Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 2D / 3D Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Adventures abound as Bilbo, Gandalf and the Company of Dwarves continue their Quest through Middle-earth in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), arriving onto Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack, Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD and Digital HD on April 8 from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second in a trilogy of films adapting the enduringly popular masterpiece The Hobbit, is directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson, who also produces together with Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner and Fran Walsh. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug continues the adventure of the title character Bilbo Baggins as he journeys with the Wizard Gandalf and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, on an epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.
Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
For me, The Lord of the Rings films are among my favorite movies of all time while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is my least favorite of the series for the same reasons I'm not a huge fan of the novel it's based on. In that movie, too much time was spent trying to differentiate between too many dwarves and the trip to The Lonely Mountain where the dwarves plan to liberate their homeland from an evil dragon named Smaug takes way too long. Another big difference between the original films and The Hobbit is the fact that there's no noble quest to eradicate evil by destroying a magical ring this time, and the fate of the world isn't at stake which lessens the drama. These dwarves are solely after a magical artifact called the Arkenstone which makes this quest seem more like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure than the righteous mission that was demanded of the Fellowship of the Ring.

The Desolation of Smaug however, feels like one of the Lord of the Rings movies and it's also a return to form for director Peter Jackson. This film is full of splendidly staged action and has a propulsive spirit of adventure, qualities that were solely lacking in the first outing. It also helps that a lot of familiar faces from the original trilogy return, which helps tie the two series together as well as provide a welcome return of a couple of fan favorites. The movie also has a dragon which is always a plus in my book. Another enticement is Smaug's mountain of treasure that's so large that it makes Scrooge McDuck's vault look like a child's piggy bank. While J.R.R. Tolkien fans may be upset with the liberties that screenwriters Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro took with the story (they even inserted a brand new character named Tauriel into the story), but I suspect that movie lovers will embrace this film as another fun adventure in Middle-Earth.

Following the basic story of "The Hobbit" and incorporating supplemental material from Tolkien's other works such as "The Quest of Erebor" and from his "Unfinished Tales," this film starts with a bit of backstory as we learn that it was Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who was the one to suggest that Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) retrieve the famous Arkenstone and reclaim Erebor that triggers the quest in the first place. Once that's established, we return to where the last film left off, with the dwarves and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) still trying to make their way to The Lonely Mountain. They are still being hunted by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and his orcs and there's some new threats too, including a skinchanger named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) who can transform himself into a monstrous bear. While in beast mode, he is a vicious predator, but during his human phase, Beorn proves to be more open to helping them since the only thing that he hates more than dwarves is orcs. 

Resupplied, the party resumes their trek towards the Lonely Mountain and the only path open to them is through the black forest of Mirkwood, which has been overrun by evil enchantments. As if that wasn't dangerous enough, Gandalf announces that he must leave the quest to look into the reports of a rising darkness elsewhere, where it's rumored a necromancer is gathering power. Mirkwood is pretty creepy and if you were scared during the Shelob scene in The Return of the King, then you might want to rethink watching this movie, or at least watch it through your fingers, as an army of giant spiders ambush the party within Mirkwood, and it's only through the cleverness of Bilbo and his magic ring of invisibility and by the sudden rescue of the Wood-Elves, that they are saved. Well, at least temporarily, as the Wood-Elves led by their captain of the guard, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and our favorite elf, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) take them captive and bring them to talk to Legolas' father, King Thranduil (Lee Pace). 

When Thorin and Thranduil start blaming each other for past wrongs, (a scene entirely reminiscent of the same kind of arguing seen during The Fellowship of the Ring, "You simply do not walk into Mordor!"), and they fail to come to a resolution that would free the dwarves from their captivity. Once again, Bilbo and his ring come to the rescue and their subsequent escape from the Elves by floating in barrels down a raging river is the film's greatest action set-piece and the one that immediately brings to mind the previous Lord of the Rings films due to the sheer fun and ingeniousness it supplies. This scene alone makes this Blu-ray worth buying and I love everything about it. The action is well staged, there's plenty of great character moments for just about all of the party, and it flows quickly just like the river, completely seamless and full of exhilaration. And once again, it offers us a chance to see Legolas do what he does best, kick orc butt gracefully and without any noticeable effort. It should be noted that Tauriel is just as much of a whirling dervish of death as Legolas, so women are well represented here too.

After meeting a human bargeman named Bard (Luke Evans) who helps ferry their escape away from the orcs, the group is taken to Laketown, a once mighty city on the water back when gold flowed from the mountains thanks to the dwarves, but is now a depressed and impoverished locale, filled with hungry and desperate people who are led by the pompous Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry). Their stay there triggers a remembrance amongst the citizens about a prophecy that detailed how the dwarves would return to reclaim the mountain and bring down fire on all of them, a fact that makes Bard want nothing to do with them. But after appealing to the people's need for hope and the Master's greed, Thorin is able to convince the people of Laketown to help them on their quest, for if the dwarves are successful, Laketown will be able to prosper once again. Despite Bard's warning not to return to the mountain, nothing is going to stop Thorin at this point and the group finally reaches Erebor where they plan to have Bilbo steal the Arkenstone without waking up the giant dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), but the best laid plans have a way of unravelling as they soon find out.

The Desolation of Smaug surpasses  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in every way possible. It's almost like Jackson took all of the feedback from the first film and made a checklist of what to improve upon. The action is way better, the tone is more serious (no dwarf singing in this one), and this film feels a lot more urgent than the fairly lethargic first one. This trek is no walk in the park and the dwarves are now facing danger after danger in the pursuit of their quest. Another awesome addition is Smaug himself as the special effects used to bring him to life are amazing. Smaug is the best realized dragon I've seen yet and Cumberbatch brings a cold intelligence to the role that shows just how dangerous and ruthless the dragon is. Another reason that I really liked this film more is because more effort was spent tying this series to the previous trilogy with a lot of foreshadowing of what was to come that I really enjoyed seeing. With scenes like Legolas commenting on the ugliness of Gimli's picture, or Gandalf discovering that Sauron is not only alive, but actively beginning to rebuild his army, they evoke the spirit of the original trilogy that I loved so much and it makes it feel like this adventure is taking place in the same world. With this film, Peter Jackson is back in fine form, delivering another fantastic adventure in Middle-Earth as only he could. I can't wait to see how it all resolves in The Hobbit: There and Back Again which will bridge the two trilogies even more which will probably make it my favorite installment in this prequel trilogy.
Video (5 out of 5 stars)

2D Video (5 out of 5 stars)                                3D Video (5 out of 5 stars)
Just so you know, this set comes with two Blu-ray discs for the 3D version of the film while the 2D version is housed on a single Blu-ray disc. Both 1080p (2.40:1) transfers are as good as you'd expect if you've seen the previous Lord of the Rings Blu-ray releases. And just like that previous trilogy, this film follows the same pattern of starting the first movie with a bright cheerful palette before it gradually shifts to a darker and more oppressive look with each film. This being the middle chapter, you can already see that change happening as the visuals match the bleaker storyline, and I'm sure that it will change even more for the upcoming There and Back Again. Both of these transfers offer razor sharp detail and the look and feel of the Middle-Earth that we all know and love. Colors, when present, look vibrant and true to life while the black levels are suitably dark. Flesh tones look natural (or unnatural if by design), and contrast is spot on. 

For the 3D transfer, there are no issues with brightness as this transfer looks just as good, if not better than the 2D version. In fact, this 3D transfer is the best that I've seen in a long time as it delivers a sense of depth and dimensionality that really brings the viewer into the movie. This is a fantastic 3D experience, because it makes the world come alive and it also gives viewers the showy but fun 3D bits with spiders and such jumping out of the screen. It's a perfect balance between the two and it shows how involving the 3D experience can be if it's done right. Just wait until you see how the 3D improves the film and elements like the various cobwebs in Mirkwood Forest or the treasure horde in Erebor! The 3D version offers so much more immersion into the film that it's easily the best one to watch and to recommend. It also helps that it doesn't suffer from some of the customary issues the format is plagued with if done wrong, as there's no ghosting or dimness to worry about. Both of these transfers are reference quality but the 3D version is the one to beat.
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix is stupendous! This flawless mix works on every level. The dialogue is always crystal clear which is impressive considering the multitude of voices overlapping each other and the various sound effects and music cues. No matter how action packed the scenes are, the dialogue is never drowned out and they're perfectly prioritized. The rear channels deliver precise cross channel pans as well as impressive directionality which deliver a completely immersive experience. From the roar of the river rapids, to the whoosh of fire from Smaug, this mix is incredible and the LFE channel is up to the task! Ambience is also nicely reproduced and it really enhances the visuals especially during scenes that take place in places like the forest of Mirkwood or the cavernous Erebor. I could go on and on on how awesome this mix is, but I will just end it here by saying that this reference quality mix is going to shake your house, so be prepared!
Extras (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
I've got to be careful here because I'm used getting the wealth of extras that come with the Extended Editions of these movies. Compared to those sets, these extras seem kind of skimpy, but that's understandable since that's been the pattern from the beginning. Jackson and New Line (and now Warners) have always been open about the fact that multiple versions (which went to four after the advent of 3D) of the films will be released - a DVD version, a 2D Blu-ray version, a 3D version, and finally the crème de la crème, the Expanded Editions. I've always appreciated that honesty and it never stopped me from buying every version that's come out. Taken on their own, these extras are all very good and they are also all in high definition. I still can't wait for the big Extended Editions to come later, but this is a very good set of special features.
  • Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set: In the Company of the Hobbit and Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set: All in a Day’s Work - Experience the film’s challenges and demands, and journey alongside the director into Mirkwood, Lake-town and Dale as the movie’s most intense, pivotal scenes are created. This is a fly on the wall kind of look into the making of the film, where we get to see the 4:15 a.m. wake up calls for the cast, a look at the make up process, how they block scenes, the actual filming of scenes, and a lot more. I love these kinds of extras so this was catnip for me. 
  • Production Videos - Made up of four separate productions: "Introduction to Pick-Ups Shooting," "Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 1," "Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 2" and "Music Scoring," these offer a more focused look at these specific areas. I had no idea how much work went into the pick up filming where the cast returns to film additional scenes and the sets have to be rebuilt. We also get to see a bit of composer Howard Shore working on the score of the film. 
  • Live Event: In the Cutting Room - This is a thirty-eight minute look back at the March 2013 worldwide live event that had Peter Jackson answering questions from fans and showing them around his production facilities.
  • New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2 - Travel with Peter Jackson and his team across the stunning locations of New Zealand transformed by the filmmakers into Middle-earth. This is essentially a tourist video to entice people to visit New Zealand. To me the movies themselves are the best advertising that New Zealand could hope for. I know I would love to visit there!  
  • “I See Fire” Music Video – Ed Sheeran’s beautiful theme song from the film is illuminated with this intimate music video.
    Summary (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
    The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a fun adventure ride that harkens back to the spirit of the original three Lord of the Rings films more than the last installment. There's a ton of action scenes and some incredible set pieces that fans will love. This Blu-ray set's video and audio presentation is reference quality and I think the 3D version of the film the best I've seen in a long time. A lot of times people ask me whether or not they should spend the extra money for the 3D version and most of the time it's hard to justify. But this time, I wholeheartedly recommend getting this 3D edition over the 2D set if you have the equipment to view it that way. The extras are limited but very good and I can't wait to check out the upcoming Extended Edition that will arrive later this year! This set is a must buy!

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