Release Date(s)2014 (November 4, 2014)
Studio(s)New Line/MGM/Wingnut Films (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A
The biggest question most of you Hobbit fans probably have at the moment is this: Is the extended cut of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug better than the one created for An Unexpected Journey. The short answer is: Yes.
Unlike the previous Lord of the Rings films, the extended version of the first Hobbit film did little to enhance its story or characters. Rather, it simply made an already long film even longer. The reason for this was that the decision to turn the two originally-planned Hobbit films into three was made just a scant few months before the release of the first film into theaters. So nearly all of the material that might have been saved to create an extended cut of An Unexpected Journey was instead used to create the second film. Such is not the case here. Most of the 25 minutes of footage restored to The Desolation of Smaug for this extended cut – 3 entirely new scenes and extensions to 11 others – does in fact improve the film and help to make it a bit more of a rewarding viewing experience.
The new material includes an extended opening scene in Bree (created from material found in Tolkien’s Appendices to Lord of the Rings), which we now realize more clearly is the true beginning of Thorin’s quest. It clarifies why Gandalf and Thorin need Bilbo to act as a burglar in this quest: Their immediate goal is to recover the Arkenstone from Erebor, but each has a different reason for wanting this to happen. This extended opening also gives us another flashback from the Battle of Moria, in which we see a key moment between Thorin and his father, Thráin. It’s important for two reasons: first because it deepens Thorin’s character and strengthens his motivations, and second because it heightens the film’s sense of tragedy when we learn Thráin’s fate in another new sequence later in the film. Additional highlights from the new material include Beorn revealing to Gandalf that the Nine have risen from the dead and that evil forces are gathering in Dol Guldur, and much more of footage of the Master and denizens of Lake-town, making the Company of Thorin’s stay there more interesting and consequential.
Once again, the extended cut of the film is contained on a single BD-50 disc in this set, in an exceptionally high level of A/V quality (on par with that of the theatrical BD release – refer to that review for additional A/V comments). The film is presented in 1080p video (2.40:1 aspect ratio) and runs a little over 216 minutes in length. Audio is included in English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, with additional Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes available in French and Portuguese, and optional subtitles in English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish (Latino).
The movie disc includes two extras. Once again you get the same New Zealand: The Home of Middle-Earth – Part 2 promotional featurettes (7:11) from the theatrical Blu-ray. You also get another feature-length audio commentary with writer/director Peter Jackson and co-writer/producer Philippa Boyens. I actually found this commentary more interesting overall than the last one, because creating the second film in this trilogy clearly presented the filmmakers with much more of a challenge. It’s well worth a listen… if you ever have the time to get around to it. And that might be difficult, because the next two Blu-rays in this set include a whopping ten hours of documentary content to work your way through.
Note that these documentaries are all in full HD (1.78:1), with the exception of select upconverted SD material from the previous LOTR documentaries. Audio for these extras is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1, with available subtitle options in English (for the deaf and hard of hearing), French, German, Italian, Spanish (Latino), Dutch, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Cantonese), Korean, Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese (Brazilian), Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Thai.
The documentaries begin with The Appendices: Part 9 – Into the Wilderland: The Chronicles of The Hobbit – Part 2 (5:00:26 – 14 parts with a Play All option), which includes: Opening (3:22), A Warm Welcome (29:23), Business of the State (15:24), Shelter on the Long Lake (20:19), In the Halls of the Elvenking (29:17), Flies and Spiders (29:43), Queer Lodgings (27:02), On the Doorstep (18:28), Inside Information (26:12), Down the Swift Dark Stream… (15:42), Barrels Out of Bond (30:05), A Chance Meeting (20:37), Erebor Rekindled (27:59), … Into the Fire (7:58 – a look ahead at the final film), and Credits (3:26).
It’s best to let you all experience this material for yourselves, but highlights include: The effort to hew to Tolkien’s larger story notes for The Hobbit in order to expand the films, the difficulties of working on the different scale sets (to make Bilbo and the dwarves appear smaller than the other characters), Steven Colbert’s visit to the set and his cameo as a Lake-town spy, Stephen Fry’s testicles (that will make sense when you see the film), glimpses of an unused Peter Jackson cameo in Lake-town and also an unused sequence in which the dwarves are brought before Thranduil (right after being captured in Mirkwood), footage of another unused scene between Legolas and Thranduil where the latter gives his son permission to go after Tauriel, a look at the many ways in which the barrel sequence was filmed (including on location in a real river, digitally in CG, and in an indoor barrel run built inside the studio), the difficulties some of the actors faced in being wrapped in spider webs and having fish dumped on their heads, Benedict Cumberbatch’s first visit to the set, the amazing hidden door set created for the entrance to Erebor, the challenge of realistically simulating millions of sliding gold coins in a computer, the huge amount of pick-up shooting for what became the second film (huge chunks of story remained to be shot after principle photography wrapped), the challenge of planning and shooting the dwarves’ confrontation with Smaug just two months before the release of the film, Peter Jackson shooting the final action sequence in Erebor with a virtual camera just a month before release, and the race to complete the film’s final sound mix and visual effects in time.
That’s just the first disc of extras. The Appendices: Part 10 – The Journey to Erebor (5:07:42 – with a Play All option) adds four more multi-part documentaries. These break down as follows: Summoning Smaug: Last of the Fire Drakes (01:16:31) – The Last and First Dragon (26:36), Conversations with Smaug (24:50), and Into the Dragon’s Lair (25: 36); The Peoples and Denizens of Middle-Earth (01:11:48) – Beorn: The Shape-Shifter (25:08), The Spawn of Ungoliant (16:49), and The Men of Lake-town (30:17); Realms of the Third Age: From Beorn’s House to Lake-town (01:34:07) – Beorn’s House (26:40), Mirkwood Forest (17:00), The Woodland Realm (21:05), and Lake-town (29:55); and The Music of The Hobbit (01:00:54) – Overture: Music of the Wilderland (21:36), 1st Movement: The World of Men (20:25), and 2nd Movement: In the Halls of Erebor (19:14); plus Credits (4:22).
Following in the pattern of the previous discs, this material is much more focused on the nuances of the production design for the film’s new characters and settings, and also its post-production. We get a great deal of material on the creation of Smaug, including a history of the dragons that influenced Tolkien, the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch to play Smaug, his mo-cap and voice performance that brought the character to life, and the character’s design evolution, animation, and sound mixing. We also get a very good look at Howard Shore’s efforts to write and record the new scores for the Hobbit films, specifically highlighting the many ways in which the new music echoes, recalls and reinforces themes from the previous Rings films.
Produced as usual by Michael Pellerin, this is all fine and incredibly comprehensive behind-the-scenes content, the likes of which are becoming ever more rare on Blu-ray these days. To be sure, it’s only content that’s going to appeal to diehard fans of these films, but then these Extended Editions are only really targeted at the diehard fans. I should note here that this set also includes a code to access an UltraViolet digital copy of the extended cut, and that a Blu-ray 3D Combo version of this set is available separately.
If you continue to count yourself a part of the audience for which The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Extended Edition was intended, then I’m confident that you’ll enjoy and appreciate both this longer cut and these abundant extras. Personally, I’m eager to see how (and how well) Jackson and company will manage to tie this trilogy together with their previous Lord of the Rings films in the forthcoming finale, The Battle of the Five Armies. While we wait for that, this Blu-ray release is very definitely recommended for fans. For everyone else, your mileage will vary (check out the theatrical versions first).
- Bill Hunt