Monday, December 23, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (**)

Directed by Peter Jackson


I remember watching the Oscar broadcast in 2004, where great films like Mystic River and Lost in Translation were forced to bow down to Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which won a record-tying eleven statues including Best Picture. It was an honorary moment, honoring the trilogy more than the single film itself. And it seemed like horrible over-compensation. But then, I've never cared for Jackson's obsessive work with the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. When I was in elementary school, I read The Hobbit for the first time, and while I enjoyed it, I was never much interested in further exploring Middle Earth. I had no idea that Lord of the Rings was a thing until the first film showed up in theaters in 2001. Yet, I've seen all of those Lord of the Rings movies (in the theater), and now I've watched his first two films based on The Hobbit. With a third film still waiting in the wings, I find the excitement has died down quite a bit for Jackson's epics, even if his dedicated fans will still show up at the theater. I still remain as unenthused as before.

There's been enough squabbling on the internet about the utter unencessity of making three epic feature films out of the comparatively sparse Tolkien novel. What's done is done and there's nothing we can do about it. There's something so unapologetically capitalistic about it, but after a year to brood over it, I'm not sure it's much worse than when they split Breaking Bad's final season into two halves. What I will complain about is how this process has lead Jackson to drag out the simplest of procedures. In an interview with Jon Stewart, Ian McKellan explained that what Tolkien could describe in a single sentence lends itself to much more exposition in a cinematic setting. But by that logic, Jackson sees everything cinematically, and it's hard to not to feel like he's working on a ten-minutes-to-every-sentence ratio. Within the first half hour, I'd spotted at least ten instances where actors were pausing mid-statement for dramatic effect. Just spit it out! It doesn't help that every moment of silence is filled with obvious Howard Shore score.

In this chapter, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) continues to tag along with the rag-tag group of dwarves lead by Thorin (Richard Armitage). They still hope to win Thorin back his kingdom from the evil dragon, Smaug. In order to do that, they must find the Archstone which will provide the dwarves with the power needed to win back their kingdom. Of course, the Archstone sits within a mega-warehouse-sized room which Smaug keeps filled with an ocean of gold like Scrooge McDuck. Getting the Archstone without waking Smaug is the challenge that led them to bringing Bilbo along in the first place. This is the main goal within Desolation of Smaug, but the film is filled with much more extra padding. One of the better subplots is that of a man named Bard (Luke Evans), whose father failed to kill Smaug when the dragon initially took over the city, slaughtering many with his fire. Bard is a shipsman, living in perpetual shame and suspicion from his fellow villagers for the failure of his father. You can tell that Evans is being set up for big things in the third Hobbit film and its one of the few pieces of heavy foreshadowing that I did not mind.

In a controversial move, Jackson included a subplot featuring Legolas (Orlando Bloom) the famed elf from the Lord of the Rings stories who doesn't appear in a single page of The Hobbit. I guess you have to fill three movies some way and why not do it with a popular character? Faithfulness to Tolkien aside (It's been so long since I've read the books, I'm not sure I even would have noticed if I hadn't been told), these elves consume quite a bit of the film's first half. We're introduced to Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a fearless elf and master marksman, who has the heart of Legolas but who finds herself falling for the likes of one of the lowly dwarfs, Kili (Aidan Turner). It's a trivial little love triangle, but it's done with subtlety. Something tells me the real hyperbolic stuff will be saved for the third film. The elves and dwarves cross paths because of orks, the hideous, Spartan-like warriors who are still bitter about the actions taken in the first film, laying in wait to slaughter the dwarves. The elves and dwarves share a common villain in the orks, so the elves rescue them from an ork ambush, right before imprisoning them. **Important Note: the orks fall just below Stormtroopers in terms of being an inefficient, borderline useless army, getting slaughtered left and right and never actual killing anyone of consequence  themselves. At one point, two little girls successfully defend themselves against like five of them by throwing dinner plates.**

Alas, there is still Gandolf (Sir Ian McKellan) who takes off on his own journey, including a battle with the Necromancer which contains some of the biggest thrills of the film. But Smaug is spread to thin, and its self-imposed obligation to adhere to classic epic cinema guidelines leads it into spending a lot more time brooding with some characters (the dwarfs) than having fun with the ones that are actually interesting (Gandalf, Bilbo). I mean, after all isn't this meant to be a children's adventure? I can't deny that Smaug is well made. At this point, Jackson's ability to recreate Middle Earth is second nature, and his work here isn't any less impressive - we've just seen it all before in four previous movies. But I found myself taken aback by how violent these first two Hobbit films have been, cause it seems like Jackson has basically punted the idea of telling this children's story for children. And here may be the root of the issue, the reason these Hobbit films have been so underwhelming compared to the original trilogy: Jackson doesn't seem to be making The Hobbit, per se, but using Tolkien's book to make three Lord of the Rings prequels. He simply cannot let the visual and emotional tone of those films go, even when this story calls for something much lighter.

Jackson's Tolkien films have always been bloated and to declaim his latest one, The Desolation of Smaug, for the same problem really just seems redundant. Except that Smaug seems to possess only the worst parts of the bloatedness and none of the majesty. Once the titular Smaug actually arrives, an epically sized, fire-breathing dragon provided with the silky voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, the film is already two hours in. Then the dragon does us the service of speaking to Bilbo for a good thirty minutes, wasting time posturing like a Bond villain. Two hours into a movie is a bit too late for a sequence that's going to go on a bit too long. This series' best asset is the inspired casting of Freeman in the lead role, but Smaug gets entirely too bogged down in plot and extraneous characters to give Freeman's Bilbo Baggins his proper screentime. Smaug has the plodding pace of a film just trying to get from A to B; all it really needs to do is make sure that audiences will come back to see the next one, and in that form, Smaug truly is a success. But I guess that's my overall point: when you already know that people are going to be showing up in droves no matter what, couldn't you give us a more merciful running time?

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