Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" by David Pretty

For awhile there, I was just gonna copy and paste my review of An Unexpected Journey. But ever since I saw The Desolation of Smaug a few days ago I have to admit that it's just enough of an improvement to warrant a full diagnosis in its own right.

First let me state this for the record: I wasn't bored watching this movie. It didn't drag for me and there were plenty of visual delights to behold. I just want to smack Peter Jackson on behalf of my bladder for delivering a final cut that was one-hundred and sixty-one minutes long.

Desolation picks up right where Unexpected Journey ends. Reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues to serve as party rogue to a pack of dispossessed dwarves led by the grim and Ahab-esque Thorin Oakenshield (Peter Armitage). Their quest: to liberate their underground realm of Erebor and reclaim their prodigious wealth by evicting the titular dragon Smaug (voiced by the omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch).

En route, our diminutive travelers get help from a "skin-changer" named Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the enigmatic wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), elves-gone-wild Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangaline Lilly) and a hesitant barge-captain and archer named Bard (Luke Evans). Eventually our heroes infiltrate the Lonely Mountain and Bilbo is tasked to recover the Arkenstone, a grapefruit-sized opal that will re-establish Thorin's rule over the subterranean realm. Unfortunately, Smaug has other ideas.

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit was written long before test screenings, action movie tropes and screenwriting "rules" started to make movies homogenized and boring. For marketing purposes, things like romance subplots, false climaxes, and mandatory action beats every twenty minutes are often crammed into scripts whether they need them or not.

Since most of what I said about An Unexpected Journey applies here, I won't re-hash the same observations. Instead I'm going concentrate on the specific changes Peter Jackson and company made to Tolkien's original novel and then determine which ones take advantage of the medium of film and which ones are detrimental to the story.

First off, here's how filmsite.org describes the difference between "Action" movies and "Adventure" movies:

"Rather than the predominant emphasis on violence and fighting that is found in action films...the viewer of adventure films can live vicariously through the travels, conquests, explorations, creation of empires, struggles and situations that confront the main characters."

And that's a major distinction between these two genres for me. For a lot of viewers now, it's not enough to see new vistas, watch characters puzzle-solve problems or parley with strange creatures or situations. If the problem is anything more complicated then a nail to hammer, the average popcorn muncher with a Arkenstone-sized "entertain me!" chip on their shoulder ain't gonna be impressed.

So, with this established, here are the pros and cons of the film:


Legolas and Tauriel  I'm not going to disparage Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly since both actors do a fine job inhabiting their roles and they're imminently watchable. But the reasoning behind their inclusion is distinctly wrong-headed.

Orlando Bloom's Legolas is in The Desolation of Smaug because:
  1. He's a link to the previous Rings trilogy and people like familiar stuff.
  2. Since the dwarves aren't exactly underwear models, minus KILI THE HAWT DWARF played by Aiden Turner and perhaps Peter Armitage as Thorin, Legolas gives something for fangirls to drool over.     
  3. Orlando Bloom gotta eat. Which, by the looks of him, should be a non-issue. 
There are two specific things that irk me about this. For one, it's been over ten years since Orlando Bloom was first introduced to us as the lithe, pretty, elven sharp-shooter Legolas in The Fellowship of the Rings. And let's be honest: the dude looks quite a bit different now. I don't care how many digital filters they slap on him, he needed to lose a Bombur-level amount of weight in order to look the same way he did back in 2001.

And here's the other thing that pisses me off: in the original Rings trilogy, Legolas displayed a series of increasingly-awesome moves over the course of three films. In Fellowship he had a few double-shots, quick-draws and did that whole "stab n' shoot" trick. In The Two Towers he did the improbable horse-mount and that goofy-looking multi-shot / shield-slide. By the time Return of the King rolled around, he was taking down Oliphants single-handedly like one of the freakin' "Avengers".

So, thanks to the ruinous screenwriting law that you have to keep upping your game, Legolas is depicted here as a combination of Spider-Man, Hawkeye and, well...Aragorn. Now, I know that elves are notoriously long-lived and the events depicted in both trilogies are an eye-blink to him but I really liked his evolution as an archer and fighter in the first three films. But here he displays so much effortless acrobatic prowess and combat aptitude that it makes his showing in Fellowship look like half-assery.            

As for Kate from Lost, she's here because:
  1. The Hobbit, as written, is a giant sausage-fest. Ergo, Evangeline Lilly's character was created from scratch to give fanboys something to drool over.  
  2. Her presence facilitates a completely extraneous romantic rivalry between her, Legolas and KILI THE HAWT DWARF.      
I'm of two minds on this one. I like that Peter Jackson and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens expanded the roles of Arwen, Galadriel and especially Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings. As such, I'm willing to let this one slide a little bit. Nevertheless, this "love triangle" feels completely tacked on, especially when you consider that The Hobbit is essentially a kid's book and most of them wouldn't give a goblin's ass about such icky things.   

The Freakin' Elves Stick Their Pointy Ears Where They Don't Belong  Although Bilbo does most of the heavy lifting to rescue the dwarves from the spiders, Peter Jackson can't resist having Legolas and Tauriel swing in and save the day. Unfortunately, all this does is diminish Bilbo's role in the story. Sorry, but the last time I checked, the title of this movie was The Hobbit and not The Happy Little Ninja Elves.

A Barrel Of Monkeys  This one speaks directly to the aforementioned definition of "adventure". Back when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, smuggling dwarves out of an elven camp in barrels was well within the wheelhouse of "adventure". He didn't feel the need to dress the scene up with an extended and completely superfluous running battle.

As a nominal burglar and someone who avoids confrontation like the Witch King, Bilbo wisely uses stealth in order to make a clean getaway. In the book he pulls it off, further emphasizing his role as a three-dimensional thinker and contrasting his tactics to that of the hot-headed dwarves. I swear, if The Hobbit had been made back in the Seventies or Eighties, this scene would have been reproduced exactly the way it was in the book mainly because:

(A) It would have been nigh-impossible and/or super-expensive to do.
(B) Tolkien purists would have murdered the film-makers in their sleep if it was done any other way.

Now I understand Peter Jackson's concern that this relatively-pedestrian sequence wouldn't sit too well with modern audiences, but his solution to the problem is completely ludicrous. As soon as Bilbo rolled the dwarves out into the river without sealing the barrels up I just groaned, rolled my eyes and braced myself for the idiocy to follow. And let me tell you, folks, the next scene is a real dilly. 

Notwithstanding the fact that the lidless barrels would immediately sink, you've also got punishing rapids, a horde of incredibly incompetent orcs who apparently lead with their necks, a pair of elves who were clearly bitten by a radioactive Mirkwood spider, more loosed arrows then all of 300 and Braveheart combined and a bunch of dwarves who openly participate in this mid-river melee despite the fact that they're RIDING IN FUCKING BARRELS!

Now, you might be saying "C'mon, Dave, you're complaining about realism in a flick that has dragons, elves and magic in it?" Yep, yer effin' right I am. Movies, especially fantasy movies, need a certain amount of internal logic and physical boundaries, otherwise there's no sense of peril and no stakes to create tension. As such, the scene is rendered frivolous, disposable and, at its worst, unintentionally funny. It ceases to be a meaningful action sequence and it strays too far into Looney Toons or Mario Kart territory.  

Another demerit for this brain-dead scene: sharp-eyed viewers will notice a few jarring frames from the P.O.V. of the barrel-bound dwarves which looks as if it was shot with the world's cheapest video camera. Even though it only last lasts a few seconds it completely ejected me out of the film, making me feel as if I was watching a particularly bad Seven Flags commercial.     

Greenscreen Blues Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings represented the perfect balance between real exterior locations, constructed sets and the occasional green screen effect. For these Hobbit flicks, I fear that Jackson has gone "Full Lucas", cutting and pasting his actors into abstract green-tinged playgrounds and then using his prodigious computers to create digital holodecks.

Although its not nearly as bad as Attack of the Clones, there's an alarming amount of dubious-looking environments on display here which completely shatters the illusion for me. Sorry, but the small yet tangible Edoras set from The Two Towers is a million times more convincing then the digital panoply of Laketown. Whenever Jackson takes the time to shoot his actors out on location those scenes are like a refreshing breath of fresh air to me. 

Smaug's Reveal  In the book, a lightly-dozing Smaug is already in plain view when Bilbo first ventures into the treasure chamber. Frankly, the idea of trying to sneak past this immensely powerful, incredibly-deadly creature is a much scarier prospect then the reveal they used in the movie.

"Hey, That Was Easy!"  In the movie, Bilbo finds the Arkenstone almost immediately. In the book, he tries to impress the dwarves but making off with a random gold cup. At first the gambit seems to work but when Smaug wakes up, the greedy bastard can immediately sense that one of his minor trinkets is missing from the Scrooge McDuck-sized loot pile and this minor transgression is enough to inspire his first shit-fit. This really drives home just how evil, sharp and miserly Smaug really is. That and the fact that he'd probably get along really well with Annie Wilkes from Misery

More Wacky Action  Enslaved to the notion of providing an obligatory but ultimately false climax, Peter Jackson gives us yet another dumb action sequence reminiscent of the hyperactive slapstick that characterized the Goblin cave escape in the first film. Even though the scheme to kill Smaug would be vetoed by any self-respecting dwarf, the screen-writers force them to go through the motions of spectacle. 

This is all just an excuse to show dwarves leaping heroically away from fireballs, swinging around on pulleys and chains and dancing around on the fangs of a dragon. Conveniently, this also gives Jackson an opportunity to really stretch out Smaug's screen time. Again, I can't help but think that goofy scenes like this only exist to appease the lowest common denominator in the audience. 


Beorn  Yes, his appearance isn't integral to the plot, but he does give Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf and company some great travelogue tips as well as some foreshadowing. More importantly, Beorn is just the sort of strange and interesting character you might expect to encounter on a real, bona fide adventure. I mean, c'mon, the dude looks like a half-transformed werewolf with a fetish for livestock and beekeeping.  Now that's interesting!

Added bonus: Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt delivers a memorably intense and quirky performance for the short time he's on screen.

Gandalf's Side-Quest  I love Gandalf. I love how, just seconds after reaching the terrifying outskirts of Mirkword Forest, he announces "Welp, sionara, bitches!" and then stone cold abandons Bilbo and the dwarves. Since he does this in the book as well, I have absolutely no problem with Peter Jackson showing us what he gets up to, just as he did in Return of the King when Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas rally the Army of the Dead.

After all, that's the point of a visual medium like film: to show us what happens instead of Galdalf just showing up in the final act and saying "Whoof! Man, that road trip was a real bee-hotch! So, not only are there a bunch of friggin' Ringwraiths running around now, Dol Gildur is lousy with orcs. Oh, and FYI, if you thought that Smaug's a bastard, wait 'till I tell you about what's coming next!"

Besides, more screen time with Ian McKellan as Gandalf is always a good thing. He owns this role in the same way that Hugh Jackman will always be Wolverine. Although he doesn't really get anything new to do, he's still fun to watch nonetheless.

Foreshadowing  Even on his own Bilbo is starting to suspect that the One Ring that he acquired from Gollum in the previous flick is starting to have an adverse effect on him. In a couple of economic little scenes we get some precious (pun not intended) screen time with Martin Freeman and Jackson gets another chance to build more connective tissue with his Rings trilogy. Which brings me to...

Martin Freeman  Although a part of me wishes we could invent a time machine just to see what Ian Holm would have done with the role, I can't think of a better contemporary choice to play Bilbo Baggins then Martin Freeman. I've already talked about his ability to combine irritation and befuddlement better then anyone else, but his performance is so chock-a-block with interesting subtleties and asides that I really wish there was more focus on him. In addition to his aforementioned struggles with the Ring, Martin's "Why bother?" posture of resignation after encountering Smaug for the first time is just one example of his smart, insightful acting.    

Azog & Bolg  Since our protagonists needed something more then just a bunch of anonymous orcs to fight,  I applaud Jackson's decision to include these two name-level bad-asses. Their design and animation is fantastic, even though I'd still prefer a dude in a prosthetic suit then a completely CGI character. To me, Lurtz from Fellowship will always be scarier then these guys. 

Although their mid-movie tap-out is pretty ham-fisted, it leaves second-ringer Bolg as a first-reel casualty in the third film while holding Azog back as the finale's ultimate "Big Bad". Hey, I don't know if this is gonna happen fo' sho', but based on "The Movie Cliche Handbook", the odds are pretty good. Maybe I'm wrong about Jackson's plan for these two guys but right now I'm be willing to put money down on it. 

Which brings me to a major point: I seriously hope that film-makers stop kowtowing to audience expectations and start throwing us some freakin' curve balls already. 

Again With The Spiders!  Man, just how arachnophobic was Tolkien, anyway? After giving us a horde of murderous, but downright-chatty, web-spinners in The Hobbit he then went on to trump this nightmare with the monstrous Shelob in The Two Towers. Kudos to Jackson for making this action scene engaging and tense, despite the fact that we've already covered similar ground in Return of the King and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The Bard...No Not That Bard  We've already established that Tolkien had absolutely no inkling about cinematic writing, which is why The Hobbit is almost completely devoid of modern-day conventions. Unfortunately this created a few "out of left field" resolutions, as anyone familiar with the character of Bard the Bowman will attest. His eleventh hour appearance in the original Hobbit novel actually reveals a pretty hefty flaw in the original source material and I have to credit Peter Jackson for recognizing this and beefing up this pivotal role.

In a related point: although some of the intrigue in Lake Town feels a bit dragged out to me, I liked the fact that the dwarves weren't all welcomed with open arms like they were in the novel. In fact, the only thing the Master of Lake Town is concerned about in the original book is pissing off the elves by harboring a bunch of fugitives. It just makes sense to me that the people of Lake Town would be shitting bricks over the prospects of some dodgy, renegade dwarves breaking into the Lonely Mountain and then sticking their collective, jerkin-sized dicks into a sleeping dragon's ear.  

"What?!?  This Level Is Timed?!?"   In order to gain entrance to the Lonely Mountain the dwarves need to find a secret door and open it before the end of some specific day. This creates a nice little time lock and really adds to the tension. 

"Oh My God, They've Killed Kili!"   In the book, the dwarves pretty much get through all of these perils scot-free. Peter Jackson and his scribes rectify this and, in turn, create more urgency in the final act.

Smaug the Tremendous / Magnificent / Staggering  Thanks to some amazing computer animation and terrific voice-over work by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a completely believable creation. He's expressive, detailed and has a genuine sense of enormity and scale. Just like the Gollum/Bilbo riddle-off in the first film, Jackson wisely ports over Tolkien's dialogue almost verbatim from the original novel, providing some much-needed street credibility. Although Cumberbatch's voice has clearly been modulated into oblivion, his delivery and enunciation communicates a healthy dollop of wit, ego and menace.

Smaug's Reveal: Take Two Although I still think it would have been more nail-biting if Bilbo tried to sneak past a snoozing Smaug who's lying out in plain view, Jackson's reveal of the character is admittedly pretty cool. I've heard of dragons sleeping on top of treasure troves, but never inside. Oh well, maybe it's kinda like when people go to the beach and then bury themselves in the sand.  

Pippin' Ain't Easy: Making Middle Earth  Jackson and his team of production designers have delivered an imaginative interpretation of Tolkien's realm. Beorn's pad looks very "druid-y", Mirkwood is dark and foreboding, Thranduil's elven-realm manages to wring plenty of aesthetic appeal out of the dim forest floor and the abandoned halls of Erebor show off the dwarven penchant for masonry and overcompensation. Although I still grouse about a few phony-looking CGI backdrops, Jackson certainly had a lot of ground to cover and the film's visual eye is generally pretty solid.
It's Better Then The First One  Between all of the set-up, backstory and appendix-raiding, An Unexpected Journey felt like an OCD patchwork of plot ideas and pointless deviations to me. Not only did that first movie feel completely scatterbrained, it was also...dare I say it...kinda dull? Fortunately, things eventually do kick into high gear around the mid-way mark and the movie gets much better. 

Yes, Jackson and his writers dragged a lot of irrelevant mush into The Desolation of Smaug, but at least things mesh together a lot better here. Like I said before, the cloak-and-dagger shenanigans in the second half of the film feels a bit prolonged but at least we've got Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-Town and his Wormtongue-like majordomo Alfrid (Ryan Gage) to keep us duly entertained.  


A lot of people are saying that Peter Jackson made all of these contentious changes because Tolkien's original novel is "flawed". I'll be the first to admit that The Hobbit isn't a perfect book, but I think that many of these alterations were done to appease the casual movie-goer who would be sorely disappointed if they didn't get some wild action scenes, lavish special effects and plenty of elven eye-candy. I guess modern audiences don't have a lot of interest in old-fashioned "adventure" movies anymore. 

Not that I'm overly-precious when it comes to book-to-screen adaptations. After all, a slavish devotion to the first two Harry Potter books yielded a pair of pretty turgid and color-by-numbers films. Stuff that was irrelevant to the plot should have been left out, but it wasn't. This is in stark contrast to the Hobbit flicks, which are clearly trying to shoe-horn in as much vaguely-related crap as possible in order to make it as "epic" as the original Lord of the Rings.

And that's the main problem with these films. The Hobbit is a reasonably non-violent kid's book in which the untried Bilbo Baggins has a bunch "(mis)adventures" with a pack of dwarves and uses his guile, stealth and diplomacy to make it through. Maybe the book's gotterdamerung-style climax inspired Jackson to dial everything else up to "11" and then break the knob off.  

Pity. I was perfectly happy to go on a simple little adventure.  

     Tilt: down.

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