Release Date(s)2012-2014 (December 1, 2020)
Studio(s)WingNut Films/New Line Cinema/MGM (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: N/A
- Overall Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: This review is now complete. A similar review of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy in 4K Ultra HD is also now available here on The Digital Bits.]
Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy before it, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is now offering The Hobbit Trilogy on 4K Ultra HD, in addition to the past DVD and Blu-ray Disc editions already available. So fans are likely wondering: What does that actually mean, and what exactly do you get in the new set?
Available on 12/1/2020, all three films in the trilogy will be included in one package, with both the Theatrical Cut and Extended Edition versions presented for the first time at home in 4K resolution, which—as you’ll learn below—means better detail, better color, and better contrast than any version you’ve seen before on disc. There are no extras whatsoever in this set, not even audio commentaries. You do, however, get a code on a paper insert in the packaging for a Movies Anywhere Digital Copy of all three films (again in both versions). And you can purchase the 4K Ultra HD versions of The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy individually.
Be aware, Warner has also announced plans to release both 4K sets together in one more deluxe package next summer. That set is expected to include the same 4K movie discs coming on 12/1, with the same Hobbit Blu-rays already available (the movies only, not the extras), and newly-produced Lord of the Rings Blu-rays upgraded with better image quality from their 4K remaster (those remastered Lord of the Rings Blu-rays will also be available separately next year, in honor of the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring). That package too will include Digital Copies, but according to Warner Bros. Home Entertainment it will NOT include The Appendices or any of the other previous extras (with the likely exception of the audio commentaries on the regular Blu-rays). We’re told that it will, however, include one new piece of bonus content that’s still yet to be determined. And that package is likely to include deluxe packaging and swag items too (possibly a book of some kind, artwork cards, and maybe replicas of the One Ring and the Key to Erebor).
So if you’re considering upgrading to these films in 4K, what you have to decide is which version you want: The movies only now in two separate packages, or the movies later in one package, with Blu-rays too, and one new piece of bonus content? (I must tell you, I couldn’t wait myself, and you’ll see why below. But that’s just me.) Either way, you’ll need to keep your previous Blu-rays if you wish to retain all of The Appendices and other bonus content.
You might be wondering next: Does this new 4K remaster really make that big of a difference? Is the image and sound really improved over the previous Blu-ray release? The answer to that is: HELL, yes. From an image and sound standpoint, these films are presented in reference quality. Since this film was actually shot in 5K, it really does make the most of the Ultra HD format’s capabilities. However, if you don’t already have them, you’ll need to get a 4K display, a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player, and a surround sound system that’s compatible with Dolby Atmos to take full advantage.
Warner’s new 4K Ultra HD release includes both the Theatrical Cuts and Extended Editions of each film, each version included on a single UHD disc. That’s different than The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Extended Editions, which are split over two discs on UHD, as they were on Blu-ray. Presumably, that’s because the films were digitally captured, so can be more easily compressed without compromising quality. Let’s take a look at the A/V quality of each remastered film one by one…
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit...”
Long ago, in the mining halls deep beneath the “Lonely Mountain” in the north, the Drawf king Thrór—having grown greedy on the wealth of his people—brought a darkness to his kingdom of Erebor. Drawn to this, the dragon Smaug laid waste to the nearby town of Dale and drove Thrór and his people from the mountain to take possession of its great treasure horde for himself. Years later, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) tells Thrór’s grandson, Thorin (Richard Armitage), that the time to reclaim Erebor has come. But in order to take his rightful place as the new King Under the Mountain, Thorin needs the Arkenstone—a magnificent jewel that’s the symbol of Erebor’s power—which is buried somewhere in the horde Smaug now guards. So to find it, he’ll need more than just a brave company of fellow Dwarves. He’ll need a burglar. And Gandalf has one in mind, a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, with Ian Holm) of the Shire. It takes a bit of arm-twisting to convince Bilbo to join the Dwarves’ quest. But soon enough, the Company of Thorin Oakenshield begins its dangerous journey north... and Middle-earth will never be the same. For it’s during these events that Bilbo will find a mysterious Ring that will one day shape the destiny of all.
When Peter Jackson completed his successful film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it seemed inevitable that a film version of The Hobbit would follow. But success has a tendency to complicate matters in Hollywood and difficulties quickly arose. There were rights conflicts, studio financial problems, multiple legal disputes, delays in green-lighting that cost the involvement of original director Guillermo del Toro, and even labor disputes with film unions in New Zealand and Hollywood. Ultimately, Peter Jackson returned to direct himself, several Rings cast members agreed reprised their roles, and the planned two-film adaptation became three. To expand on the relatively thin story of the original children’s book, Jackson (and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) incorporated elements from the Rings films—specifically The Appendices from The Return of the King—to bring the two works into greater narrative alignment, something Tolkien himself attempted to do before he died. The result, as seen in this first installment at least, is mostly successful but uneven, plagued by key problem of the book—too many characters and too many battles that have too few consequences. But the good news is, it’s still a lot of fun to visit Middle-earth again on the big screen.
An Unexpected Journey was captured digitally in the Redcode RAW codec (at 5K resolution, in dual-strip 3-D, and with a frame rate of 48 fps frame) using Red Epic cameras with Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo lenses. It was originally finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio for wide theatrical release. For this new Ultra HD master, it appears that Park Road Post (a New Zealand post facility owned by WingNut Films) went back to the original RAW files for live action footage (without VFX) and upsampled the VFX (rendered at 2K) to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate. The film’s color was also re-graded for High Dynamic Range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available on these discs). All of this was personally supervised and approved by director Peter Jackson. The result is essentially a reference-quality image, though it should be noted that only 2-D is available here (and the film is presented at the standard frame rate of 23.976 fps). Detail is outstanding, with lovely texturing visible in clothing, foliage, rock, and hair. The added bit depth of HDR adds pleasing nuance and subtlety to the color palette. The darkest areas of the frame are pitch black, but shadows retain abundant detail, while the highlights are bold, and reflective surfaces exhibit a bright and natural gleam. All of these aspects, coupled with Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, give the image a pleasing sense of depth—no doubt aided by the fact that the video data rate for the Extended Edition averages about 60Mbps (with spikes as high as 90Mbps). And there’s none of the “digitally-processed” appearance that is sometimes apparent in VFX shots in The Lord of the Rings 4Ks. The only minor issue in evidence, if one looks with a very sharp eye, are some occasional upscaling artifacts on the finest detail in VFX shots, but it’s never distracting. All in all, this image is just exquisite.
Audio is presented in English Dolby Atmos, essentially a home version of the same Atmos mix many of you heard in theaters. And as was the case with The Lord of the Rings 4K Atmos mixes, this is a reference quality surround sound experience, one that offers a full hemispheric sonic environment. The soundstage is huge, with plenty of activity in the height channels not just during set pieces sequences but in quiet moments too. Dialogue is crisp and clear, with a full tonal quality, while music and effects exhibit tremendous fidelity. Panning is natural and lively, smooth at all times, and the dynamics are grand indeed, with firm and muscular low end. There’s a moment early in the film, as the Dwarves are bustling around Bag End preparing for supper, when Bilbo starts off complaining in the center of the screen and then scurries off to the left—you can hear him continue complaining into the left surround and rear channels as the sound of activity—multiple conversations, chairs being moved, plates clinking together—continues all around. It’s little moments like that I find most delightful in great film surround sound mixes, and they abound here. Additional audio options on the 4K EXTENDED EDITION disc include 5.1 Dolby Digital in French, Italian, Castilian Spanish, and Czech, with optional subtitles in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Simplified Chinese, Korean, Latin Spanish, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, and Thai. Additional audio options on the 4K THEATRICAL CUT disc include French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Dutch, and Spanish.
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY: THEATRICAL CUT (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/A+/A+
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY: EXTENDED EDITION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/A+/A+
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
“If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together.”
After escaping from the Goblins beneath the Misty Mountains, and surviving an attack by Azog’s Orc hunting party, the Company of Thorin Oakenshield takes refuge in the home of Beorn, a skin-changer who takes the form of a bear and is no friend of the Orcs. Beorn speeds the group’s way to the borders of Mirkwood, a forest the Dwarves must cross to reach Erebor, but giant spiders soon ensnare them and a party of Wood-elves—led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly)—captures them as they escape. The Elven king, Thranduil (Lee Pace), has to intention of letting the Dwarves succeed in their quest, but Bilbo breaks them out by river and wine barrel. As Thorin’s Company makes their way to Lake-town, at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, Gandalf and the wizard Radagast discover that an ancient Evil has returned to Middle-earth. And when the Dwarves finally reach Erebor, Bilbo comes face to face with the great dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who is determined to keep its treasures for himself.
The problem with middle chapters, in the classic dramatic sense, is that there’s no beginning and generally little resolution. The story opens with events already underway and it typically ends in a cliffhanger. Modern Hollywood films have attempted to turn those deficiencies into strengths—throw your audience directly into the mix from the get-go, dare them to catch up, and shock them by raising the stakes. The Empire Strikes Back is the classic pop culture example. Thankfully, director Peter Jackson has some experience with middle chapters after making The Two Towers. And he’s made up for the lack of dramatic stakes in Tolkien’s original The Hobbit story by more directly tying the events of this film into those that we know are coming in The Lord of the Rings. As a result, The Desolation of Smaug is a better and more engaging cinematic experience than An Unexpected Journey. The film never slows down, never once stops to break into song. The addition of Tauriel, an original creation of Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh, provides a bit of much-needed feminine energy here. And the return of familiar faces from The Lord of the Rings adds much to the film’s energy too, as does the presence of a great “level boss” villain in Smaug to pay off the action.
The Desolation of Smaug was captured digitally in the Redcode RAW codec (at 5K resolution, in dual-strip 3-D, and at 48 fps) using Red Epic cameras with Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo lenses. It was originally finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio for wide theatrical release. For this new Ultra HD master, Park Road Post (a New Zealand post facility owned by WingNut Films) appears to have utilized the original RAW files for live action footage (without VFX) and upsampled the VFX (rendered at 2K) to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate. The film’s color has also been re-graded for High Dynamic Range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available on these discs). This entire remastering process was supervised and approved by Peter Jackson. Once again, the resulting image is essentially reference quality, though note that only 2-D is available here (and the film is presented at a standard 23.976 frame rate). Detail is outstanding, with lovely and refined texturing apparent in clothing, foliage, and stone. The extra bit depth of HDR adds gorgeous subtlety to the color palette. The darkest portions of the frame are inky black, but shadows retain detail, while the highlights are bold—just eye-reactive—and metal has a bright, natural gleam. The cavernous treasure halls of Erebor benefit especially here, with golden coins glittering brightly and the Arkenstone luminous above all. Again, the only very minor issue in evidence are some occasional upscaling artifacts on fine detail in VFX shots, but that’s definitely picking nits. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography has truly never looked better.
Audio on the 4K disc is included in English Dolby Atmos, essentially the same mix heard in theaters. And like the Atmos for An Unexpected Journey, this is a reference quality surround sound experience, with a fully hemispheric sonic environment. The soundstage is grand, with wonderful activity in the height channels throughout the film—and especially as Smaug stalks the halls of Erebor during the film’s climax. The dialogue is clean, clear, and full sounding, while music and effects offer lovely fidelity. Channel to channel movement is natural and lively, particularly appreciated in moments like the barrel chase from Thranduil’s Silvan Elves in Mirkwood. And the dynamics are tremendous, with muscular bass. This mix dazzles in moments of bluster and calm alike; just listen as Bilbo and Smaug scamper over the piles of gold and jewels in Erebor, with the metallic slush of treasure sliding and shifting all around. The only additional audio option on the 4K EXTENDED EDITION disc is French 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, while the optional subtitles include English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Dutch, and Spanish. (Note that these options are different than those for An Unexpected Journey above.) Additional audio options on the 4K THEATRICAL CUT disc include French 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Dutch, and Spanish.
THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG: THEATRICAL CUT (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/A+/A+
THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG: EXTENDED EDITION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/A+/A+
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
“We are sons of Durin. And Durin’s folk do not flee from a fight.”
Having awoken the dragon Smaug from his long slumber in the bowels of Erebor, the Company of Thorin Oakenshield must now deal with the aftermath. Smaug has unleashed his wrath upon the lowly residents of Lake-town, sending them running to the Dwarves for help. Obsessed with finding the Arkenstone, however, Thorin offers them no aid or comfort, having fallen prey to the same greed that once possessed his grandfather before him. Meanwhile, the dark lord Sauron has revealed himself and launched a plan to take the Lonely Mountain for himself, sending the Orc armies of Angmar to do his bidding. And now that the Dwarves have reclaimed Erebor from Smaug, other forces would have its great wealth for themselves, including the Thorin’s cousin Dáin of the Iron Hills and Thranduil of the Woodland Realm. So as the armies of Orcs, Dwarves, Elves, and Men converge upon the Gates of Erebor, Bilbo must find a way to make Thorin see reason before all is lost.
The Battle of the Five Armies felt a little lean in its original 144-minute theatrical running time, so the Extended Edition is a tremendous boon to the narrative. Every character gets a moment to shine now. The slaying of Smaug and the attack on Dol Guldur are expanded (Galadriel in particular benefits from the latter). We learn that Gandalf wears one of the three Elvish Rings of Power, we see him getting his familiar staff (the one he uses in the Rings films). There are new and extended scenes that make it clear how much the Company of Thorin has come to respect Bilbo. There’s material added to the main battle too, which makes the action more brutal, the victories harder won, and all of it much more satisfying. Best of all, we finally get to see the funeral for the Sons of Durin—a moment that’s very hard to imagine this film without once you’ve seen it. The result is that The Battle of the Five Armies: Extended Cut is a richer and more satisfying ending for this trilogy. And I should note that there’s now a lovely tribute near the end of the credits to Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer of all six Middle-earth films, who passed away shortly after the completion of the film.
The Battle of the Five Armies was captured digitally in the Redcode RAW codec (at 5K resolution, in dual-strip 3-D, and at 48 fps) using Red Epic cameras with Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo lenses. It was finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio for wide theatrical release. For its appearance on Ultra HD, Park Road Post (a New Zealand post facility owned by WingNut Films) appears to have returned to the original RAW files for live action footage and upsampled the 2K VFX to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate. The color has also been graded for High Dynamic Range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are available). The entire process was supervised and approved by Jackson. The resulting image is once again reference quality, though be aware that only 2-D is available here (and the film is presented at the usual 23.976 fps). Detail is outstanding, with refined texturing visible in clothing, skin, and stone. The color palette is enriched by the added bit depth of HDR, which renders truly dark yet detailed shadows and vibrant highlights. The film’s entire opening sequence, as Smaug descends upon Laketown and lays down swaths of fiery destruction, is a remarkable in HDR. The flames have a truly bold glare, and burning embers dance in the air, all while bright moonlight sparkles on the water below. As with the two previous films, the only minor nitpick here are some occasional upscaling artifacts on very fine detail in VFX shots. Regardless, this is an absolutely gorgeous 4K image.
Audio is included in English Dolby Atmos, essentially the same mix heard in theaters. And yet again, it’s a reference quality surround sound experience. The soundstage is big and wide, tall and immersive, creating true hemispheric environments of sound around the listener. The bass is wonderfully full and muscular—just listen to Smaug’s deep voice rumble as he taunts Bard’s attempts to defend the people of Laketown with his bow. Dialogue is clear, effects panning and movement are smooth and natural. Howard Shore’s score sounds better than ever, presented here in lossless fidelity. This is definitely a mix you’ll be using to demo your sound system with when your friends come over. The only additional audio option on the 4K EXTENDED EDITION disc is French 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, while the optional subtitles include English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Dutch, and Spanish. Additional audio options on the 4K THEATRICAL CUT disc include French 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with subtitles available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Dutch, and Spanish.
THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES: THEATRICAL CUT (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/A+/A+
THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES: EXTENDED EDITION (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): A-/A+/A+
Once again, don’t forget that in addition to the films, you also get a Movies Anywhere Digital Copy code, which should be good for all three films in both versions in 4K. But don’t get rid of your previous Blu-ray and/or DVD editions if you wish to retain all of the extras, The Appendices, and other bonus features (because you won’t find any of that content here).
While this new 4K Ultra HD remaster probably won’t satisfy everyone, due to its lack of special features, each film here offers genuinely demo-worthy video and audio quality. What’s more, the addition of High Dynamic Range to the image really takes Andrew Lesnie’s breathtaking cinematography to the next level… and there can be no better way to honor him. Peter Jackson and his team at Park Road Post have outdone themselves. Whether you pick them up now or wait until next summer, Warner’s The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy are must-have 4K Ultra HD releases and very highly recommended for home theater and Middle-earth fans alike. Don’t miss them.
- Bill Hunt