Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Alternate Title:  Dragoncon (say it aloud)

One sentence synopsis:  Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and the Quest for Erebor approach their destination and encounter Smaug the Terrible.

Things Havoc liked:  The decision to make the Hobbit into a film at all was a contentious move among nerds, as was the decision to divide it in three. I quite liked the first Hobbit film, indeed I put it on my best-of-the-year list (albeit at number 10), but there were a large number of people who did not, some for reasons I found valid and some for reasons I found stupid. My own issues with the film concerned its length, which at risk of spoiling the next section, remains an issue in this film, and also with its pacing, which does not.

Now on the final stretch of their journey, the company of Dwarves and a Hobbit find themselves confronted by the Elf fastness of Mirkwood, the sealed floating city of Laketown, and Erebor itself, complete with dragon. Bereft of the need to introduce the main cast (with a few new-come exceptions), this movie can dive straight into the meat of the subject, as Thorin and company are beset by giant spiders, orcish raiders, and insular Elves led by Thranduil, King of Mirkwood, and his son, Legolas. Fortunately, the Dwarves are in the company of Bilbo, who has proven a quick study after his education-by-fire in adventuring last time around. Bilbo here is a completely different hobbit than the one who set out at Bag End, competent, cool and collected in even the most chaotic of circumstances. Bilbo was one of my favorite parts of the last film, as he was a hobbit totally unlike the previous hobbits we'd seen, a rational, reasonable man in a world that outsized him considerably. All of these qualities are retained by Martin Freeman in this film, but rather than repeat themselves through Bilbo's previous character arc, this time Bilbo is a practiced adventurer, dueling with giant spiders, stealing from elven lords, and even confronting dragons out of a sense of obligation and having already seen a lifetime worth of excitement. Bilbo is, as is right for the series, my favorite character in this film as much as the last one, as he meets every challenge with ingenuity and expertise, building off of the place we last left him, buoyed by the ring, his own confidence, or some inner store of strength that allows him to approach the patently lethal situations he gets himself into with the knowledge that he has actually somehow already seen and been through worse.

But Bilbo's only one character among many, and we'll be here all day if I cite each one of them. To cap off quickly then, Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarven expedition remains as expertly played by Richard Armitage in this film as he was in the last. Knowing, as I do, where the films are going, the character arc as he nears the final fulfillment of his quest is spot on, slowly showing the risks attendant even in successes when the object of one's quest is wealth of a scale unimaginable by anyone present. Ian McKellan's Gandalf remains as Gandalfian as ever, while the various other dwarves, some of whom get larger screen time than the previous outing, each play their respective roles to the hilt, showcasing the diversity even within the Dwarven ranks. Newcomers to the series include Luke Evans as Bard, a hopeless Gary Stu in the books, who here comes across as an effective everyman within the strange, floating city of Laketown, a man simply trying to make ends meet who has the bearers of this tremendous quest (and the risks they represent) dumped on him by surprise, and now must make the best of things. We also get elves, particularly the returning Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and the newcomer Evangeline Lily (Real Steel) as Tauriel, a captain in the elf-guard of Mirkwood. To my abject astonishment, I actually enjoyed both of these actors' performances, in Bloom's case more than I did in the Lord of the Rings! This is a younger, more militant, much less friendly Legolas, who still engages in his signature invincible death-machine moves (unfortunately), but this time actually is allowed to get his ass kicked (a bit), as well as confront the Dwarves with undisguised, untrammeled hostility, as befits the Mirkwood elves. Tauriel meanwhile, is allowed to shine on her own, and the love interest aspect between her and Legolas (as well as with a third character I won't spoil here) is thankfully not made too much of. Both Tauriel and Legolas are allowed to simply interact quite a bit, speaking in Elvish and discussing things the way one might expect immortal forest-elves might well discuss given the situation. And of course, no listing of the cast would be complete without mentioning Benedict Cumberbatch's deliciously sultry, almost Jaffar-esque turn as Smaug the Golden, a titanic dragon who plays with his prey as a cat might a mouse before unleashing his true, terrifying power. Cumberbatch, who also provided Motion Capture for the Great Wyrm, works wonders here, his voice artificially infused with thunderous timber, becoming a menacing growl from the depths of some cavernous hell. It's as spot-on a casting as Andy Serkis was for Gollum.

The pacing was the big stumbling block of the first Hobbit film, and it is a great pleasure to report that it is much improved this time round. Whether there was actually less action in this film or the action was simply better paced, editted, and presented, I cannot say, but the dreaded Battle Fatigue did not rear its ugly head this time round for me at least, despite a three hour run time and multiple ten+ minute sequences of unbroken action. What action there is is concentrated in the first and last hours of the film, leaving the entire middle of the film for character introduction, development, politics, and general adventure/suspense. As with the Two Towers, this movie must cut back and forth between multiple simultaneous story threads, be it Gandalf attempting to beard the lion in his den by storming Dol Guldur itself, the Dwarves and Bilbo making their way through Mirkwood to Laketown and beyond, the Elves under King Thranduil (Legolas' father) debating what tact to take, and executing it, and the Orcs under the command of Azog the Defiler (and his son Bolg) making their own plans. Yet the threads weave themselves together seamlessly, and result in a film that is engaging overall from the first minute to the very last, one that never manages to bog itself down in repetitious action or "spectacle" sequences the way the first Hobbit movie occasionally did.

Things Havoc disliked:  Not every additional actor manages to hit one out of the park here. The aforementioned Thranduil (Lee Pace) unfortunately comes across like a Tim Curry character, hamming it up just a bit too much with his elongated vowels and slightly simpering tone. I grant that Thranduil is supposed to represent an obstacle of some sort, but there's no sign of the quiet regalness of Galadriel or Elrond here. Maybe that was the point, but it's one that I felt could have been made better. Similarly, Stephen Fry of all people plays the Master of Laketown as a pompous buffoon straight out of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, an Edwardian fop in wig and lace that makes little-to-no sense in the context of the wider world of Middle Earth. I see what they were trying to go for with this character, but once more the filmmakers overstate their point, turning the Master into the kind of windbag who is astonished, ASTONISHED, I SAY, at the notion that his people dislike starving to death!

There's also a few moments, generally mid-combat sequence, where Jackson's tendency towards the Slapstickier side of things re-asserts itself. Not that the combat is all hilarity, it's mostly not, but on occasion, one finds characters performing feats of ridiculously impossible deathwreaking purely by accident, an event which always reminds me uncomfortably of the climax to Star Wars Episode 1. Slapstick is fine, by and large, when it reflects the characters' actual intended actions. I don't much care for it when someone effortlessly annihilates an army of enemies without meaning to simply through fortuitous luck.

Final thoughts:  Hobbit 1 opened to mixed reviews, though I was certainly one of those who counted myself its champion. Hobbit 2 however, bucking the middle-film curse, takes the Star Wars route of being an improvement over the original in every way. Capitalizing on what worked in the previous film and resolving or at least minimizing that which did not, the Desolation of Smaug is a tremendous film, epic in all the right ways, worthy to stand alongside its legendary predecessors, and promising more to come. I said about the first movie that the worst thing that could be said about it was that it wasn't as good as the three Lord of the Rings movies. To sum things up as concisely as I can, this one is.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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