I first read The Hobbit back in high school, during the tail end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s renaissance, sparked by the Ballantine Books editions that first popped up in the 1960s. I later learned Tolkien wrote this as a children’s tale and when asked for a sequel went away for a decade and came up with the adult Lord of the Rings. A few thoughts come to mind starting with how far children’s literature has fallen since this debuted in 1937 so thinner and lesser works are now receiving acclaim.
It was lighter and sprightlier than its follow-up but in the hands of Peter Jackson, it has been uncomfortably shoe-horned into a cinematic continuity where it has struggled to find its way. In order to flesh things out, Jackson and his initial collaborator Guillermo Del Toro turned to the appendices to find supplemental story material, which worked out fine with the first trilogy. But the tone and approach to this children’s story has grown darker and certainly designed to act as a prequel trilogy to the more substantive LOTR. As a result, it’s almost impossible to judge the Hobbit films against the source material. The first, released in 2012, was maybe 60% from the novel and now The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, out on disc now from Warner Home Entertainment, is even less so.
Looking at the second installment as a film and not an adaptation, it works wonderfully well, a stronger middle chapter, much as The Empire Strikes Back deepened the early Star Wars universe. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues heading for the Lonely Mountain and its protector, the giant dragon Smaug. He is there to help the brotherhood of dwarves and honor his commitments, emboldened by the experiences in An Unexpected Journey. As is his wont, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has gone off with Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), seeking to learn more of the dangers he senses, all prelude to the following trilogy.
This film is really less about our hobbit and far more about the coming of age, as it were, of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). While there are some thrills as they encounter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and an army of giant spiders in Mirkwood, his major test comes when the band is captured by a darker, more malevolent elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), accompanied by Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). By inserting Legolas here feels odd since at no time in the LOTR trilogy does he comment at all about having met Bilbo since the notion hadn’t yet occurred to Jackson but bothered me. And while the diehard loyalists decry the whole cloth creation of a female elf, she works just fine for the purposes of the story. As the captured dwarves are delivered to Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace), we finally get to see Bilbo uses the One Ring to affect a nifty recuse. The characterization that both helped and bogged down the opening chapter is lessened here, which is keenly felt at times.
Finally, our merry band arrives at Esgaroth, setting up the confrontation with the amazing CGI creation of Smaug, voiced perfectly by Benedict Cumberbatch. Just like that, 2:40 slide by and you’re left with a cliffhanger that had fans stunned last December. This is a far stronger film than the first and feels justified as part of a trilogy, avoiding the sag many middle films suffer from.
As expected, the film transfer is gorgeous and glorious to look at from the couch. The sound is equally strong so you’re in good hands here.
What you have to decide now is whether or not having this version is all you need or should you wait for the extended cut edition no doubt coming next fall. The current set comes with the film on Blu-ray and DVD along with an Ultraviolet copy plus a Blu-ray disc of extra features. You get Peter Jackson Invites You to Set (40:36), four Production Videos (36:41), Live Event: In the Cutting Room (37:52), New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2 (7:11), and a Music Video for “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran (5:42).