Peter Jackson continues The Hobbit trilogy with The Desolation of Smaug, an action-packed fantasy adventure that improves upon the previous installment, which suffered from sluggish pacing due to non-essential scenes. It also has the advantage of being the middle part of the story so it doesn't have to introduce the majority of main characters and it doesn't have to offer an ending, since leaving characters in precarious situations is enough. However, there's so much packed into it, like An Unexpected Journey, it feels more like Jackson is creating a miniseries intended to be watched in amounts of one's choosing at home rather than movies for a theater.
Desolation opens with a scene set before the journey began as Gandalf (Ian McKellan) meets Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The wizard asks to be part of Thorin's quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the treasure contained within from the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who took them from the Dwarves many years ago. Returning to the present, Gandalf is called away to investigate the rise of dark forces just before the party are about to enter Mirkwood Forest, and those who've seen or read The Lord of the Rings know who is behind it.
Inside the Mirkwood Forest, the dwarves get confused by the magic cast upon the forest and get caught by giant spiders. Using his precious ring, Bilbo works to save the Dwarves, a situation in which he repeatedly finds himself. Wood elves, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom), rescue the Dwarves from the spiders, but rather than allow them to go free, the Dwarves are taken to meet Thranduil the Elvenking (Lee Pace). This allows the revelation of some history between the Elves and the Dwarves and their currently fractured relationship.
Thorin's party escapes in an elaborate roaring-rapid sequence that finds them pursued by both Elves and Orcs. While certainly exciting, there are moments when it goes wildly over the top, creating moments of utter disbelief. This failing is a frequent occurrence because of the staging and execution by Jackson, the stunt team, and miscellaneous post-production members involved in completing the action scenes. The party later meets Bard (Luke Evans), a boatman who takes them to Laketown where men live, but after learning Thorin's plan, Bard fears what will happen when Smaug is disturbed because of the destruction it previously caused.
Inside the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo is the first to encounter the great beast, a marvelous CGI creation and Cumberbatch's vocal performance is marvelous. Just like Bilbo's meeting with Gollum in the previous film, I found this, one of the simplest and most straightforward sequences, to be the most engaging as Bilbo has to rely on his wits to stay alive. The film ends with a major climax as what's left of the party battles Smaug.
I don't know the book well enough to know how much Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens strayed from the source material, but as blockbusters go, I found myself entertained by The Desolation of Smaug more often than not. As a story, the film has a tough time with creating tension because viewers know that Bilbo, Gandalf, and Legolas are never in any real danger since they appear in the LOTR trilogy, regardless of how great the numbers they fight against. This Extended Edition adds 25 minutes of material, which blends in much better than the Unexpected Extended.
The 2D Blu-ray was given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encode transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Colors and details are impressively rendered to create the locations and objects of this world. As darkness increases across Middle-earth, it does so in the cinematography and production design as well. Blacks are inky, and at times the shadows and darkness are intentionally overwhelming.
The audio is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track that delivers an immersive surround experience with a wide dynamic range that offers the loud destruction caused by Smaug to the soft tinkling of metal as gold coins fall off Smaug's body. Sounds are positioned about and move through the different channels and many ambient effects help bring this world to life. Bass is strong when supporting the action, but has a couple of issues. When Gandalf encounters Sauron's fiery figure, the bass rises to the level of distortion and also does so when Smaug speaks.
For the Special Features, the film is accompanied by a Commentary by Jackson and Boyens, and the featurette “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2” (HD, 7 min), which offers a look at locations used. Appendices Part 9: Into the Wilderland (HD, 300 min) and Part 10: The Journey to Erebor (HD, 305 min) are so extensive in their coverage of the making of the movie, they each come on their own Blu-ray disc.
The Desolation of Smaug: Extended Edition is available in 3D Blu-ray, 2D Blu-ray, and DVD formats. This edition is highly recommended for fans of the film. Those who didn't like it in theaters likely won't have their opinions changed by this release. Although it's the middle part of the story, there's enough presented that viewers shouldn't be completely in the dark if this film is where they enter the story.