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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumerbatch, Orlando Bloom 
Director:  Peter Jackson 
Audio:  Dolby DTS English, French and Spanish 7.1, with English French and Spanish subtitles 
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.77: 1  
Studio:  New Line Home Video 
Features:  See Review 
Run Time:  161 Minutes plus features 
Release Date:  April 8, 2014 

Gandalf: “You've changed, Bilbo Baggins. You're not the same Hobbit as the one who left the Shire...”  

Bilbo Baggins: “I was going to tell you... I found something in the Goblin tunnels.”  

Gandalf: “Found what? What did you find?”  

Bilbo Baggins: (touches the Ring in his pocket). “My courage.”  

Gandalf: “Good... well, that's good. You'll need it.”  

Film ***1/2 

Like many viewers I was skeptical about making a trilogy of The Hobbit considering how brief the novel is, but in the capable hands of Peter Jackson, the tale is expanded, detailed and exciting.  He also cleverly uses it as groundwork for the upheaval awaiting us in the Lord of the Rings. 

The movie was marketed as being all about the dragon.  The talking, thundering, leaping, frightening dragon.  I noted in my review of the first installment that some of the CGI seemed unnatural, but Smaug the dragon is a true CGI masterpiece.  He is much more than just some beast sitting on a pile of gold.    Voiced by the marvelous Benedict Cumberbatch, he seems angry, desperate, irrational, and impossible to defeat.  His huge eyes fluttering as he stomps around under the mountain are terrifying.  But things go from bad to worse when he considers leaving his treasure, and attacking the local village instead. 

But there is plenty of other important material here.  Much of the backstory of the Lord of the Rings has gone untold, and here we learn more about the origin of the enmity between dwarves and elves, old grudges that die hard.  We also witness a valiant Elvish princess fight for the cause of the dwarves, her affection for one of them mysterious but honest.  And of course, Sam learns to use the Ring as its grip on him tightens. 

But the sight of dwarves falling down a waterfall in barrels might be the most entertaining part of the whole film.  Hundreds of hours went into planning it, and watching barrels bounce all over the place is amazing.    The scenes of orc leaders communicating with what appears to be a black cloud show that Sauron was emerging.  Then Gandalf himself faces Sauron, and we see the Great Eye.  This is not in the original novel of course, but works well to lay out the groundwork for the challenges in the Lord of the Rings. 

Bilbo shows the familiar Baggins courage and resilience, and he is the one who unlocks the door into the mountain for the dwarves, even when they themselves lose hope.   

Video ****

The color palette is very rich and realistic.  The CGI is a real achievement, the orcs menacing, and overall the effects are smoother than in the first film. 

Audio  ****

A flawless mix of dialogue, music and effects.   Listening to the various beasts and bears, orcs and dragons made my pets hide for hours! 

Features ***

The first featurette is a detailed cross-section of what happens behind the scenes.  It is hard to fathom how anyone could organize 1100 crew members, 100 sets, let alone do it well, on time, and under budget.   Jackson’s genius seems to be to work methodically with everyone, steering the ship, paying attention to detail without details overwhelming him.  I am convinced that this is why many directors fail; they cling to their vision but do not communicate it to others, or they are simply overwhelmed.  And sometimes their vision just is not very visionary.   Jackson is obviously a special director. 

Other featuerettes include "New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth Part 2" in which we see more of this fantastic island nation's beauty, and more production features.  Strangely, there are no commentary tracks this time.

Summary:

While it will never top The Lord of the Rings this trilogy will surely be the new standard and probably the last attempt to tell the tale for many, many years.  Jackson and company have again mined the rich Tolkien mythos to tell a tale that has stood for decades as a masterpiece.  And now we wait to see if the treasure is recovered without burning Middle-Earth to the ground… 

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