The Desolation of Smaug continues the adventure of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he journeys with the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on an epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Having survived the beginning of their unexpected journey, the Company travels East, encountering along the way skin-changer Beorn and a swarm of giant spiders in the treacherous forest of Mirkwood. After escaping capture by the dangerous Wood-elves, the Dwarves journey to Lake-town, and finally to the Lonely Mountain itself, where they must face the greatest danger of all–a creature more terrifying than any other; one which will test not only the depth of their courage but the limits of their friendship and the wisdom of the journey itself: the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Picking up soon after the events of 'An Unexpected Journey,' Peter Jackson takes moviegoers and Tolkien fans back to Middle-earth for another adventure in the company of dwarves, a wizard, and a mostly reluctant but observant hobbit. This next chapter in the epic-fantasy trilogy based on one book is an unexpected improvement over its predecessor, introducing a few new characters — as far as the original source is concerned — while still managing to stay faithful to Tolkien's vision. It's not that the first movie was all that bad as much as it felt overlong and largely uneventful, an obvious setup for this sequel. And while this follow-up plays out like a bridge to the third and final installment, the movie is better executed and makes excellent use of its 161-minute runtime.
At the start, as this guild of little people continues running away from Azog and his Orc party, Jackson and his team immediately appease the devoted fandom with the appearance of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt). The shapeshifting giant, who's only ever seen changing into a bear, is a bit of CGI clumsiness, not blending all that well with the live-action characters. Still, he imbues and establishes an air of mystery to the plot, talking in a somber tone about his race of people, generating some well-earned sympathy. Little characteristics, like when he pours milk without looking at the cup, bring the creature to life and make him a memorable addition to the franchise. Of course, his purpose is simply to set Thorin and his company back on the right path to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, but he does so by leading them into Mirkwood.
Once at edge of the dark, enchanted forest, the plot suddenly thickens, leading Gandalf (Ian McKellen donning the gray hat and robe once more) on a quest of his own to the tombs of the Nazgûl. The subplot affords Jackson and his team with another opportunity to pave a connection with the original 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, as the gray wizard discovers far more than he bargained for. Meanwhile, the dwarves timidly traverse through the forest to find themselves in the company of giant spiders. But the highlight of this encounter is seeing Bilbo (Martin Freeman again doing fantastically in the role) realizing the power the One Ring can wield on him. He can not only understand the spiders, but he exposes a deeply hidden rage when protecting the precious ring from being taken.
These minor alterations and interpretations to Tolkien's dearly beloved book pale in comparison to the appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom reprising the role that turned him a star) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly bringing a wholly original character to the Middle-earth universe). To my amazement, the two characters are integrated well into the narrative, not only expanding on Jackson's vision of this epic fantasy but adding some welcome drama to the overall plot. They almost seem like they've been a part of the story all along, never distracting from the central point: entering the Lonely Mountain. A love-triangle between the two and Kili (Aidan Turner) is somewhat of a stretch, but it ultimately works with amusing cuteness and tension that'll surely develop further in the next movie.
Arguably, one of the more interesting aspects is the hostility and unease between Richard Armitage's Thorin and Legalos's father Thranduil (Lee Pace). One blames the other for losing the Kingdom Under the Mountain while the other saw the fight as a lost cause. The sequel also introduces audiences to Bard of Esgaroth (Luke Evans), who will play a more substantial role in the next chapter, and the Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry doing his comical creepy best). For Tolkien fans, these are delightfully enjoyable moments, but what we really want is Freeman's Bilbo in a battle of wits against Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug, who is clearly having a devilishly good time as the slithering, gold-obsessed beast. 'The Desolation of Smaug' unfortunately ends on a blatant "to be continued" note, yet the story overall is satisfying and largely feels complete, an improvement over its predecessor, hinting at an exciting conclusion.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' to Blu-ray as a three-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy code. Housed inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase with a glossy cardboard slipcover, the first two discs are Region Free — one a BD50 and the other a BD25 — sitting atop each other while the third is a DVD-9 copy of the movie. Viewers are taken straight to an animated main menu screen with music and full-motion clips. The package also includes flyers for a Lego videogame and movie merchandise.
Like its predecessor, 'Desolation of Smaug' was filmed using the high frame rate of 48fps and thankfully, it translates well to the traditional frame rate of 24fps on Blu-ray. Although the video still possesses that digitized and sterilized appearance of shooting in HD, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is quite remarkable and dazzling to watch. Without the smallest hint of motion judder to be seen, the overall presentation is consistently detailed and razor sharp, exposing the tiniest flaw and imperfection in the clothing, armor, buildings and various weapons seen throughout. Individual hairs are distinct, and the textures of the fabric in the costumes are very well-defined and lifelike. Facial complexions are highly revealing as well, showing every wrinkle and pore in the faces of the cast.
Filmed entirely on a Red Epic camera system, the 2.40:1 image displays a wide array of bright, vivid colors, making the picture pop with energy. A crisp, brilliant contrast allows for extraordinary visibility in the distance, exposing the tiniest objects in the background and the fine lines of various rock formations scattered throughout the New Zealand landscape. The only minor drawback is the brightness levels. While a majority of the video shows excellent, true blacks, many shadows appear a bit murky and sometimes noticeably faded. There are also a couple negligible instances of aliasing in the finest of lines, most apparent when inside the Lonely Mountain. However, all in all, the high-def transfer is spectacular.
The sequel to 'The Hobbit' franchise also debuts on Blu-ray with a reference-quality DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that rivals its predecessor. Dynamic range is astoundingly extensive and broad, exhibiting the smallest detail with superb, crystal-clear clarity. Every pop and sizzle of Smaug's fiery breadth is distinct and accurate with incredible realism, as it spreads across the entire front soundstage and moves into the back of the room. During action sequences, the upper ranges are detailed with precise distinct clarity, giving each death yell of the Orcs and every clash of the metal swords extraordinary intelligibility. All the while, dialogue remains lucid and well-prioritized in the center.
Rear activity is also filled with subtle ambient effects that play almost non-stop throughout the film's runtime, creating a wonderfully satisfying environment. As you'd expect from the several battles, arrows fly overhead, swords swing clear across the room and the Orcs run in swarms from behind the listener to front of the screen with awesome effectiveness. A highlight is when Kili, Fili, Oin and Bofur are about to be attacked and the footsteps of Orcs walking on the rooftops are heard above the audience. Panning is fluid and flawless, creating a stunning 360° soundfield that's immersive while Howard Shore's music envelops viewers with exhilaration.
Like its predecessor, the design also comes with a powerful low-end that's quite effective and occasionally rattles walls. Each thump of the horses' hooves and stomp of a Warg's paw is felt, and battle scenes can make the floor rumble. The bass plays an appreciable role in Shore's thrilling musical score, adding a great deal of weight to the orchestration, especially when hearing the cellos and the low-pitched brass instruments. The best moments are the scenes with Smaug, as his fire breadth and footsteps offer some fun palpable effects. However, and also like the first movie, it never really digs deep or ever hits the lower depths, mostly remaining in the mid to upper ranges of extension. Nevertheless, the presentation remains a marvelously satisfying lossless mix.
The UltraViolet Digital HD Copy is shared between formats and also available separately for purchase.
Picking up soon after the events of 'An Unexpected Journey,' Peter Jackson takes moviegoers and Tolkien fans back to Middle-earth for another adventure in the company of dwarves, a wizard and a mostly reluctant but observant hobbit. This next chapter in the epic-fantasy trilogy improves upon its predecessor. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent reference-quality audio and video presentation, and a majority of the supplements are exclusive. The overall package makes for a fine purchase for those impatient for the eventual extended edition.