Friday, January 3, 2014

‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ film review

              The Hobbit: TDoS is the “second” movie in the Hobbit trilogy story.  Right off the bat I would agree with you in that I don’t think there was a need per se to make another billion dollars stretch out the story into three long movies.  Whereas I think the length of the Lord of the Rings movies, a natural trilogy, fit them perfectly – I feel the artificial lengthening of the Hobbit has slightly worked against it as the original story is different from LoTR; and is better enjoyed as a more intimate affair.  Director Peter Jackson, understandable so, has chosen to broaden its implications though to help tie in The Hobbit's circumstances with the eventual “War of the Ring” stories we’ve already seen in LoTR.  Mind you he’s taking cinematic liberties yes, but he’s often (thought not always) doing so from authentic ancillary source material from Tolkien himself.  This said, I still very much enjoyed TDoS.  Neither Hobbit movie has provided me with the pinnacle high I got watching the first three LoTR movies, but I think that’s more because like a drug addict always needing more, I’m already taking for granted Jackson’s beautifully and wonderfully crafted Middle Earth.  It’s still superb filmmaking…it’s just I’m used to it more now.  I’m spoiled. 

I give the movie 4 out of 5 stars.   As usual, Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies are leagues better than most "lowest common denominator" adventure movies Hollywood churns out.  I’m personally growing tired of comic book movies and good science-fiction fantasy is far too under-represented these days.  It’s nice to not only see such a classic come to screen, but to see it done mostly right.

I will save you any decision-making though.  If you did not enjoy the first Hobbit movie, you will probably feel the same way about this one…mostly because it basically just continues where the first one left off and involves many of the same fantastical elements.  That said, Smaug does add a bunch to the story you may find rewarding that the first movie doesn't contain.





This is your last chance to turn back…

So basically this story picks up after the party of dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf escaped the pack of ravenous Wargs and orcs a bit east of the Misty Mountains...  

What I Liked:

                -He's as bad@$$ as we remember him in the LoTR films, albeit a tad bit more stoic/arrogant.  I’ll admit though, seeing another familiar face in Middle-Earth is like having meatloaf your mom used to make that you loved when you were younger.  Maybe it’s just nostalgia…but for some reason, everything is better when Legolas is around.

                -I don’t envy the task of bringing a pretty important character into the story that just wasn’t really in the original text, but Jackson delightfully brought to life a vibrant, likable, and orc-killing machine in Tauriel.  Evangeline Lily does a great job with what’s she’s given, and easily takes the crown as most competent female in all of Jackson’s Middle-Earth (with apologies to Galadriel because she never really fought any orcs).  And as much as I liked Arwen, Tauriel makes her look like a whiny sissy.

Manifestation of Sauron
                -Truth be told, I thought the few seconds of that eerie manifestation of Sauron in human-like form was scarier than every “eye” scene of his in the three LoTR movies.   Despite Tolkien’s limited description of what the “Eye of Sauron” actually looks like, I don’t think the movies ever were able to do it justice (Though the “Mouth of Sauron” guy is by far the scariest looking character in all of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth IMHO).  The form Sauron takes in this movie, albeit brief, and how they sort of integrated his original form with his eye form, was the coolest/scariest of them all.

                -Perhaps a little out of place in the grand plotline of the film (for now), but I enjoyed the “otherness” Beorn brought to the story.  It reminded me how when Treebeard was introduced in LoTR and it added some freshness to the character slate. I appreciated his non-English European accent as well lol.

                A “majestic calamity” indeed!  Smaug the Worm is so grandly terrifying it gives you no doubt how he could conquer cities in a matter of minutes.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s voicing of the beast only furthers his fearful persona.  You also get a great sense of his sheer size and power during the end scenes of the movie as he’s chasing down the dwarves inside Erebor’s depths.  He is such a massive creature of terrible power unlike we’ve seen in Middle Earth…save maybe the demonic Balrog.  If he lived to become a servant of Sauron during the events of the LoTR’s, I fear the age of man would have been wiped clean with ease.  He makes the fell beasts the Nazgul ride look like puppies with wings. 
Smaug has always been a rarity in fictional adventure literature as well; being an competent and intelligent villain.  For every Smaug or Khan or Darth Vader, we have a hundred paint-by-number idiot villains who always do the stupidest things to allow the “hero” to defeat them.  Smaug may be prideful (his eventual downfall), but he is not an idiot.  He may also be a tiny bit vulnerable, but he is mostly awesome in power and might.  Such a formidable foe both physically and mentally adds much more weight to severity, and hopelessness, of the quest to defeat him.  Maybe we should start coining the expression "12 dwarves and a hobbit vs. Smaug" instead of "David vs. Goliath".

Erebor (Lonely Mountain)
                -Speaking of majestic…what a sight and setting for a huge portion of the film
 to take place around.  This truly is one of the great places of Middle-Earth.

What I Didn’t Like:

Please note, there really wasn’t anything I didn’t like adamantly.  These were more annoyances, frustrations, or merely fluff/filler I didn’t think necessary.

Tauriel/Kili flirtations
                Just didn’t seem to fit quite right – not to mention the awkwardness when one considers the difference between Dwarves and Elves.  I appreciate the bridge-building it creates, but it just didn’t seem too necessary to add this little distraction.  Perhaps Jackson will use this down the road into a plotline, I don't know.  And I understand Jackson & Co. want to incorporate more female presence in the movies...I just don't think this is the way to do it.

Master of Laketown and his Wormtongue wannabe
                What exactly was the point of these two unlikable characters?  I don’t remember their significance in the book and that means I could care less to see them on the screen.  They could’ve thought of a plotline just as legitimate to send the dwarves on their way instead of involving these two in mostly forgettable scenes.

Epic travelling shots
                So those first few times we see the fellowship walking along rocky vistas and snow-capped mountains in The Fellowship of the Ring, whilst the bold score plays in the background, we were captivated by the sense of Middle-Earth adventure and awe.  This type of scene became a staple of Jackson’s LoTR movies.  I especially liked the one when Gandalf and Pippin leave Rohan with haste towards Gondor in The Two Towers as well.  Well Jackson tries to utilize this grand fashion of awe-inspiring filming again in the Hobbit movies and IMO it falls flat – especially in TDoS.  Perhaps it’s another case of me being used to something but I just felt these scenes in TDoS were shoddily put together.  One moment the group is trudging over rocks and thick brush, the next they’re in a huge open field…then they’re in a forest.  These scenes just don’t flow well in this movie IMO.

Sets, sets, sets
                In the same cinematographic-scope, was it me or did almost every scene feel like it was shot in a nice and cosy studio set?  It seemed to me that in the LoTR movies, most of the action took places outdoors in some of the most amazing locations in all of New Zealand, but in this movie I felt like even the "outdoor" scenes were mostly shot indoors.  I'm assuming this is because of the obvious reasons of environment control and predictability (and perhaps cost), but boy, the outdoor scenery is a big reason that scene in the Fellowship when Frodo drops the ring and Boromir picks it up in the snow is so powerful.  Don't get me wrong, Jackson's crew creates some amazing just felt like they were always in one it seemed.  Laketown especially felt very "setty".  It would've been cool if they built a huge set outdoors for this, ala Waterworld.

Mirkwood spiders
                I don’t know about you, but the Shelob scenes in The Return of the King were some of the most frightening arachnid scenes I’ve ever witnessed.  I was expecting Shelob x10 for this exciting part in the book.  Yes I know the Mirkwood spiders aren’t the same type as Shelob, but I just didn’t feel the same dread.  Perhaps it was because Bilbo seemed too adept at fighting/killing these spiders whereas Frodo was straight-up freaked out of his mind when Shelob came for him.  Perhaps Jackson created a greater sense of horrific suspense in the Shelob scenes than these more action-oriented ones.  I don’t know exactly what it was, but I just was hoping for something more.  I feel as if they could’ve replaced the spiders with say ROUS’s and it would’ve felt like the same scene.

Nondescript dwarves
                Same problem as the first movie (and it’s not an easy thing to deal with for any large group of characters), but once again other then of course Thorin (and perhaps Kili in this movie) we barely even know any of the other dwarves’ names.  The only other ones with any barely memorable time on screen were Balin (the wise older one), Bofur (the comedic guy late for the boat to Erebor), and maybe Dwalin because he’s the only bald one.  Nori, Fili (Kili’s brother), Dori, Gloin, Oin, Bifur, and Ori are all mostly forgettable.  Bombur’s only claim to fame is his obesity and a really silly, out-of-place, fight scene as they're barreling, literally, down the river.

Again, it’s a tough spot for a filmmaker to make 12 similar characters all memorable.  I guess the only thing I may have done is cut down a little on the “filler” stuff and added a few more character-development scenes between the more nondescript dwarves.   Perhaps the extended editions will include something like this.  That said, my favorite scene of the whole band together remains the sober “Misty Mountains” a capella rendition they give at Bilbo’s house by the fire.  It’s hauntingly beautiful, elicits the common purpose for all of them at hand, and adds serious depth that is sometimes missing throughout the rest of the movies.

                I’ve always liked Bard from the book, and I like Luke Evans the actor, but this Bard came off as sort of jerk-ish, as if he always had a pebble stuck in his boot that was bothering him.  I understand he took a big risk helping out the dwarves, but his “woe is me” attitude every second he’s on screen got a little annoying.

The Beginning
                Each LoTR movie and the first Hobbit movie had really cool opening sequences, usually recapping great events in the past.  This one starts with a flashback as well, but as cool as the Prancing Pony is (our first introduction to Strider smoking his pipe in the first movie is one of the coolest intros), I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by this beginning.  When we already have the intro to the second movie in the LoTR trilogy to compare to, in which Gandalf fights the Balrog in an epic battle…a mostly boring chat over a beer just doesn’t measure up.

Concluding Remarks:
                The Hobbit: TDoS is not a perfect movie and IMO I do not think the Hobbit movie series has lived up to the lofty precedent set by Jackson’s own LoTR trilogy (who could?!)…yet.  I think the third movie will have the best chance to really bring back Jackson’s LoTR magic (mainly because of the Battle of the Five Armies sequence in which he’s sure to milk for all its worth), but this second movie is no mulligan by a long shot.  Smaug, rightfully so, takes the main stage here and his appearance in the last third of the film makes up for IMO any missing pieces in the first two thirds.  Despite ending fairly abruptly, this movie forces you to want more…and that’s a good thing.  Here’s hoping Jackson has a barnburner, pun intended, for us for the third and final act of this Hobbit trilogy story.

                As great as Peter Jackson’s rendition of The Hobbit is…and as wonderful as hundreds of millions of dollars and super talented actors and filmmakers and artists are in bringing it to live-action life...  I must say that I still have a very special place in my film loving heart for the 1977 animated Rankin/Bass version.  Somehow I feel like the animation is spot on and even some of the cheesy 70’s ballads just fit in my mind.  It follows the story almost to a "T" and has some really great , memorable moments.  I’m not saying Jackson should’ve just made a live-action version of like it, but I will say as the years go by, my fond view of the animated film has not diminished.

The whole thing used to be on Youtube, but it’s yanked now looks like.  If you ever see it for cheap or streaming do yourself a favor and watch it.  Here’s a modern trailer for it.

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