Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug / *** (PG-13)

Bilbo: Martin Freeman
Gandalf: Ian McKellen
Thorin: Richard Armitage
Tauriel: Evangeline Lilly
Legolas: Orlando Bloom
Balin: Ken Scott
Fili: Dean O’Gorman
Bard/Girion: Luke Evans
Thranduil: Lee Pace
Master of Laketown: Stephen Fry
Radagast: Sylvester McCoy
Beorn: Mikael Persbrandt
Smaug/Necromancer (voices): Benedict Cumberbatch

New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer present a film directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro. Based on the novel “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Running time: 161 min. Rated PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images).

No thank you, O Smaug the Tremendous!" he replied. “I did not come for presents. I only wished to have a look at you and see if you were truly as great as tales say. I did not believe them.”
"Do you now?" said the dragon somewhat flattered, even though he did not believe a word of it.
"Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of the reality, O Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities," replied Bilbo.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit”

I reproduce this passage from Tolkien’s seminal adventure in Middle Earth because much has been made about this new film trilogy of “The Hobbit” containing material that wasn’t in the original book. Bilbo’s handling of the dragon Smaug by appealing to his vanity in some way makes me think of an allegory between these two characters and the fans of Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s handling of Tolkien’s material. The fans worship Tolkien as if he is the treasure squandered away in the Lonely Mountain. Jackson is the current keeper of that treasure, and he’s pretty sure he’s the King of the Mountain. The fans are left as the scared Hobbit, awed by, but not knowing quite what to think of the overgrown mountain of abundance Tolkien’s words have become under Jackson’s rule.

Personally, like any Hobbit, I’m quite dazzled by the shininess of it all. But some feel it has grown out of proportion and wish they could skip the parts with which they aren’t familiar and just get their hands on that Arkenstone and the other elements they remember from reading the book as kids.

Like I said, I really don’t mind all the extra detailing Jackson has added to the story of “The Hobbit” using various other materials written about Middle Earth by Tolkien. I think it adds to the richness of the Middle Earth universe, which I find unending pleasure to visit every year or so. For the first time, however, I don’t feel like the new details or even the original details of “The Hobbit” story carry much weight in this film adaptation.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is very much the middle segment of a story, and lacks a beginning or ending. It often feels like a series of episodic adventures and not part of a greater whole, which has been a great asset of Jackson’s previous Tolkien adaptations. To be sure, it is a grand and exciting adventure that is well executed by Jackson and his crew. It just doesn’t feel quite as important as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or even “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, the first film in this trilogy.

It picks up right where “An Unexpected Journey” leaves off after a brief epilogue depicting Gandalf and Thorin’s original meeting. The band of dwarves—led by Thorin—one hobbit and Gandalf quickly move to escape the orcs who are still chasing them after their run in with the goblins in the mountain. They escape to the home of Beorn, the bear man, who helps them with passage to Mirkwood Forest. Once there Gandalf splits with the group to investigate the mounting rumors of a dark force known as the Necromancer while the rest of the group journey’s through the diseased forest.

Once in the forest they are attacked by giant spiders, saved by elves, imprisoned by the elves, escape in barrels on the river, and meet up with the barge merchant Bard, who takes them to Laketown. From there they will find the secret door at the Lonely Mountain and enter to reclaim the Dwarven throne of Erebor where Smaug sleeps protecting the gold he’s stolen. As I said, this is all very episodic, with new roles for some familiar faces. Radagast is back from the first film to help Gandalf on his quest. Orlando Bloom reprises his role as Legolas from “The Lord of the Rings” to add a shred of familiarity to the Wood Elves, who are not much like the elves of Rivendell.

I’m sure these character additions and splicings will bother some purists, but I feel they help root this tale more firmly within the world previously created by Jackson in “The Lord of the Rings”. For those unfamiliar with the story, they will be completely unnoticeable as divergent from Tolkien’s vision. Many complain that it draws the story out unnecessarily, but only if you are looking just for the parts you know from the book. Taken within the context of this film, it all moves at a surprisingly quick pace considering the 161-minute running time.

The film’s biggest problem is that unlike any of the “Lord of the Rings” installments, there aren’t multiple storylines to juggle, which is what is responsible for that episodic feel here. I think the new elements to Gandalf’s storyline is an attempt to create a juxtaposition plot to break up the action of the main storyline, but there isn’t enough there to truly intercut on the same multiple storyline level as the “Rings” trilogy.

The centerpiece of the movie, however, is Smaug’s lair and Bilbo’s encounter with the beast. Jackson realizes this scene with greater enormity than likely it has ever been conceived. The riches and treasures go on farther than the eye can see. Smaug himself, is enormous. It’s hard to believe that Bilbo would even contemplate trying to flatter such a threat, which perhaps necessitated a little more emphasis on Bilbo’s intelligence by the script. I believe Smaug is given much more to say than he was in the book. Certainly he’s given more to do, as his conversation with Bilbo leads into an extended action sequence within the mines of the dwarven kingdom, until finally Smaug decides to take his anger out on the people of Laketown.

Another disappointment is the fact that no resolution to the problem of Smaug is reached within this film. We’ll have to wait another year to see Smaug’s wrath and fate. But then, I had been wondering how they were going to make an entire film—Jackson-sized anyway—out of The Battle of the Five Armies. I guess finishing Smaug’s story will add to the running time there.

Despite the distractions surrounding it and its fairly minor story structure problems, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is still a quite impressive fantasy adventure. It doesn’t stop for any Dwarf songs, so its pace never drops like the first installment. I’m sure in the context of the larger story, it will hold greater weight as well. I’m still impressed by Jackson’s ability to realize the vision of Tolkien’s universe, and my enthusiasm for future installments in this franchise does not wane. 

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