf companions continue their journey toward the Lonely Mountain to take back their homeland from ferocious dragon Smaug, a fire-breathing effects wonder and the highlight of this nimbly paced, action heavy second film. Jackson's film strays farther from the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien's novel than some might like, but works well as a cinematic fantasy blockbuster.
Baggins takes a backseat to Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who has fully embraced his role as leader of the Company of Dwarves. When Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) leaves abruptly to join fellow wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) on a hunt to uproot dark forces, Thorin leads the dwarves toward the Lonely Mountain and out of the immediate grasp of Azog and his Orc minions. They are captured by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and taken in front of Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace), who imprisons the company after Thorin opens old wounds. Bilbo uses the One Ring to free the dwarves from the pokey, and only Tauriel and Legolas decide to join their fight against the Orcs.
The Desolation of Smaug forgoes the character-driven walkabout of An Unexpected Journey and instead focuses on grand action and its Middle-earth spanning narrative. Although we know what Gandalf is up to, it's exciting to see him unearth an evil that plays a key role in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. There are battles with giant spiders, a lengthy Orc attack where the dwarves return fire from barrels on a raging river, and some fine bow-and-arrow combat from the elves. Things slow down a bit to allow Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a descendant of the kingdom Dale that was eradicated by Smaug, to smuggle the dwarves into Esgaroth, where he reveals the one remaining weapon capable of wounding the dragon.
At 161 minutes, The Desolation of Smaug is relatively slim and trim by Peter Jackson standards, and the pacing is much more confidant than that of its predecessor. Some Tolkien fans will no doubt groan at the added action, but it's hard to argue that Jackson failed to create an entertaining film. The sets and costumes remain top notch, though some of the visual effects seem rushed and are not even up to the decade-plus old standard set by Jackson's previous Tolkien adaptations. At this point Jackson can get his Weta Digital to churn out fantastical creatures and environments without difficulty, but I wish the filmmakers had stuck to the practical make-up and prosthetics used for the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings. The CGI creatures just aren't as impressive. At least Jackson used a live actor for an important scene where the elves relieve one Orc of his head.
No corners were cut when rendering the film's main antagonist, the dragon Smaug, who comes to life through motion capture and a rousing voice performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. This massive creature of fire and death slumbers in a pit of gold and jewels that also houses the Arkenstone capable of reuniting the dwarf clans. Burglar Bilbo Baggins is tasked with nabbing the stone, but Smaug is quick on the draw. Cumberbatch channels an enthusiasm rivaled only by Andy Serkis when playing Gollum - incidentally my favorite part of An Unexpected Journey - and Smaug delightfully taunts and torments Baggins. The creature is impressively realized and a lot of fun to watch, and steals every scene.
This film doesn't do quite as well getting the audience to relate to the characters, though Tauriel and Kili's (Aidan Turner) relationship isn't bad. It's nice to have Bloom back, abet with some heavy make-up and scary contacts, and I hope the brilliant McKellen found less torment in all the green-screen work this go-round. My only real complaint, narrative wise, is the climactic battle at Esgaroth that is intercut with Smaug's far more interesting reign of terror. This isn't original Tolkien, and I wish Jackson had kept the focus squarely on his hero dwarves. That aside, The Desolation of Smaug is rollicking entertaining that sets things up nicely for There and Back Again without losing its own identity.
Warner Brothers gives The Desolation of Smaug an expectedly excellent 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that provides all the detail and texture one could want from Middle-earth. Fine object detail is impressive, as are the wide shots packed with deep-focus details and Jackson's never-ending landscapes. Colors are nicely saturated, whether the muddy earth tones of the road to the Lonely Mountain or the cold, waterlogged blues and greys of Esgaroth. Like An Unexpected Journey, Smaug has an ever so slightly soft look throughout thanks to its digital source, but this never robs the image of clarity or depth. Black levels are generally good, though I suppose shadow detail could be slightly better in Smaug's lair. A separate Blu-ray 3D release is available for interested parties.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack supports the ruckus with wonderfully immersive effects and excellent element blending. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout, whether delivered directionally or from the center channel. Ambient effects are pervasive in the realms of Middle-earth, and the surround speakers are never without something to do. The mix plays up the action effects without overwhelming dialogue and score, and audiophiles will no doubt enjoy the arrows whizzing, fire scorching and punches landing about their living rooms. Clarity and range are both excellent, and the subwoofer lends deft support to the weighty score. There are French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes available, along with English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This three-disc set includes the theatrical film on disc one, a second disc of bonus features and a DVD copy. WB also throws in an UltraViolet HD Digital Copy. The discs are packed and stacked as Warners has been doing of late, and an embossed, holofoil slipcover wraps the case. Many of you will recognize this Blu-ray as the "holdover release" until the inevitable Extended Edition with hours of extras is released this fall. There are a couple of lightweight bonus features provided here, too:
In Peter Jackson Invites You to Set (40:36/HD), viewers glimpse the actors and crew at work filming Smaug, and the Production Videos (36:41/HD) highlight scoring sessions and post-production work on the film. You also get Live Event: In the Cutting Room (37:52/HD), which was a live broadcast featuring a Jackson Q&A and tour of his production studio. New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2 (7:11/HD) is found on disc one and spotlights more of the locations from the film. Things wrap up with some Trailers and Previews (7:45/HD) and a Music Video for "I See Fire" by Ed Sheeran (5:42/HD).
Peter Jackson is back at peak performance with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second film in his latest fantasy trilogy. Action packed with a constantly moving narrative, Smaug takes plenty of liberties with the Tolkien source but expands into a grand cinematic adventure. Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice of dragon Smaug, who steals all the attention in the third act. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but fans may want to hold off until the Extended Edition is released later this year. Recommended.