From what I gather, plenty of Tolkien loyalists have taken great issue with changes Jackson and company have made to the original novel. Having not read the book in many years, (full disclosure) I’m not among them. My approach to the Hobbit films is the same as my approach to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy: purely as cinematic experiences. While I was initially not terribly impressed with the Rings films, I’ve grown to better appreciate them beyond their undeniably outstanding production values. But if the story of Frodo was not quite interesting enough to sustain a trilogy of three-hour movies, the even simpler story of Bilbo Baggins certainly requires far less time than has been lavished upon it.
An Unexpected Journey benefited from introducing a fresh lightheartedness to Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth. The atmosphere of the Rings films was rather heavy, adding equal parts gravitas and pretentiousness to the proceedings. Journey was frothier, even silly at times. Some of that tone is retained in Smaug, but the ever-corrupting influence of the One Ring over Bilbo (Martin Freeman) adds a touch of seriousness. Bilbo and the company of Dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), are making their way to the Lonely Mountain, where the fearsome dragon Smaug (voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) has established residence. The goal is to recapture the prized Arkenstone, with which Thorin will be able to unite the Dwarves.
Like so many middle chapters of trilogies past (including, of course, The Two Towers, but also tripe like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and The Matrix Reloaded), Smaug—when taken on its own—has no beginning and no end. It’s not so much that Jackson’s storytelling here is poor, but that it’s practically non-existent. Watching Smaug is like watching someone else play the most elaborately-produced platform video game. Watch as Bilbo must kill giant spiders and free the Dwarves from their cocoons. Thrill to the sight of Bilbo utilizing a combination of the One Ring’s powers, wine barrels, and a fast-moving river to rescue the captured Dwarves from the Wood-elves (Orlando Bloom is back as Legolas). These sequences are executed with great panache, but they carry little dramatic weight.
The best segments of Smaug involve the dragon himself, first encountered when buried under a gargantuan mound of riches. Bilbo and Smaug’s interactions are genuinely suspenseful, managing to sustain a greater level of dramatic tension than anything else in the film. That includes Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen, bringing nothing but comfortable familiarity to the role he has played four times previously) confrontation with the Necromancer. For some, the Smaug segments are worth the price of admission. I have to respectfully disagree, as they aren’t striking enough to justify an indulgent running time of 161 minutes.
No quibbles or qualms, however, regarding Warner Bros. outstanding audio/visual presentation. Andrew Lesnie’s digital cinematography is one of the very best aspects of Smaug, presented with rich clarity in this 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. The detail of the digital creations, as well as the practical effects, is displayed in all its glory. You want and expect a $225 million, effects-driven movie to look mind-blowing. Warner delivered. The same goes for the DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix that treats every subtle effect (think of the gold coins trickling down the heap as Smaug first stirs) with equal importance as each bombastic Howard Shore music cue. All the elements come together beautifully in this totally immersive sonic experience.
As for extras, while I’m assuming there will be even more extensive supplements on a forthcoming edition, there’s quite a bit here contained on a second Blu-ray disc. “Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set” is a two-part featurette totaling about 40 minutes. It’s a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at rehearsing, shooting, and the general everyday goings-on of a day on the set. “Production Videos” runs just under 40 minutes. The four separate pieces dealing primarily with shooting various scenes, but also a look at Shore’s scoring sessions. “Live Event: In the Cutting Room” also runs a bit under 40 minutes, a webcast with Peter Jackson in his editing facilities that was first broadcast live in March 2013 (there’s a tickertape of questions tweeted to Jackson running at the bottom of the screen). There’s also a short video for Ed Sheeran’s end credits song. Disc one contains the seven-minute “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth Part 2.”
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it should be pointed out, is available in a variety of configurations. The 2D Blu-ray edition reviewed here includes two BDs, a standard DVD, and an UltraViolet digital copy. There’s also a Blu-ray 3D edition and a limited edition collector’s set of the 3D version. Visit the WB Shop official website for more information.