Friday, 14 November 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition

The time has almost come for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies to be released in cinemas. This upcoming final entry in The Hobbit film series is being touted as the “defining chapter of the Middle-Earth saga”, which Peter Jackson kicked off with his blockbuster The Lord of the Rings trilogy back in 2001. However, The Hobbit takes place long before the fellowship embarked on their journey to destroy the One Ring, and focuses on the tale of Bilbo Baggins, how he finds the One Ring and the company of dwarves he decides to help take back their homeland. Though the second film in the trilogy has already made it to Blu-Ray before, this new release adds more content to the film. However, for a trilogy that has been accused of having too much filler, is this new content needed?

Directed by Peter Jackson and out now on Blu-Ray comes The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition, which compared to the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey, adds little filler with most of the content focusing on the greater lore of the series. The story picks right where An Unexpected Journey left off. With the Lonely Mountain in sight and the Arkenstone almost within Thorin Oakenshield's grasp, all that stands in way of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey and the company of 13 dwarves are Elves, a dark enchanted forest, legions of Orcs and, well, a fire breathing dragon with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch! Granted the story isn't as interesting, powerful or epic as The Lord of the Rings, but it really doesn't have to be. This second part of The Hobbit adventure isn't without it's faults, but it ultimately comes together as a success.

First up, the bad. The thing about The Hobbit trilogy is that everyone wants to compare it to The Lord of the Rings. Granted it's deeply, deeply connected to that trilogy, but The Hobbit should be judged by its own merits, instead of how it is compared to The Lord of the Rings. But hey, even if you don't compare it to one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time, The Hobbit series is flawed, and these flaws remain during this second instalment. The first glaring issue at times is the overuse of CGI. I love the fact that most sets and costumes are real, but despite CGI Orcs such as Azog and Bolg looking pretty impressive when alone on screen, they utterly fall to pieces when literally shoulder to shoulder with an Orc that's comprised of a real costume and prosthetics. This lack of blending the real with the unreal is a little hit and miss throughout the film, with some scenes looking perfectly fine, while others appearing as if they're cut-scenes from a Playstation game. Then there's the barrel scene. Look, I know that The Hobbit isn't meant to be as dark and heavy as The Lord of the Rings, but the scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves ride barrels down a river is pretty awful. What should have been a 3-minute sequence turns into them being hunted down by Orcs, the Orcs being attacked by Elves, the dwarf Bombur having a very Star Wars prequel moment and a CGI Legolas balancing on the dwarves' heads. It's all a little too much, and pretty much encapsulates the issues that The Hobbit trilogy has ingrained within it; at times Peter Jackson shows signs of no longer understanding the concept of “less is more”.

But all of those little problems aside, The Desolation of Smaug is a genuine success. While many are up in arms about how many liberties this film takes with its source material, judged solely on its own merits I welcome them. Granted some of those liberties do step over the line, but for the most part it's clear that Peter Jackson is in love with this universe. The stand out characters in this entry are once again Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who absolutely win over any scene they find themselves in. That said, The Desolation of Smaug does offer up new and interesting characters, particularly in the form of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) who, much like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, contends with living a life of being the descendant of a major Middle-Earth screw up. Then you have the titular character of Smaug, the dragon that guards the gold of Erebor. Played masterfully by Benedict Cumberbatch and realised impeccably by WETA Digital, his moments, much like Gollum's scenes in An Unexpected Journey, are the best aspect of the film. He's cunning, smart, quick and toys with Bilbo like a cat would play with a mouse before killing it. Wonderful stuff.

As I mentioned before, though I tended to hate that barrel scene, The Desolation of Smaug has plenty going for it in terms of narrative, lore and adventure. Since first seeing Radagast the Brown being confronted by the spirit of the Witch-King of Angmar, my favourite story thread in this trilogy has been of the White Council and the growing threat emanating from Dol Guldur. This directly ties into Sauron's plan in The Lord of the Rings, and this story is greatly expanded on in The Desolation of Smaug. It's dark, intense and completely outshines the other main plot-line regarding Erebor. That said, the journey Bilbo and the dwrves find themselves on is fantastic, particularly in terms of seeing both Bilbo and Thorin's evolution as characters. Bilbo very slowly begins to show signs of losing his innocence while Thorin, a dwarf whose singular goal is to become king of Erebor, begins to change in pursuit of this great, corruptible power. Acting somewhat similar as to how someone does when under the influence of the One Ring, Thorin is clearly being set up as the tragic character of this trilogy.

As expected both in terms of visuals and music, The Desolation of Smaug is a roaring success. From Beorn, the tall woodland shape-shifter that despises dwarves, the hallucinogenic effects of Mirkwood forest and the Elves that live within it, the chilling dark tomb of the men who will ultimately become the Ring Wraiths, the bustling city of Laketown and Smaug in all his magnificence, the film is a powerhouse of design, art and world building. Then there's the music. I don't really care for the Ed Sheeran track played over the credits this time, but Howard Shores score is, as always, utterly perfect. It's exciting, playful, adventurous and reminiscent to The Lord of the Rings at times.

But what about the extended scenes? That's what you're probably shouting at your screen right now, right? While the extend edition of An Unexpected Journey didn't add much to the experience of the first film, this expansion of The Desolation of Smaug adds a total of 25 minutes to the film. The scenes are great too, most of which feed into the ongoing trouble brewing witihn Dol Guldur. From a longer opening scene that alludes to Thorin's fathers disappearance, the shape-shifter Beorn sharing his thoughts about the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, to a very different and longer storyline in Dol Guldur itself, I genuinely preferred this extended edition over the theatrical cut, whereas for An Unexpected Journey I thought the opposite. This extended edition is no doubt playing into the story that will erupt in The Battle of the Five Armies, and I for one can't wait!

The extras are fantastic and clock up to over 9 hours of footage. They cover just about everything to do with production- characters, weapons, sets, CGI, filming, writing, you name it! The Blu-Ray includes:

  • Audio commentary by Director Peter Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens.
  • The Appendices Part 9
  • The Appendices Part 10
  • New Zealand: Home to Middle-Earth Part Two
  • The music of The Hobbit
  • Realms of the Third Age: From Beorn's House to Lake-town

Overall The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition is not a perfect film, but it's another step forward in what is undoubtedly an unforgettable journey. While it does have its hiccups in the form of the overuse of CGI, the Kili and Tauriel love scenes and that barrel escape, it also has wonderfully moving moments, dark sinister happenings and enough adventure and lore to whet your appetite in time for The Battle of the Five Armies. Bring it on.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition is better than the theatrical cut and gets a 5/5.


Denis Murphy

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