By Ben Mk (cinematicallyenigmatic.blogspot.com)
What is it about dragons that captures our imagination so? Is it their massive size, their impressive wingspan, their ability to breathe fire — or maybe all of the above? Their serpentine visage has graced the landscape of cinema, even entering into the realm of television; but before there was Drogon, Draco or even King Ghidorah, there was Smaug. You could say that he's the grandfather of all dragons; so, given the pivotal role he plays in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, it's befitting that the title of the second instalment of director Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy bears his name.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the story of once-and-future king Thorin Oakenshield's quest to reclaim both the throne of Durin and the kingdom of Erebor, accompanied by his band of twelve fellow Dwarves and one intrepid Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). But before jumping back into the thick of things, Jackson puts the story in perspective for viewers, with a brief prologue — set in a familiar locale, the Prancing Pony — that sees Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) meeting Thorin (Richard Armitage) for the first time and outlining the perilous conditions of his quest: to recover a jewel known as the Arkenstone from the clutches of the dragon Smaug, so that he may use it to unite the seven Dwarf families.
Fast forward twelve months, and Thorin, Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves find themselves being pursued by a pack of bloodthirsty Orcs — led by the vicious and relentless Azog the Defiler — as they make their way towards Erebor, where Smaug awaits atop his mountain of treasure. But a brief encounter with a skin-changer named Beorn causes their paths to diverge, as Gandalf is compelled to travel to the High Fells to investigate rumors of impending war, while the rest of the group attempt to navigate their way through Mirkwood, the quickest (and deadliest) route to Erebor. As Gandalf comes face-to-face with the eye of Sauron, Bilbo and company do their best to survive close calls with hordes of giant spiders and dangerous Silvan Elves. But it is their final encounter, with the ancient and intimidating Smaug, that truly tests their cunning and resolve — especially Bilbo's, for he alone must enter the dragon's lair and snatch the Arkenstone from right under Smaug's fire-breathing snout.
Whereas An Unexpected Journey was tasked with reintroducing audiences to the world of Middle-earth, functioning as an origin story of sorts, The Desolation of Smaug holds nothing back, and plays like a Middle-earth version of Indiana Jones, with Bilbo Baggins in the title role. Jackson's command of all things Tolkien continues to impress, as he wields control of the story's characters and plot points as skillfully as Gandalf does his wizard's staff. Old characters (such as Orlando Bloom's Legolas) are reintroduced and new characters (like Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel and Luke Evans' Bard the Bowman) find their footing in the narrative without missing a beat; but the audience is never overwhelmed by the weight of the story, and there's a constant and purposeful sense of momentum that flows through the film.
Yet there's one qualm that prevents The Desolation of Smaug from recapturing the brilliance of Jackson's original Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that is the film's missing sense of danger — that unpredictable quotient that permeated his masterwork from over a decade ago. Blame it on our overfamiliarity with the dark forces of Sauron, the way the characters have a knack for getting out of the stickiest of situations by the skin of their teeth every time, or even the absence of Gollum, but suffice to say: the fewer assurances there are about how and where things will end up, the easier it is to become invested in the story. Of course, all of the film's shortcomings fall away the moment Smaug enters the picture; and as the film ends on a cliffhanger that leaves viewers wanting more, it's difficult not to acknowledge Jackson's mastery of his craft.
The Desolation of Smaug debuts on Blu-ray with an HD transfer that looks like a million gold coins, vividly bringing to life every last detail of this latest trek through Middle-earth. As with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the previous Hobbit film, Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie pour an impressive amount of visual nuance into each and every frame. From the individual hairs in Gandalf and the Dwarves' beards to the silky strands of webbing spun by the giant Mirkwood spiders, fine detail abounds, complemented by glorious colors — especially the vibrant reds and blues of the top of the Mirkwood canopy — and rich shadow detail. The sounds of Middle-earth resonate just as strongly, thanks to the disc's powerful DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack, which represents the film's highs and lows — from the clattering of coins in Smaug's lair to the dragon's deep, bellowing voice — with equal fervor. Dialog is always clear and intelligible (whether it's Dwarvish, Elvish or the Orcs' Black Speech), and the musical themes of the series' composer, Howard Shore, are as epic as ever.
Undoubtedly, the inevitable Extended Edition of the film will be blessed with hours upon hours of encyclopedic extras, but the special features on this initial Blu-ray release are fairly substantial in their own right. In addition to both a DVD copy and an UltraViolet digital copy of the film, Warner's 3-disc set is flanked by nearly two-and-a-half hours of HD bonus material, beginning on Disc 1 with a 7-minute featurette praising the beauty of some of the film's real-life locales, titled New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2.
The entirety of Disc 2 is devoted to the remainder of the special features, and contains (among other things) an 18-minute featurette entitled In the Company of the Hobbit and a 22-minute featurette entitled All in a Day's Work, both of which offer a look at a typical day in the film's production (including visits to WETA Workshop and the various sets, plus some clowning around by the actors and crew). Next up is a 6-minute music video for Ed Sheeran's 'I See Fire', which is featured in the film's closing credits. This is followed by Live Event: In the Cutting Room, an archival version of the 38-minute webcast that was held on March 25th, 2013, which sees Peter Jackson fielding fans' video and Twitter questions about the film. All four of Jackson's Production Videos from 2013 are also included, running 37 minutes altogether and focusing on 'pick-ups' shooting for the second and third Hobbit films, as well as Howard Shore's music compositions for the film. Finally, 12 minutes of trailers rounds out the disc, which includes three for The Desolation of Smaug, plus a trailer for the Extended Edition of An Unexpected Journey and game trailers for Lego The Hobbit and The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth.
This may be Peter Jackson's fifth feature film foray into Middle-earth (or it may be considered his ninth, if you count the Extended Editions separately), but judging from the passion with which he has imbued The Desolation of Smaug, he has yet to tire of the world and its characters. And while the film may not soar to the same heights as his Lord of the Rings trilogy, its sense of grandeur still makes it a worthwhile journey for moviegoers to embark on. Warner's Blu-ray release features a richly satisfying A/V presentation that fully immerses viewers in the sights and sounds of Tolkien's world, while its supplements package provides enough content to tide fans over until the impending arrival of the Extended Edition, making The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on Blu-ray very precious indeed.
The Film — ★★★½
Audio/Visual Fidelity — ★★★★½
Special Features — ★★★½