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Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Let's get it out of the way: Peter Jackson films are long mofos, and I understand why he wants to do this, so as he gets as comprehensive a picture for the fan or devotee. However, the simple fact is that in his desire to tell as an exhaustive a story as he can, he forgets about some basic things when it comes to telling a story. This was what I could not help but return to in his second film of three in The Hobbit series, titled "The Desolation of Smaug."
By now, we all know the basic components behind these, right? Jackson did The Lord of the Rings films and was working on J.R.R. Tolkein's other notable work The Hobbit as a two film saga when he decided to do a third. At the center of The Hobbit is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, Sherlock), who attempts to procure some treasure that is being guarded by a mammoth fire-breathing dragon named Smaug (Freeman's Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
This new video release adds another almost half hour compared to the theatrical release, clocking in at 186 minutes of running. Not having seen any version of Smaug before this, I was surprised at how entertaining and even suspenseful it was in many moments. Freeman is a convincing character and the ensemble is a little broader or even versatile than for instance, in Rings. However, the film starts to creak under the weight of a story that is flimsier than the other Middle Earth trilogy that Jackson is known for, with an extended cut where little occurs. It becomes a test on the senses after a while, much like the ending of the third Rings movie.
There are some re-introductions of characters to the Tolkein/Jackson cellular mythos that most have seen before, namely Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom, Kingdom of Heaven), and other familiar faces outside of the septology(?) appear, such Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) and Evangeline Lilly (Lost), who play Thranduil and Tauriel, who play part of the Elven world. And of note in this trilogy is Richard Armitage (Captain America: The First Avenger), who plays Thorin, a dwarf and co-protagonist to the story with Freeman. The Viggo Mortensen of this trilogy if you will.
Overall though, Smaug as a picture that shows its length and lack of notable action numerous times. When it does do the action sequences the action feels forced and exaggerated, even by Peter Jackson standards. Smaug is not The Empire Strikes Back; it is barely even The Twin Towers. It is a squandered exercise, one that starts promising and falls victim to the indulgences of its director as other films in this franchise have done before.
Smaug is presented with the AVC codec and its 2.40:1 high-definition presentation looks great. Image detail in hair and grains on the woodwork like in the Prancing Pony is readily noticeable, and the color correction work that Jackson did looks fantastic with browns and greens looking deep and vivid. In darker lit scenes like when Bilbo meets the dragon for the first time, the darkness looks deep and inky with little moments of crushing or pixilation. There are fleeting moments of haloing but nothing that is worth holding against the film as far as I could tell. It's real pretty.
DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless surround because reasons and Peter Jackson and stuff, but this is a tremendous soundtrack. Howard Shore's music sounds fantastic and broad over the soundstage, and the numerous battle sequences have active channel panning and directional effects that put you right in the middle of the battle. In quieter moments, the dialogue remains well-balanced and consistent, and the soundtrack is exceptional throughout the three hours. The barrel sequence or damn near anything with Smaug shows off all the speakers as best as you could imagine. It's as reference quality as you could expect.
Jackson and frequent collaborator Philippa Boyens team up for a commentary which covers what you may need to know about the production, including computer-generated rain, spotting things in this version which were not part of the theatrical and various production trivia. Jackson and Boyens talk about the intent on some of the scenes and elaborate a bit on the decision of making a third film and which scenes may illustrate this. They also cover any applicable deviations from the source material and the challenges some of the actors had working to/against no other person on set occasionally. There is even some shot breakdown, but overall this commentary is decent though not substantial. "New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth" (7:11) gets into why the cast and crew adore the land of the Kiwi as they do, in a short which would presumably be produced by the Chamber of Commerce or something.
Two appendices that look at the making of the film are shown on a second and third disc, sometimes looking at the work in the previous trilogy. The first one in this package, "A Long Unexpected Journey" is a lengthy piece (5:00:26) that focuses more on the Hobbit side of things, with examinations of some of the sequences in the film, along with some of the cameos in it (hey, what's Stephen Colbert doing there?). Among some of the highlights in this feature are the androgyny of dwarves Peter Jackson throwing eggs at actors, and showing shot breakdowns and motivations. Peter Jackson's fetish for tea is shown as well, and the differences between working with ‘dwarves' versus ‘giants.' It is quite the extensive piece and like the film, has a fair amount of noise to go with the signal, but if you're a fan of the film you should see it.
"The Journey to Erebor" is also a massive effort, with four smaller parts totaling more than five hours (5:05:11). "Summoning Smaug" covers the dragon and Cumberbatch's work on doing the creature, along with a disarming number of New Zealanders including a ‘ch' into Smaug's name, making it almost German. The history and import of dragons and inspiration for Smaug is covered in this piece, and includes lots of interviews from Jackson and the fine folks at WETA. It also examines the Smaug reveal in the first film and the transition to the second. There is a lot of work with Cumberbatch in the motion capture suit if one is into that kind of thing, and showing various animatics and renderings in showing Smaug to be Smaug. It is a good piece. "The Peoples and Denizens of Middle Earth" examines the characters in the book and similar characters in other features. Interviews with them is also shown too, and winds up being a decent piece. "Realms of the Third Age" looks more at Tolkein's mythology along with the sets and locations for the film. They actually built a replica of a tree rather than destroying it to move it, which weirdly for me sums up these lengthy productions. The visual effects of the film are also given attention. "The Music of The Hobbit" shows Shore's approach to the film and inspirations for various characters and scenes, and lots of work with the orchestra's recording the music is shown (they recorded it like Martin did with "Abbey Road"!) and looks back at the music in the Rings films too. Intimidating and long but has its share of information.
Oh, there's an Ultraviolet copy of the film if you're into that kind of thing.
If there was a movie that is impacted by the proclivity of its director to last even longer, it may be The Desolation of Smaug, with a film that definitely runs too long and exhausting at times, and almost pointless in another. Technically, it looks and sounds like a superstar, and you could not complain with the length and breadth of supplements on the disc. If you are a fan of the Tolkein films you are absolutely going to love this, but if you are on the periphery it may be better to rent so you can through a superb lossless soundtrack behind it.