Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy 4K Ultra HD Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson

From New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, the epic trilogy that includes the theatrical and extended versions of the three films in 4K UHD with HDR. The Hobbit Trilogy includes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. 

The Hobbit Trilogy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, The Battle of the Five Armies)

Films (4 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 An Unexpected Journey, 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 Lord of the Rings trilogy 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 unraveling 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. 

Picking up where The Desolation of Smaug left off, The Battle of the Five Armies starts off with a bang, with the evil dragon Smaug immolating Laketown and its inhabitants. Having awoken and released Smaug, the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) have regained their ancestral home of Erebor, but at a high cost. As they guiltily watch Smaug destroy Laketown, all but Thorin feel responsible. The vast amount of gold and the missing Arkenstone are all that Thorin is concerned about, thanks to the dragon sickness that's seeped into the gold. Thorin's behavior and personality have begun to change for the worse, a fact that all of the party notices with regret, but only Bilbo (Martin Freeman) feels alarmed and uneasy about what it portends.

Meanwhile in Dol Goldur, after investigating the rumors of a necromancer, Gandalf is being held captive and tormented by his minions. Now that the necromancer has been revealed to be Sauron, the stakes are even higher which means that we will finally get to see Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) in their prime take a stand against Sauron and his recently resurrected Nazgul. That fight explains a lot for the future films, as we see why Sauron no longer has a physical presence in the original trilogy along with the toll that battle that takes on Galadriel. It's also interesting to see why they didn't press their advantage to go after Sauron in his weakened state and how Saruman decided that they should leave Sauron for him to take care of. We all know how that turned out later.

No homeless, the survivors of the Laketown massacre look to Bard (Luke Evans) for leadership, a task that he reluctantly accepts. The only relatively safe haven nearby is Erebor, so the survivors make the trek to the mountain fortress in hopes that the dwarves will honor the bargain they made in the previous movie which gave them supplies and weapons to retake their home in exchange for the promise of some of the fabled gold within the mountain. They are met by the King of the Woodland Elves Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his army, who is also there to collect on a debt that he feels Thorin owes him. In an attempt to prevent a war, Bard tries to talk sense into Thorin and to remind him of his promise, but Thorin is too far gone thanks the the dragon sickness to care about anything other than the Arkenstone and the gold. With Azog and his orcs marching to Erebor, to challenge the men of Laketown, the elves, and the dwarven reinforcements, the victor will win the fortress and the gold as well as hold the most strategic locations for the upcoming fight in The Lord of the Rings.

The Battle of the Five Armies is a lot of fun and it successfully brings the second trilogy to a satisfying close, but I would have preferred that Peter Jackson followed his earlier plan of making two Hobbit movies and then a "bridge"movie that would have tied the two trilogies together with a telling of what happened between them. This movie actually feels a lot like The Return of the King, with a final battle, but it just doesn't have the same heart or noble self-sacrifice of the final chapter of the first trilogy. For one reason, there's too many characters in The Hobbit movies, with the dwarves being fairly interchangeable for the most part. I could probably only name about half of them by sight at this point. Another issue is the fact that this group isn't doing any of this to save the world as they know it like Frodo and his Fellowship did, they are just doing it to get the gold and Erebor back. Sure, at the end they do the right thing, but up until then, this plays more like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure than a heroic cause.

Despite that, I've loved all of these films as there's plenty of fantastic action and humor that you've come to expect. I recommend watching the expanded editions as the extra scenes add a lot to the movies especially the added scenes at the beginning and end of the film. In any case, the performances are all great and everyone gets their moment to shine, even the dwarves who finally get something to do by the last film. The four lead performances (Freeman, McKellan, Evans, and Armitage) are all fantastic to watch although I have to admit that I was thrilled every time one of the actors from the first trilogy appeared. While the first installment of this trilogy wasn't up to the usual LOTR standards, the second film and this one feel much more like the original trilogy which is a bonus in my book. I've always liked the extended editions of all of the Lord of the Rings films as they are unequivocally the best versions of the movies and these continue that tradition. I really wish that we had more of these films coming, but this seems to be the final one that Warners/MGM/New Line have the rights for which is too bad. I would have liked to have more of a bridge movie between the two series, but this is still a great trilogy and a nice way for the overall series to come to a close with both trilogies.
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
These transfers are as good as you'd expect if you've seen the previous Lord of the Rings 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 story-line. All three 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. 

Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
These flawless mixes work 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, these mixes are incredible and the LFE channel is up to the task! Ambiance 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  is, but I will just end it here by saying that these reference quality mixes are going to shake your house, so be prepared - especially for the Battle of the Five Armies!
Extras (0 out of 5 stars)
In a shocking movie, there are no extras included on this set despite the fact that the previous releases set the gold standard for bonus features. Apparently Warners figures we already have the extras so they didn't bother including it here. It's been announced that there will be a collector's edition next summer that will have all of the movies and one new extra. So don't get rid of your previous sets if you want to revisit the extras again.
Summary (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

While the first installment doesn't live up to the usual Lord of the Rings standards, the series really picks up from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on. These are fun adventure rides that harken back to the spirit of the original three Lord of the Rings films more than the first installment. There's a ton of action scenes and some incredible set pieces that fans will love. This 4K set's video and audio presentation is reference quality and it's great that they've included both the theatrical and expanded editions of the films. A lot of times people ask me whether or not they should spend the extra money for another upgrade of the sets they already own and most of the time it's hard to justify. But this time, I wholeheartedly recommend getting this 4K edition over the Blu-ray set if you have the equipment to view it that way because the audio and video presentations are so much better. My only complaint about this set is that there are none of the amazing extras included in the previous release. This set is a must buy!

Order your copy from this link today!

No comments:

Post a Comment