Judge David Johnson prefers the Décolletage of Smaug.
"That, my lad, was a dragon."
I wasn't expecting a ton when I walked into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but I left the theater with the biggest dopiest smile on my face. I was enchanted by Peter Jackson's return to Middle-Earth and craving subsequent installments with the same type of clamoring I possessed during the original Lord of the Rings run. Here now is that ever-tricky middle act and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a whole different beast altogether.
But it was still awesome. I'll just go ahead and get that out of the way right now.
Facts of the Case
We rejoin Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The World's End) and his company of dwarves as they're about to enter Mirkwood, the rancid forest under siege by all manner of dark and crawly things. Their quest continues to be the reclamation of Erebor, the great dwarven kingdom lost to the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness), but the journey is a long one and they're going to have to negotiate such challenges as…Giant spider attacks! Elven prison food! Barrel-riding through rapids while Orcs attack! Combating the overwhelming odor of dead fish! And, ultimately, a face-off with Smaug himself, who's only too happy to spit-roast anyone that dares trespass on his gold hoard.
Our heroes aren't going it alone, as new (and familiar) characters join the story, including Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans, Fast and Furious 6), Beorn the skinchanger (Mikael Persbrandt), old pal Legolas (Orlando Bloom, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End) and female elf bad-ass Tauriel (Evangeline Lily, Lost). It's a jam-packed jaunt and an impressive accomplishment, considering the source material can be read during the commercial breaks of Full House.
I just can't think of another blockbuster director that delivers as much pound-for-pound entertainment as Peter Jackson. Where An Unexpected Journey went for a light-hearted, more intimate feel (amidst stone giants and trolls and giant eagles, sure, but comparatively intimate), The Desolation of Smaug is an experience packed sideways with show-stopping moment after show-stopping moment. What makes Jackson and this film so great is that the spectacle is not just for spectacle's sake; these eye-popping shenanigans slot nicely in with the flow of the larger story.
Now, before I go any further, yes this is an expanded vision of the The Hobbit text, featuring plenty of stuff created wholesale for the film. Yet seeing I've still got Aranofsky's sublime Noah on the mind, I'm going to risk retribution from my local rabbi and employ the concept of Midrash here. Jackson is retrofitting Tolkien's original classic to work as a full-on prequel to The Lord of the Rings and he's letting his creative juices fill in some of the requisite gaps. If you have a problem with that and think The Hobbit is sacrosanct, there will be a hefty amount of rejiggering you may find objectionable here. I am not necessarily immune.
Honestly, though, give me this expanded edition over a straight adaptation any day. I'll gladly take Jackson's inventions, if it means I consistently get next to three hours worth of this sort of colossal amusement every winter. The Desolation of Smaug is bursting, peppered with big crazy stuff I have never seen before. The barrel chase? Awesome. The Legolas street fight? More of that please. The Smaug finale? Maybe too over-the-top, but have you ever seen thousands of gallons of molten gold used as a tactical dwarf weapon before? Me neither.
As much as I enjoyed this installment—like a solid middle chapter in a trilogy, it sets up the final go-round with much anticipation—there are a few shortcomings that kept it from the bullseye An Unexpected Journey was. For one, the comedy was far more muted, a rather jarring comparison to the first film, which had charisma to spare. Here, the dwarves are far grumpier (not the playful kind of grumpy) and minus a Bilbo moment of levity here or there, you can expect a sullen tone. This is understandable, as Middle-earth is going down the drain in a big way, which leads to my second point. Without getting spoilery, major occurrences go down that appear to leave Jackson and company written into a corner for The Hobbit: There and Back Again (Hint: someone needs to come down with Days of Our Lives amnesia for character actions in the Lord of the Rings to make sense). That last one will probably be corrected by more creative writing, an approach I don't mind, though my final lament is connected. Tauriel, a Jackson creation, is merely okay, and her attached plot lines (Legolas included), specifically an odd love triangle, feels more like padding than anything necessary to the story.
Still, these issues do little to affect my affection for the movie. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is big-time, bang-for-your-buck blockbuster filmmaking and chugs along at a thrilling clip. I can't wait to see what Jackson has in store for the finale, which promises to be as big and crazy as anything we've ever seen from Middle-Earth.
As expected, we get a dynamite Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. The 2.40:1/1080p HD widescreen treatment is absolutely stunning, an instant frontrunner for looker of the year. The resolution is some of the sharpest I've seen and the outstanding production design shines. The only downside: the clarity undercuts some of the more ambitious visual effects, particularly the barrel chase. The audio is outstanding, the DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track delivering a room-filling, wall-shaking presentation. Extras sit on a bonus disc, and—with the knowledge that a jacked extended edition is forthcoming—aren't bad. The highlight is "Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set," a lengthy selection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, giving a look at the enormous horsepower that went into the making of the film. Batting clean-up are the previously aired video blogs, a recycled TV segment, and the disposable promo "New Zealand: Home of Middle-Earth, Part 2."
The book is good fun and all, but I'm all over this interpretation, which feels (thus far) like a seamless fit into the greater Lord of the Rings story. Can't wait for December, snow and all!
Not Guilty, barrel-rider.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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