Today marks the next step in the adventures of the Company of Thorin Oakenshield with the release of The Desolation of Smaug (Extended Edition) on Blu-Ray, 3D Blu-Ray and DVD. Once again Peter Jackson takes us back to Middle-earth and with this extended edition, we get what we expect: more story, more characters, more Middle-earth – and Jackson certainly delivers. The theatrical release of The Desolation of Smaug clocks in at 2 hours and 41 minutes, while the extended release adds 25 minutes to the running time. It’s a significant addition, but not as film-changing as some earlier entries in the franchise like Return of the King. This review contains spoilers and focuses on the extra material added to this edition of the film and how they change they impact the film as a whole.
So what do you get in a little under half an hour? Quite a bit actually. Like previous extended editions, Desolation deepens the story by creating more context for the greater narrative. These extra scenes reflect on a deeper narrative that runs through all of the Middle-earth films and Jackson wastes no time weaving extra threads into this already rich tapestry.
Like the original version of the film, we open with the rain-soaked village of Bree and a meeting between Gandalf and Thorin. However, the discussion between the two is extended and the audience is even given a glimpse at a previously unrevealed warrior who fought in the Battle of Moria: Thrain, Thorin’s father. The scene is brief, but helps to establish the bonds of kin between father and son as well as give a stronger logic behind why Thorin Oakenshield would trust a stranger in grey robes who shows up one day and tries to convince him to go on an adventure. Apparently Gandalf likes to do that sort of thing to the shorter races of Middle-earth. But we get to see here how the Grey Wizard’s harkening to his friendship with Thrain invites Thorin to trust him, and we’re also given a tease with mention of “The Dwarf Ring.” This kind of subtle nod to the greater story of Sauron’s malice is appreciated. It feels as though this film and An Unexpected Journey have spent an ample amount of screen time reminding the viewer (as if they could forget) that they are, in fact, in films that are connected to Jackson’s previous trilogy.
Beorn goes from a tall, angry lumberjack with a facial styling reminiscent of a video hedgehog to a more fully realized character who is deeply connected to the land he so dearly loves. Much to my personal delight, the introduction by Gandalf of the company to Beorn as it was portrayed in the original text of The Hobbit makes an appearance here largely in tact. It’s a lovely scene with some minor changes from the source material, but Ian McKellen is absolutely enchanting and we see Gandalf fully realized in the tiny nuances of his performance. Beorn too is given more screen time and characterization. We get a sense that he is aware of the darkening of his beloved wilderness and perhaps he is more than a skin-changer. Instead he is a creature who is not just a part of Middle-earth, but a creature of Middle-earth, akin to Tom Bombadil or other ageless beings. It’s a subtle implication, but it again creates weight for why a seemingly hostile and untrusting character would aid a company of strangers.
As the company departs from the House of Beorn, subtly is cast once more to the wind and we are beaten over the head with a reminder that this is a film connected to the previous trilogy by a brief scene of men burying the Witch-King in the mountains of Rhudar. Yes, we know it’s the Witch-King – no need to be (not so) coy about it, thank you.
Returning to Thorin’s Company, Gandalf departs and the dwarves (with Bilbo) brave the psychedelic forest of Mirkwood. Again, we see Jackson’s knowledge and vision of the source text in a new scene: The enchanted stream. The crossing is a bit more complicated than originally portrayed in the book (as are a great many scenes in these films), though Jackson is clever and engaging in his execution of the sequence. Bombur, as in the text, tumbles into the waters and the dwarves are forced to carry him for the remainder of their journey through Mirkwood as he languishes in an enchanted slumber.
The hidden Halls of Mirkwood and amusement park advertisement that is the barrel escape sequence remain exactly as originally depicted and we get nothing new until we reach Lake-town. The under utilized Stephen Fry is given some extra screen time, where he hams it up so much that it is almost as if he were quite literally a cartoon character. Never once does he seem menacing or a genuine threat, though it is clear the film is attempting to portray him as such – perhaps in an attempt to mirror John Noble’s performance as Denethor in the original Lord of the Rings films. Unfortunately, success is not achieved and instead he comes off as moustache twirling and almost comedic. It’s a case of a genuinely talented actor who is never quite given a chance to perform to the length of his ample ability.
Lake-town itself is also given more screen time, with longer shots of the village before the confrontation between Thorin’s Company and the Master. Here we find a small, but notable addition. The Master of Lake-Town is reluctant to throw his support behind the dwarves until Bilbo Baggins (oh yeah, this is a move called “The Hobbit” isn’t it?) speaks up to Thorin’s honor in spite of Thorin having seized every opportunity to marginalize Bilbo’s contribution to the adventure thus far in the films.
We cut to Gandalf’s exploration of the ruins of Dol Guldur, where we’re treated to more beautiful creepiness that Jackson does so well. Gandalf actually encounters Thrain, who is still alive in the ruins – though the dwarf is quite mad from his time as prisoner under the dark powers that dwell there. Gandalf restores Thrain to some sanity in a sequence that would make William Peter Blatty proud and he recalls to Gandalf how he fell during the Battle of Moria. Again in a subtly not seen in the standard edition of the film, we see Thrain wearing one of the Dwarven Rings of Power, which is cut from his hand by Azog during the battle as a spoil for the orc’s master. Instead of blatantly screaming to the audience that this film is part of a greater story, these kinds of moments allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions and by that become naturally more invested in the series as a whole. Thrain quickly departs the narrative when he leaps into the great black abyss that is so obtusely used to represent Sauron as he hopes to buy Gandalf an opportunity to escape – but like the original film, Gandalf is subjected to a display of Morgul Sorcery and the audience is beaten over the head with the fact that the Necromancer is Sauron before both the wizard taken captive by the Dark Lord.
When the dwarves depart from Lake-Town we find another return to the source material with the inclusion of the thrush knocking. This is newly hinted at as the dwarves cross the desolate landscape around the destroyed city of Dale and fully realized when Bilbo sees the thrush knocking after the dwarves have all departed in defeat. Again, this return to the original text of the film creates a warm familiarity for those who have had a long love affair with the novel The Hobbit, and is a welcome addition.
The remainder of the film is largely untouched from the theatrical release. A few fight sequences have a second or two added here and there, the attempt by the dwarves to defeat Smaug with Rube Goldberg inspired tactics is thankful unextended. Unfortunately, the dragon himself and the magnificent Benedict Cumberbatch see no more screen time with The Desolation of Smaug: Extended Edition and it’s one of the few things in the film that could have been strengthened the film.
In the end, the extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug is an both an improvement on its theatrical counterpart and a harsh reminder that even though Jackson has deep understanding of the subtle strengths and beauty of Middle-earth he has chosen to make his theatrical productions (which is what the majority of viewers will see) exactly that: Theatrical. The Desolation of Smaug is more concerned with elves sword fighting with orcs on dockside streets, long chase sequences with beautiful (if unnecessary) special effects, and a film that trades a charming performance by its titular character for what works well with focus groups.
Jackson claims he is attempting to make a trilogy of films that acts as a continuation in tone and theme with that of the original Lord of the Rings films and I think in his heart he believes it to be true – but somewhere along the line he took a page from the book of Lucas and much of the heart of Middle-earth that has endeared it to readers for generations is lost in a film filled with berserking barrel-dwarves, pakour-performing elves and an attempt to squeeze just one more special effects laden frame of film from each word of the original source.
As previously stated, the extended edition of Desolation of Smaug is an improvement upon the original and certainly worth picking up if you want to get Jackson’s complete vision of Middle-earth – just don’t expect anything which approaches a pure translation of the original text. For better or worse, Jackson has taken Middle-earth and applied his own vision to it, while both succeding marvelously and falling short of the Professor’s original work. Technically, however, the film is an absolute masterpiece and as a fantasy film independent of the 1937 novel, it’s a thrill of a fantasy film. The Blu-Ray is clean, crisp and beautiful. Extra features include film commentary by Peter Jackson and Phillipa Boyens as well as 9 hours of extras. Details on these extras will be provided in a follow-up review.
Look for Part 2 of my review coming soon!
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Extended Edition will be available on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD on Tuesday, November 4th at major retailers – so you can own it today! For official information you can check out the official Warner Bros. Website. All images in this article are © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc., used with permission.