The middle installment of the tri-part Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, received the extended version treatment with an additional twenty-five minutes included from director Peter Jackson’s original footage of the film. The story doesn’t change much: the mission that first brought Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan), and the dwarves together in a confrontation with Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch, voicing) remains an exciting segment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastic tale of adventure, courage, and community. But in Warner Bros.’ five-disc collection, we’re treated to the deepening of the mythos in additional details and a wealth of special features that add hours to our background knowledge.
The majority of the special features revolve around the characters and sets of the second film: from Laketown to the Lonely Mountain/Erebor (where Smaug is), and from Smaug himself to more of the peripheral characters, like Thrain. For fans interested in how Jackson could take Tolkien’s work and rework or imagine it from the printed page to the screen, and build in enough of what we expect from the out-of-sequence layering of the movies without giving too much away, these “Appendices” are a dream.
Still, for all of the special features, the allure for me remains in the story. We aren’t to know how all of this plays out (like we haven’t all seen or read the LOTR trilogy), but we can see that there are brave men, wizards, hobbits, dwarves, and elves who aspire to be brave, great, and good. We can see how they battle great evil, even hopelessly great evil, again and again, even though the odds (and dragons) are stacked against them. But underneath an overwhelmingly fantastic grand scope, there are the smaller stories of each of the individuals, some of whom will rise to be greater than they imagine, while some of them succumb to their lesser instincts, their sin and selfish motivations, and fall from the range of hero to failures, villains, or something worse.
This is the greatness of Tolkien (and Jackson): telling stories of fantasies and Middle Earths in a way that we are entertained, and ultimately realize that these parables are about us, and about who we might become if we would rise, and accept the challenges put before us by prophets, wizards, prophecies, life, and God himself. I was significantly down on the first third of The Hobbit, but thanks to a better story and solid depiction of Smaug, I’m digging this middle third. Here’s hoping that The Battle of the Five Armies will rock as well as The Return of the King!