Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Maintaining Good Working Hobbits
A Dense Overlay of Smaug

The second of Peter Jackson's three "Hobbit" films, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, predictably, more of the same.  It's a three hour ramble, a complication and a darkening of the tone of the first film—as usually happens with the second of a trilogy, so that we, the audience, can climb out of our emotional valley in time for the resolution of conflicts in the third.  Standard Operating Procedure.  We are given a quick recap of the first film—going back in time to when Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellan) first put the idea into the head of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and getting the dwarf crusade rolling.  Once the summary is done (in brief: Gold, Mountain, Dragon, Dead King, Arkenstone, New King, No Elves Allowed), they skip over An Unexpected Journey and head back to the Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves on the path to Lonely Mountain (Sindarin Erebor), orcs still snapping at their behinds and making their way to the entrance of Mirkwood.

A quick visit to the skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who usually appears in the form of a bear—not much is made of him, even though he got his own poster with Gandalf last time—and they get to Mirkwood (by pony), at which point Gandalf goes "walkabout"—he does this every movie and they probably split the story to accommodate a "Gandalf disappearance"—so the wee folk must enter the spooky forest alone, with a promise from the wizard that he'll meet them at "the Lookout."

"The Lookout"—he said he'd meet us; he should be easy to find...

Anyone familiar with the book knows that you don't find out where G.theG. goes until the last chapter, and that was after Tolkien had written "The Lord of the Rings" and got continuity-conscious.  But, here, we do get to see where (hint: he went there LAST movie), and Jackson's The Lord of the Rings gets set up all good and proper (except Benedict Cumberbatch is voicing the character now—wonder if Jackson will Lucasize everything to make it all match up).   The dwarves and hobbit are concerned with icky things and splendors that one would associate with a place called Mirkwood, and the ring that Bilbo snatched from Gollum is starting to exert its unholy influence turning the peaceful little guy into a berserker bad-ass.  Travel packages with unruly companions and nasty accommodations with large pests and diffident natives will do that to anyone.  But, Bilbo proves his worth on more than one occasion and eventually they do make it to the Halls of Lonely Mountain, a few shy of a full dwarve-deck and make their way to a meeting with the titular character that's been hoarding all the gold and keeping it for himself—the ultimate one percenter of Middle Earth.

Bilbo above the canopy of Mirkwood
Smaug is the dragon, living in the massive storage caves of the Mountain, and he spends his time, far from desolate, sleeping among the gold and treasures of the dwarves like a big scaled, fire-breathing Scrooge McDuck. When Bilbo's attempts to find the Arkenstone awaken him, there is quite an extensive cat-and-mouse game as the small hobbit scurries around the cumbersome dragon.  Or I should say Cumberbatch, as the ubiquitous actor provides a nicely arch resonant voice to Smaug, which is accompanied by a lip-curling animation to enhance it.  This is where the film shines, as the territory is new, the imagineering of the dragon is fresh, and the surprises are many.  After the previous two hours, that's a bit refreshing.

For if there's a problem with Peter Jackson's version of The Hobbit, it's that, by now, we are so familiar with the way he does things that nothing much really resonates anymore.  The heavily belabored ripostes by the actors seem a bit too predictable—when Bilbo changes his story to gandalf that he found his courage in the goblin caves last movie (rather than The Ring), there's a close-up of Gandalf as he says what half the audience is expecting: "You'll need it." Really, that one and "You should be" are certain candidates for Screenwriting 101 "easy irony" along with "You just don't get it, do you?" and "They're standing behind me, aren't they?"  

And the action sequences, this time assistant-directed by actor Andy Serkis. go on and on, in ever-increasing silliness.  If last movie set a more rollicking, silly tone than The Lord of the Rings (in part by the influence of Guillermo del Toro), now the joke's wearing a little thin.  Extended fights between orcs and elves are no longer thrilling, they're a demonstration of every possible way you can kill something with an arrow.  An extended rush down a rapids in barrels is accompanied by additional orc-elf fighting, where the barrels are used for any other purpose besides transport, as every tree-limb and branch over-hanging is used as a foot-hold.  Some of this criticism isn't fair, because if this had been the first film in a trilogy of Tolkien adaptations, the marvels of the film would send people off a CGI cliff in amazement.  It might take at least forty-five minutes to tumble down it, though.

One should, however, point out that the "we've been down this glade before" problem didn't occur with Jackson's earlier Tolkien trilogy, where there was enough material to keep things seeming fresh each film, and Jackson and his screenwriters did enough juggling of the narrative to keep things seeming new from film to film.  Their attempts here amount to trying to add a romantic element between the elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), much to the consternation of Legolas (Orlando Bloom, back in action).  And while it provides a reprieve from tumbling and shooting and other too-frantic sequences, it does take away from the basic focus on the titular Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) whose story this is.  Freeman's performance is, again, terrific, bringing all sorts of fretting elements to play, and making the transformation of his hobbit into a killer more than a little disturbing.

The vistas are staggeringly rendered, but some short-changing has been done with the characters in action sequences—Orlando Bloom seems to be the chief character robbed of some pixels, here and there, and the attempt to de-age him to a younger self doesn't really work (I've never seen it done convincingly, so far).  the only real surprises come in snatches of casting with Lee Pace, disappearing into the role of the elf Thronduil, Lily's elven warrior, and Stephen Fry's Master of Laketown.   Be on the lookout for some Laketown spies and you might even find Stephen Colbert for a brief second.  Oh, and Jackson gets his own "Hitchcock moment" out of the way very quickly.

Oh.  And SPOILER ALERT there's another movie coming, so this one ends at a rather inopportune time.  You only have to wait another year.

The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug is a Matinee.

"Conversations with Smaug" drawn by J.R.R. Tolkien
"Conversations with Smaug" drawn by WETA

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