The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 3D Review
The MovieThe Desolation of Smaug begins much where An Unexpected Journey left off, with wizard Gandalf, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins and their company of thirteen dwarves being hunted by Azog the Defiler, a giant white Orc who is after the head of Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the Dwarven fellowship who is out to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor. They encounter Beorn, a shape-shifting bear-man who gives them refuge, before heading into the darkness of Mirkwood and crossing paths with the aloof Wood-elves. Events set the company on a course towards Lake-town, the last remaining outpost of Men near the foot of the Lonely Mountain, wherein lies their ultimate goal: Erebor, the ancient dwarf realm now presided over by Smaug, the mountain's fearsome fire-breathing occupant who has slumbered for years on his gigantic haul of treasure. It is here where burglar Bilbo is pressed into service to steal the Arkenstone – a legendary jewel which will bestow upon its bearer the authority to unite the scattered Dwarven race – from under the dragon’s nose, which is a feat easier said than done...
Initially I was less than enthusiastic about this second instalment because the pacing seemed to be very uneven and the numerous changes from the book were bewildering, but having rewatched the first film and then Desolation straight after I can now see exactly what director Peter Jackson and his co-producers/co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were aiming for. What first seemed like an irregular staccato rhythm – incredibly fast-paced action interspersed with lengthy introspection – seems more evenly balanced on further viewing, with even the dialogue scenes exhibiting a sense of urgency which is lacking from the first movie. As for the raft of changes, it should be clear by now that this is not strictly Professor Tolkien’s Hobbit anymore, not with the spectre of the cinematic Lord Of The Rings trilogy looming large over the production. And when Peter Jackson eventually became the director (Guillermo del Toro having dropped out) they were certain to evolve into LOTR 0.5 in all but name, if only because they would (and do) maintain the continuity of his sweeping visual style.
That said, Jackson was heavily involved with the project even before he came on to direct, so it was always likely that The Hobbit’s escapades were bound to support the overarching saga of the One Ring, rather than wholeheartedly preserving the jauntier children's book which bears a passing relationship to the wider LOTR spectrum. And yet, tuning this latest Hobbit movie onto that more serious wavelength has paid dividends, because it feels like there’s more at stake than a Halfling simply deciding to go on an adventure. They're moving away from Bilbo's story to focus more on the struggles of others: Thorin’s realisation of his family’s tarnished legacy (his grandfather Thror driven mad by his lust for treasure, his father Thrain missing presumed dead) and Gandalf’s suspicion that the old Enemy is on the rise. Bilbo is the title character of these films but Gandalf has a larger investment in proceedings, the wizard being posited as the harbinger of Sauron’s re-emergence, trying urgently to rally as many of the forces of good as he can in order to ward off the Dark Lord’s return.
Desolation’s prologue underscores that point by showing us Gandalf's first meeting with Thorin, the wizard outlining his aim of restoring the eastern kingdom of Erebor which – if you’ll pardon the expression – represents a two-for-one deal. If he can re-establish one of the great Dwarven dynasties he could gain a powerful ally, and in the process remove what could become a terrible weapon in the hands of the enemy: Smaug, the Fire-drake who destroyed the grand human city of Dale and who cast the Dwarf peoples out of the mountain into the wilderness. But no sooner has Gandalf set the plan in motion than the fouler occupants of Middle-earth have also gotten wind of it, and so begins a race against time to restore Thorin to his rightful place on Erebor’s throne (which retroactively imbues the events of the first film with a little more dramatic impetus).
An Unexpected Journey seemed to be something of a clone of its LOTR counterpart Fellowship Of The Ring, and as such it felt somewhat cosy and safe, not appearing to say anything new about Middle-earth and lacking the gravitas which the story of the Ring imparted on Fellowship. Given what I said above about this loose adaptation of The Hobbit, the first film was admittedly more in-keeping with the lighter spirit of the original source material, yet it trod such a familiar filmic path that I was blinded to what Jackson was trying to do with his telling of the tale. But I've since gained a better appreciation of that first Journey, not least because the seeds that were planted re: Gandalf's wariness of Sauron's return (like in his meeting with Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman) have finally borne fruit in Desolation, with the Necromancer of Dol Guldur revealing his true identity. And - to return to my first point - if the initial Hobbit film is a doppelganger for Fellowship, then this follow-up is a dead ringer for The Two Towers. The story has taken a similarly darker turn, branching off into several offshoots with certain characters going their respective ways (though ‘twas ever thus for the second film in a trilogy). Like The Two Towers before it, Desolation also encroaches further into the world of Men and looks at its political machinations, although this time it’s the waterlogged city of Lake-town and its corpulent Master which feature.
At this point in Middle-earth’s history, the Enemy has long been forgotten by mortal men and is scarcely considered by those who are longer lived - yet huge swathes of land have fallen under a creeping darkness coming from the east, something which is referenced in Journey and examined further in Desolation. To that end, one of the biggest changes from the book sees the expansion of Elven interests with the addition of LOTR alumnus Legolas and a captain of the Mirkwood Guard, a She-elf named Tauriel. Spiders, trolls and Orcs venture further afield every day, their boldness growing as the light diminishes, but only Tauriel is concerned with the wider consequences of this spreading sickness. Thranduil, Elvenking and ruler of the Woodland Realm, is content to do nothing more than mind his own borders, his people's destiny seemingly assured by their immortal Elven bloodlines as they sit safe in their heavily guarded domain. His son, Legolas, finds himself torn between his duty to his isolationist king and his affection for the impulsive Tauriel - although he didn’t actually feature in The Hobbit as written by Tolkien. Legolas' inclusion is equal parts fan-service and character development with reference to the wider LOTR saga, for this younger iteration is almost as parochial as his father Thranduil (who was in the book). Tauriel however is an all-new creation, designed by the filmmakers to redress the balance in terms of female participation.
Jackson and Co. have form for this sort of thing in the previous LOTR movies, taking Arwen and turning her from a lovelorn maiden into a battling Elven scout and back again, though it appears to have been del Toro who pushed for the addition of a new character in this case. Silvan elf Tauriel is deadly with both bow and blade, her status as part of a lower caste allowing the character to exemplify a more aggressive and yet more open-minded facet of the Wood-elves. But for all of the filmmakers' noble ideas of promoting female empowerment, they undermine themselves with cliché when Tauriel falls in love with one of the Dwarves, replete with doe-eyed close-ups and syrupy chat-up lines about the stars in the sky. That aspect remains undercooked on repeat viewing, and it comes as no surprise to learn that it was shoehorned in during additional shooting, because they needed something to pad out the running time when two films became three overnight. Nevertheless, Tauriel’s very much a positive addition to the Hobbit mythos, adding a measure of recklessness but also emotional warmth to the Wood-elves, the latter aspect particularly lacking from the elves' depiction in Tolkien's original Hobbit tale.
Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel and she does so with no small amount of elfin beauty and springy CG-assisted athleticism, her flame-red hair a reminder of her fiery nature, and it's also a stark visual contrast to the glacial cool of the blonde-haired Sindar Wood-elves. Amongst their number is Legolas, Orlando Bloom reprising his famous LOTR role and looking like he hasn’t aged a day. Lee Pace gets more to do this time around as King Thranduil, and he’s every bit the remote, insular leader, displaying his contempt for all those who do not belong to his race. Richard Armitage’s role as Thorin also has more meat on it, the character starting to realise that the weight of history may take its toll on him, especially when he finally re-enters Erebor and threatens Bilbo in a Boromir-esque fashion. Unfortunately the character of Beorn doesn't fare so well in terms of screen time, Mikael Persbrandt's pleasingly gruff performance as the hirsute skin-changer being limited to just a few minutes. The same is true for Sylvester McCoy, back again briefly as bird-brained wizard Radagast the Brown.
Bilbo is assayed by Martin Freeman once more and the Ring’s power is starting to affect our heroic Hobbit, particularly in a beautifully acted moment when Bilbo becomes acutely aware of its corruptive influence after frenziedly attacking a woodland creature. The rest of the Dwarves are mostly as anonymous as before, with Ken Stott’s white-haired Balin standing out only for his regular bouts of exposition, although fatty Bombur's (Stephen Hunter) unexpected physical prowess will live long in the memory. The citizens of Lake-town are represented by the gravelly voiced Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman (the role having been greatly expanded from the book), and then there’s Stephen Fry as the Master, the oleaginous administrator of Lake-town who’s full of the bluster and barely-hidden distaste for his citizens that’s typical of most politicians. Rounding off the live-action ensemble is, of course, Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, bringing his usual demeanour of paternal pragmatism to the role.
The centrepiece of the movie is Bilbo's confrontation with the eponymous Smaug, and it doesn’t disappoint. Given a booming, guttural voice by Benedict Cumberbatch, and a writhing, snake-like appearance by the VFX boffins at Weta Digital, Smaug’s a fantastical creature made virtual flesh. Cumberbatch also provided motion capture for the beast, which gives the dragon a genuine emotional range and yet he has an identity all his own. The rest of the CG creations are no less impressive, ranging from the pale Orcs (also mo-capped, which gives their facial expressions incredible realism unlike the fixed gurns of the Uruks in the LOTR series) to the various dizzying digital sets that seem to go on forever, like the cavernous geometrical expanse of Erebor. There are only a few missteps along the way, such as a few action beats with the dragon that were just a bit too ambitious and look half-finished, and the molten gold that flows during the finale looks like cheesy VFX from a mid-90’s TV show (but that I can forgive because authentic-looking liquids are still something of a challenge for digital artists).
Clocking in at 161 minutes, Desolation is the shortest of all of Jackson's Middle-earth movies, which proves to be both a blessing and a hindrance. There’s less of the Enya music video soft-focus styling (though it cannot be completely avoided!) and more of an emphasis on moving the story along, creating a propulsive action-adventure unlike any of the prior instalments. But this rapid pace also means that the overriding narrative can get muddied if the viewer isn’t fully up to speed with previous events, and it's difficult to play catch-up with the story when the film is accelerating away from you. The abruptness of the ending may not be to everyone’s taste either. All of that made for a somewhat disjointed theatrical experience, but with the bookend of the first film fresh in my mind the pieces slotted into place upon a second viewing. I could then appreciate the swift pacing for what it is, leaving me free to concentrate on the breezy action scenes which are a highlight of Peter Jackson’s directorial career so far.
Jackson’s camera has never liked to be tethered down but here it roves about like never before, the fight scenes crisply choreographed and executed with real flair, as the freedom of digital allows us to be put in the thick of the action without cutting away. The Elves dispatch their enemies with their usual style and grace, resulting in a hail of severed limbs and heads, and the scene when Legolas takes on Bolg (a hulking white Orc, son of Azog) is a highlight because it’s a bone-crunching bout of hand-to-hand combat (something that we don't see an awful lot of in these movies, such is their fetishised focus on ornate weaponry). The Dwarves get involved too, battling giant spiders and being sent careening down-river hidden in barrels as they escape from Mirkwood, chased by a horde of Orcs with Tauriel and Legolas in hot pursuit. When the series was supposed to be just two movies this 'barrel chase' was going to the point of the split between them, and I can understand why because it’s an absolutely rip-roaring scene that’s good enough to grace the finale of any other film - but here it’s just another spectacular action sequence amongst several spectacular action sequences!
All in all, The Desolation of Smaug is an enjoyable ride, able to function as both a crowd-pleasing actioner and as the penultimate step towards completion of Peter Jackson’s epic exploration of Middle-earth. There is of course the question of what the inevitable Extended Edition will bring to the table, but as with the first Hobbit film I don’t think it’ll be changed dramatically, and besides, I generally prefer the concise nature of the theatrical versions rather than the bloat of the longer cuts. Still, it'd be nice if we actually saw Smaug's desolation in the film which bears that name, though our look at the ruined city of Dale has probably been reserved for the final chapter, There and Back Again, due in December 2014. (24/04/2014: The third film has since been retitled as The Battle of the Five Armies.)
Warners presents the theatrical version of the movie on four Blu-ray discs: two for the 3D version, one for the 2D and one for the extras. An Ultraviolet digital copy is also included. The 3D feature is split into two to allow for the best picture quality, given the lengthy running time and the higher bitrate demands of the 3D MVC encoding. Unfortunately the disc break is very poorly positioned, occurring mid-scene which badly disrupts the flow of the movie. (One can only hope that the eventual Extended Edition will be able to furnish the 3D version with a more suitable dividing point than Nori's head appearing out of a toilet.) Desolation was shot in native 3D and captured on dual Red Epic rigs at 5K, which was boiled down to a 2K DI for the various theatrical deliverables. We aren't able to experience the effect of the 48fps HFR version in the home just yet, but this 24fps Blu-ray presentation is extremely good nonetheless.
The film is framed at the correct widescreen aspect of 2.40. Blacks can sometimes be a touch thin, certain shots having a slightly dull look in terms of contrast, but this was entirely intentional to portray the murk that's gathering over Middle-earth, and the blacks can still go dark and deep when necessary. Shadow detail is excellent and the gloomier colour palette is efficiently rendered, though there is just the briefest hint of banding in large swathes of colour. Fine detail is razor-edged with no visible sharpening, and overt compression artefacts aren't a problem. Please note: A few brief underwater shots during the barrel chase were captured with a GoPro (one of them ‘action cams’ popular with extreme sports enthusiasts) so the quality does drop for a few moments, but this isn’t a fault of the transfer.
The 3D version takes that underlying visual solidity and adds a terrific use of the stereo format, creating a constant impression of layered depth which gives the images a real feeling of weight and volume. It’s like you’re there during the action scenes as heads fly and arrows whiz past your ears. There are a few decent popouts too, like guards shoving their staves into your face or a giant bumblebee buzzing around, and I noticed no instances of crosstalk on my passive display. It’s not the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen but it is one of the most polished, resulting in an entertaining stereo rendition that oozes quality.
The sound is similarly fantastic, the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix enveloping you with unerring placement of both aggressive discrete effects and intelligent atmospherics. The Spiders of the woods scatter and chatter all around you, Balin’s footsteps die away at rear right when he leaves Bilbo to get on with his burgling in Erebor, and you’ll know Lake-town by the persistent creaks and groans of that wooden city. Speech is clean and bright, with even piercing screams causing no problems with distortion or sibilance, and Howard Shore's music sits nicely forward in the mix. The bass extension is good and loud, underpinning Smaug’s sonorous voice with a truly monstrous sense of scale, though it never hits the deepest registers, meaning that you hear the bass rather than truly feel it. But it’s still a very, very impressive mix.
Extra features aren’t too extensive because the real goodies will be included on the Extended Edition later in the year, but we’re getting more than the theatrical edition of Journey, which only had a selection of production videos, a promo spot for New Zealand and some trailers. A new round of those production videos are included here, four in total running for about 36 minutes, along with two featurettes under the banner of Peter Jackson Invites You To The Set (40 mins altogether) which take a look at a typical day’s work on the set. There’s also an edited version of a live web event from March 2013 called In The Cutting Room where Jackson invited the internet-dwelling public inside his production facilities, showcasing his awesome poster collection and his dry Kiwi wit (37 mins). The package is rounded off with a healthy selection of promotional material, including: several trailers for the movie and related video games, another NZ promo piece and the music video for Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire, the song which closes the film. (It's not bad either, and it makes a nice change from the soppy ballads which usually end these movies.)
OverallDirector Peter Jackson’s fifth foray into Middle-earth marks his furthest departure yet from J.R.R. Tolkien's original source material, and yet The Desolation of Smaug is one of his most confident movies, perhaps because of how much of his own stamp he’s been able to put on it. The A/V presentation of this 3D/2D Blu-ray is very good indeed, and it comes bundled with a reasonable selection of extras to tide us over while we wait for the Extended Edition.
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