Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Traditions are important.

Say, for example, waiting until the Saturday of opening weekend for The Desolation of Smaug in order to enjoy a Denny's Hobbit-breakfast beforehand. Such traditions mean that the timeliness of my review might suffer, as did my digestive tract after that trip to Denny's. But also like the mild gastrointestinal discomfort I experienced, the delay in getting this review posted was well worth the trouble of a little change in routine - and that's as much thanks to the film itself as anything else.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up where movie number one left off. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Bilbo (Martin Freeman), and the dwarves (a bunch of dudes in costume and makeup prosthetics) are continuing their journey to Erebor - the former city of dwarves that was stolen from them by the evil dragon Smaug (voiced to chilling perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch) ages ago. Another evil has been gathering across the land in the interim, and it's not long before Gandalf is called away to confront that evil in the ruins of Dol Goldur. A few pit stops in spider pits, several non-canonical characters' appearances, and some thrilling visual effects sequences later - we conclude on a cliffhanger ending that leaves you perfectly primed for the third and final film.


You may recall that back when the first film came out, it wasn't terribly well-received. But being a longtime Tolkien fan and confrontational internet blogger, I predicted that critical response to the series would warm once the next film came along, as viewers and reviewers alike saw that Jackson was very slowly bridging the gaps in style that characterize the source material. After all, The Hobbit was meant to be a children's book, while The Lord of the Rings was written for a more mature audience. From what I can gather, my assessment was accurate - and the critical reception to this film has already been much more positive, and with good reason.

Having done away with the majority of the more laborious exposition in the first film, Peter Jackson can get right down to the more fun aspects of in The Desolation of Smaug. There are an almost overwhelming number of characters to keep up with as nearly everyone from An Unexpected Journey returns; in addition to the coming of several new characters. First off, readers of the books will note that Legolas (Orlando Bloom) does not make an appearance until The Fellowship of the Ring, and the character of Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) exists nowhere in the Tolkien canon whatsoever. Having said that, Elven-king Thranduil (Lee Pace) is very much a part of The Hobbit and since he is Legolas' father - it's hardly a stretch to fill in the gaps and write ol' blonde-hair-and-blue-eyes into this movie.

"I just felt a great disturbance in the Force. As if millions of ovaries cried out..."

As for Tauriel, the bottom line is that without her, the extras are the only female characters to appear in this particular installment. And since it should be a given that adaptation from page to screen means some liberties have to be taken, we should judge additions and subtractions by how well they serve the story and not simply whether or not they're canonical or cool. So I was on board with Tauriel as a character since it was announced she was going to be added to the cast, and Evangeline does a great job with the material supplied.

One of the things I was a little unsure about going from book to film is the scene where the dwarves go over a waterfall in barrels. In the book, it's a downright silly moment that reflects just how much of a children's story Tolkien was trying to create. In the film, it's arguably one of the most thrilling and exciting sequences of the entire series - including the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rolling over foaming waves and bobbing along the current, the dwarves have to be nimble and well-coordinated to defeat an army of orcs that have the tactical advantage and high ground. And even in this edge-of-your-seat roller coaster moment, there's still plenty of room for laughs and pratfalls amidst the high-wire stunts. Seriously, it's just about worth the ticket price for that sequence alone.

Or to see the craziest "Previously on Pushing Daisies..." EVER.
And what of the titular dragon? (Hehe..."tit") Jackson's been teasing us with glimpses and peeks ever since An Unexpected Journey and Smaug does not disappoint, ladies and gentlemen. It takes us most of the film's run-time before we even get to meet him, but trust me; it's worth the wait. And it's not just the visual spectacle that he provides, nor the spine-chilling resonance of Cumberbatch's vocal performance: Smaug himself is very much an active character in this film, rather than simply a narrative obstacle for the heroes to overcome. His dialogue reveals the inner workings of a mind as narcissistic as it is sadistic, and the film doesn't miss a beat bringing us an "anatomically realistic" dragon that also talks; something I feared might skew too far towards the light-hearted, children's book tone of the source material.

Oh yeah, and Stephen Colbert's cameo...That definitely goes in the "PROS" section of my review.


Split Ends: The Movie
No matter how much these films try, there will just always be moments that seem impossible to render with a straight face. The Return of the King has one of the most cringe-worthy moments at the end, when everyone is coming to visit Frodo in his elven bed and all the hobbits are jumping on it in jubilation and Gandalf is giggle-snorting in slow motion... Everyone commits to the bit, and it almost-sorta-kinda works considering everything that came before - but ultimately it still feels awkward and weird. The Desolation of Smaug suffers a similar fate at one point. There's a scene where Tauriel is attempting to heal one of the dwarves, and I think Jackson was trying to draw a visual comparison between this moment and Arwen's introduction in Fellowship of the Ring. Both ladies - breathtaking and lovely - are backlit and haloed by the light. Their voices echo and reverberate as they chant in sultry Sindarin, and they look into the camera with eyes that sparkle with elven might and magic. For whatever reason, it totally works in The Fellowship of the Ring and I find myself transfixed in that scene. But in Desolation of Smaug, the moment feels cheesy and almost hackneyed, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.

Some of the Laketown sequences, while completely appropriate, also felt strangely out-of-place in the film. Again, this is simply a limit of the source material - and it's certainly not like Laketown was poorly designed or the time spent there doesn't serve the story. But there was something strange - vaguely anachronistic - about the production design of those sets and costumes that almost took me out of the story. Maybe it's just me.


I'm a bit torn over the budding romance between Kili (Aiden Turner) and Tauriel. It seems a bit too obvious; as if it's been placed in the story to keep the stakes and tensions up, and in that sense it kind of succeeds. But it also feels strangely some fan-fiction indulgence run amok. Again, I'm torn and having a hard time expressing my feelings over it; I don't hate it, but I don't love it. Having said that, I'm pretty sure Tauriel is going to perish in the third film (gotta write her out of the way somehow), and I am eager to see how that aids some of the character development down the road. So I'm fully reserving judgment until the final chapter in this trilogy. Check back here in another year or so for the final word on that development.


If you know me, you know I don't mind tooting my own horn from time to time. And after watching almost everyone change their tune critically speaking from the first film to this one - like I thought they might - I'm just gonna take a moment to do that, if you don't mind.

Pictured: Me, totally
But it's not only a victory for snarky bloggers like myself! It's a victory for the franchise as a return to form - aesthetically and critically. The Desolation of Smaug covered way more ground than I expected going in, which means managing a lot of characters and their development. True to form, Jackson manages to pull this off like it's the easiest thing in the world - introducing us to the intimidating skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), letting us get familiar with the calculating and morally ambiguous Thranduil (Lee Pace), engaging us with the noble struggles of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), etc. All of this while clipping along with the central conflict of the entire series - the corrupting influence of the Ring - and the numerous character arcs that we need to keep track of. Considering the limits of the source material, this movie really is almost perfect in the balance it strikes between cinematic license and fidelity to canon.

The Lord of the Rings is - for me - synonymous with Christmas holiday celebrations. If I'm not watching the movies I'm reliving them through the soundtracks or thumbing back through the books or watching the making-of featurettes on my Extended Edition BluRays. I feel indebted to Peter Jackson for bringing these movies into my life over a decade ago in the first place, and further blessed to enjoy fresh fruits from his vision. The Desolation of Smaug brilliantly builds upon what came before in An Unexpected Journey, and continues to showcase the gradual steps by which Jackson is bringing this trilogy from its roots as a children's book into one of the greatest and most epic film franchises of all time.

And even if you're not a big Tolkien aficionado, this movie really is just a fantastic piece of cinema to look at; breathtaking in its scope and scale, and truly inspiring in its commitment to quality film making.

To sum up, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug makes me feel like this:

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