Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition 3D / 2D 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 - Extended Edition, 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 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. This extended edition offers a little more than twenty-five extra minutes of footage which adds some nice character moments. I enjoyed this version more than the theatrical one, but these scenes don't have the same impact as the extra footage added to the original trilogy's films. 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 five Blu-ray discs (two for the 3D version of the movie, one for the 2D Blu-ray movie, and the last two are devoted to the extras). 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 (5 out of 5 stars)
Having reviewed the theatrical set of this movie, it's nice to finally get the full package of extras that we've all come to expect and love from these Expanded Editions. Not that the first set's extras weren't good, but these sets go all out on the extras and there's no comparison. Just to give you an idea of how many extras are included, the total running time for just the extras is over nine hours long! I'm also happy to report that all of the extras are also in high definition.
  • Audio Commentary - Filmmaker Peter Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens talk about the making of the film and the challenges that the productions faced. They talk about how hard this movie was to make due to the fact that it was originally supposed to be the final Hobbit film before that plan was changed from two movies to three. Now with this being the second of three movies, the ending had to be reworked and more filming needed to be done to fill it in. They also talk about the cast, the art design, and more and their discussion is always interesting although I wish there were more commentary tracks like the first trilogy offered. One of my favorite extras from the first trilogy's Expanded Editions were the commentary tracks which were hilarious (especially the actor's track). I'm not sure why that didn't happen this time, but it's too bad as more tracks would have been great to listen to.
  • New Zealand: Home to Middle-Earth Part 2 (7:11) - Travel with Peter Jackson and his team across the stunning locations of New Zealand transformed by the filmmakers into Middle-earth. It's funny that despite filming in gorgeous locations, a lot of time some of the scenery had to be covered up with a green screen to make it work in the film, much to the disappoint of the actors. 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!  
  • The Appendices Part 9: A Long Expected Journey - The bulk of the extras begins here with the first five hours on this first disc of appendices. The second disc contains the remaining four hours of content. Here's what's included: 

    • Opening (3:22) - Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and more talk about how the decision to expand the films from two to three movies changed the scripts and their experience. 
    • A Warm Welcome (29:23) - Peter Jackson and the cast talk about filming in Laketown and their experiences. We see how Peter Jackson demanded more and more fish be dumped on the actors' heads while hiding in the barrels, and how he wanted to be the one to throw the eggs at the mayor's flunky (played by Ryan Gage) even though he had terrible aim. We also see how they were able to do a lot of tricks to make the hobbit and human scenes work as well as a look at the many cameos to be found in Laketown including Stephen Colbert and his family. Colbert's performance as the Laketown Spy and his unblemished record as the champion of all Tolkien trivia earned him his own gift of Sting.  
    • Business of the State (15:24) - We get a look at the Master's chambers where actors Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage put on a two man show to make themselves as nasty as possible. We see Jackson playfully tormenting Fry by giving him reproduced testicles to eat take after take to the amusement and disgust of everyone else. Fry has earned my admiration by his willingness to do what needed to be done for the role!  
    • Shelter on the Long Lake (20:19) - In this extra, we get a close look at the Bard's house where we get to see a couple of scenes staged and filmed, including the dwarves entrance to the house through the toilet and the fight scene between Tauriel and the orcs. We also learn that the Bard's children are actually actor James Nesbitt's own kids who were pressed into service. We also see how the went about revealing the black arrow after trying a couple of different options. 
    • In the Halls of the Elvenking (29:17) - Now a look at Thranduil's kingdom and his prison and throne chamber. The elvish prison is also covered and we see the dwarves being locked up along with a talk with them as they share how they thought their characters would react to being imprisoned. We also see the wine cellar and the setup for the party's escape. 
    • Flies and Spiders (29:43) - If you were scared during the Mirkwood Forest part of the film with the spiders, then you might want to skip this one. We get a look at the creation of the forest and the behind the scenes filming of the scenes too. Seeing what the poor actors went through to be cocooned makes you a little less jealous of them getting to work on the movie.  
    • Queer Lodgings (27:02) - This is a cool look at Beorn's house and how they scaled everything up for the dwarves and filmed Beorn's interactions with them in a green screen room. The amount of detail to be found within the house is astounding to see. A lot of the cast mention how much they loved the house and Jackson himself said that he'd like the house to retire in. We also see how the exterior of the house was filmed on location and how the interior was filmed on a soundstage. We also get to see a funny behind the scenes look at the dwarves trying to outrun Beorn.
    • On the Doorstep (18:28) - Now we see how they prepared the doorstep to Erebor with comments from the cast who marvel at how cool the actual working door was. We also see how they extended the door with an additional hallway that allowed the actors to actually walk into Erebor. It also turns out that Graham McTavish has a reputation as a destructive force as he seems to frequently destroy sets and props by accident. 
    • Inside Information (26:12) - If you loved seeing all of Smaug's treasure in Erebor like me, then you will also enjoy seeing how it was done for the movie. It was interesting to see how they combined fake gold coins, real coins, and CGI effects to make the treasure look even bigger. We also get to see Martin Freeman perform his scenes with Smaug to nothing as the dragon was added later. The only help he gets is from the dialect coach who voices Smaug's lines since Benedict Cumberbatch was busy filming Star Trek Into Darkness
    • Down the Swift Dark Stream (15:42) - We get to see some behind the scenes filming on location where the actors are forced to leave their barrels and attempt to make it to land which is pretty difficult in cold water and while in their heavy costumes and fat prosthetics.  
    • Barrels Out of Bond (30:05) - This is one of my favorite extras on the set as it covers one of my favorite scenes in the movie - the barrel escape fight. We get to see how much work went into the filming of this showstopper with filming being done on a real river, a manufactured river that went in a circle, and CGI. They even attached GoPro cameras on barrels and sent them down the river when water was released from a dam to capture the wild rapids. The river that they created and controlled looks like an awesome fun ride and judging from the actors reactions, it was totally awesome for them.
    • A Chance Meeting (20:37) - Since the decision to expand two movies into three forced Jackson and his writers to make some changes, one of those changes included a new opening for this movie that showed Gandalf and Thorin meeting at The Prancing Pony in Bree (the same establishment from Fellowship of the Ring), where Gandalf pushed Thorin on his quest.  Of course to film there, the inn had to be rebuilt again but the second time it turned out even better than before because it was a real set.
    • Erebor Rekindled (27:59) - Again the decision to make three movies also forced Jackson and company to come up with a new ending for this movie. Jackson decided that the new ending should show not only how dangerous Smaug was, but also how ingenious the dwarves were. By using their heritage to fight the dragon was an inspired choice. For the first time we see just how formidable these dwarves can be when they work together as well as a look back into their majestic past with the rekindling of their giant forges. It also allows Thorin a chance to lead the party and show his own cunning ability.
    • Into the Fire (7:58) -: This is a brief look into the future of what's going to happen to Laketown in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Let's just say that it doesn't look good for them. 
  • The Appendices Part 10: The Journey to Erebor - The second half of the appendices continues on this second disc. 

    • Summoning Smaug: Last of the Fire-Drakes (1:16:31) -  This three part documentary about the creation and performance of Smaug is almost as long as a regular movie and it covers everything you need to know about the dragon. Jackson and his team knew that Smaug was essential to the movie and worked very hard to get him just right. Here's the breakdown of how it all came about: 

      • The Last and First Dragon (26:36) - This featurette cover the history of dragons and how past depiction of them may have influenced Tolkien and how his portrayal of Smaug inspired other versions in turn. 
      • Conversations with Smaug (24:50) - This is the extra for all of you Benedict Cumberbatch fans (and who isn't?) as we see his audition for the part, him talking about the role (and how his father's storytelling style influenced him), and his motion capture sessions that allowed him to cavort around on a soundstage acting out the role. We also see how much work went into the conceptualizing of Smaug. 
      • Into the Dragon's Lair (25:36) - This extra focuses on Smaug's personality (Jackson believes that Smaug is a psychopath) and how the technical teams worked on making his fire breath look and sound cool. We also learn how Cumberbatch's voice was modified to include the sound of a crocodile and more to make up his signature sound. 
    • The Peoples and Denizens of Middle-earth (1:11:48) -  Here's another three-part documentary that delves into the design and look of the various races within Middle-Earth.  

      • Beorn: The Shape-shifter (25:08) - We learn all there is to know about Beorn through comments from the cast and crew, Tolkien historians, and from the actor who played him, Mikael Persbrandt himself. We see how the character's look was created (Persbrandt points out that the face looks like Eric Roberts) and how they made him look so much bigger that everyone else. We also see how much work John Howe and Alan Lee spent creating the look of his house. 
      • The Spawn of Ungoliant (16:49) - This look at the spiders of Mirkwood shows us their creation and design as well as inform us of their relationship to Shelob from Return of the King (a fact that I was oblivious to until now). It also turns out the Peter Jackson is very afraid of spiders which makes it funny to realize that he has to direct a movie with spiders in it and make it scary for audiences (and for himself). We also see how their creepy voices were created which also featured some actors from Jackson's past films. .
      • The Men of Lake-town (30:17) - This is a really in depth look at the costuming and design choices for Laketown and its denizens. We see how much work was spent making the town look real and lived in. We also learn that the set had to be built three times due to various reasons. 
    • Realms of the Third Age: From Beorn's House to Lake-town (1:34:07) - This four part documentary covers the behind the scenes construction of several locations in the movie focusing on: "Beorn's House" (26:40), "Mirkwood Forest" (17:00), "The Woodland Realm" (21:05) and "Lake-town" (29:55). These featurettes show off the amazing artistry of the crew whose work is so good that it could have been featured in close up from any viewpoint. 
    • The Music of The Hobbit (HD, 1:00:54) - As a huge fan of Howard Shore's scores for these films, this featurette was a welcome one to watch for me. It was interesting to see some of his process and just how much work goes into making these soundtracks. Since Jackson couldn't go to London like he did before to record the soundtrack, they did it in Wellington which allowed him to keep working on the film. This featurette's overview of the process is impressive to watch and fans of the music will also enjoy hearing the creation of some of the music tracks. 
Summary (5 out of 5 stars)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition 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 amazing and cover just about everything you could possibly want to know! This set is a must buy!

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