Monday, December 23, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG - An Action-Packed Return to Middle Earth


- The first HOBBIT film had its share of haters, but when I reviewed it last year I just couldn't bring myself to jump aboard the "I hate Hobbit" bandwagon. The facts are these: a.) no, The Hobbit was not quite on par with Peter Jackson's three Lord of the Rings films, b.) there was a sense that not only was Jackson a bit rusty when it came to crafting tales of Middle Earth, but that he was indulging some of his worst tendencies (overly-long narratives, overreliance on CGI wizardry) at the expense of the good, old-fashioned epic filmmaking that made LOTR great, and c.) these problems were further compounded by the rather unpleasant experience of seeing the movie in 48 frames-per-second, which gave the whole thing an overly-slick, overly-fake visual quality. But STILL ... with all that said, there was that magic in The Hobbit that was there, also, in LOTR. It was there in when the dwarves sang their Misty Mountain song, it was there when Gandalf reassured Bilbo that he could be of value to the group, and it was there when Bilbo encountered Golem for some long-anticipated Riddles in the Dark. You can't wholly quantify that magic, and to me the fact that it was still there in The Hobbit made it a movie that, despite its flaws, was still something special. Now, with the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, I'm happy to say that those magical moments come faster and more frequently that in the first film. There's a sure-handedness to Jackson's direction that wasn't always there in Part 1. And there's a feeling that this, again, is something special. Yes, there are flaws. But I still came away with a feeling that these are the movies that Peter Jackson was born to make, and a Jackson-directed film set in Middle Earth is still one of the best things going in the modern era of movies.

The Desolation of Smaug picks up soon after the end of The Hobbit. Thanks to his ring of power, Bilbo Baggins is now more confident, and has become a more valued member of the group - comprised of himself, Gandalf, and a dozen or so dwarves - led by the increasingly driven Thorin Oakenshield. Thorin is more determined than ever to reclaim his people's now-abandoned homeland. In his way, however, are bands of roving orcs - including their leader (and Thorin's nemesis) Azog. The orcs - gaining numbers thanks to the increasing power and influence of their enigmatic leader (the Necromancer, aka the-once-and-future Sauron) - are an ever-present threat. But Bilbo and company also come across giant spiders, unstable shape-shifters, and not-so-friendly elves on their journey. It is the elves who sort of open up the movie and begin to expand its scope even further. Orlando Bloom's Legolas, of LOTR fame, re-emerges as a major player, along with Evangeline Lily's Tauriel.

Tauriel is a new, made-for-the-movies character who I have to say, is pretty great. She adds a great, kick-ass female character to what was a completely male-dominated storyline. And she adds an element of romance - as part of a quasi-love triangle with Legolas and dwarf Kili. I can see why some might be wary of this, but I've got to admit that the relationship between Kili and Tauriel actually ended up being one of my favorite parts of the film. There's some great, epic-romance dialogue between them that calls to mind some of the best scenes between Aragorn and Arwen in LOTR. And as for Lily, man, it's about time that she got to play a big blockbuster role like this one. She not only meets expectations as Tauriel, but far exceeds them. I mean, look, the woman was born to play a badass elf. I've also got to think that this will open the door for Lily to take on more high-profile action roles, because she effortlessly makes Tauriel into a strong, intriguing, and pretty-damn-badass character ... that I think even hardcore Tolkien devotees will warm to.

Overall, this film just seems to handle its characters better than in the first. Some of the dwarves still blend together a bit - but, in addition to Kili's role as love-struck rebel, there are several other standouts. Ken Stott's Balin, for example, really solidifies himself as the heart and soul of the group here, laying claim to numerous memorable moments as the group's elder statesman. And Thorin seems like a better-defined character here - showing shades of LOTR's Boromir - with his resolve to achieve victory slightly corrupting his sense of morality. Because of the film's expanded scope, Bilbo inevitably takes a backseat at times. But I wasn't too distressed about it, as Bilbo is still front and center for the film's biggest moments - including his fairly epic, climactic confrontation with the dragon Smaug. Martin Freeman seems a little more at home as gaining-confidence Bilbo (as opposed to the first film's more whimpering version), and he is, again, really really good in the role.

Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf ... I've said a lot about this role and this actor over the years, but the guy is phenomenal and a cinematic treasure. I feel like Gandalf needs special mention here because he's got so many fantastic scenes in this film. Here's the thing: I totally get the complaint that some of Gandalf's side stories in this one may seem to some a bit extraneous and tacked on. And yet, how can you not love them? In The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson gives us some of the coolest-ever Gandalf scenes. Namely, the imagery and epicness that we get during Gandalf's infiltration of the Necromancer's fortress is just off-the-charts. Nothing brings a smile to my face when Jackson gives us larger-than-life imagery that feels right out of a storybook painting ... and Gandalf fending off an orc horde on the crumbling stone walkways of Dol Guldur is exactly that.

Despite those storybook-like moments, I think that Jackson, overall, does a better job in this film of blending over-the-top action with more grounded moments. Visually, the orcs and other creatures look better than in Part 1. In the first film, Azog and his cohorts looked straight out of a Playstation game. Here, there seems to be a better mix of CG characters with practical FX and old-fashioned costuming and make-up. So, for example, when the elves hold a captive orc at knifepoint and interrogate him, in a crucial scene, it feels more real, more substantial, than most of what we got in the first film. Azog in particular still seems too videogame-ish and unreal for my tastes, but overall, it seems like Jackson better uses the various artistic tools at his disposal this time around.

Interestingly, the movie takes on a much grittier, more intimate feel when we get to Laketown. Laketown is where much of the action of the film's final third is set, and suddenly, the movie's focus shifts from elves and orcs to very human political drama. It's sort of interesting to see the introduction of Luke Evan's Bard - a smuggler who rebels against Laketown's corrupt and oppressive ruler. Bard brings a similar sort of brooding nobility to the story as Aragorn did in LOTR. But Jackson sets up an interesting juxtaposition of this sleepy, human fishing village that is suddenly beset by the problems of the larger, wider world - even as its own people's rebellion catches fire. Fans of Tolkien's The Hobbit (myself included) may find it a bit odd to have so much of a Hobbit film taken up by this darker, less fantastical Laketown section. But I did find that Laketown helps to give some nice context to all of the more out-there and magical elements of this world - sort of like Rohan did in LOTR. There aren't just dwarves, elves, and wizards who are in danger from Smaug, but also these more regular, everyday sorts of people. There are enough loose ends in Laketown where it and its people still seem only half-explored, but I still found the tonal shift it brings to the table to be welcome and surprising.

Overall though, I'd still categorize these Hobbit films as lighter, more over-the-top, and more storybook-like than their LOTR predecessors. That is most evident, perhaps, in the movie's big action scenes. And let me say: The Desolation of Smaug has one of the great over-the-top action scenes we've yet seen in a blockbuster film. This is what I will call "the barrel sequence." While some may criticize the barrel sequence as being *too* cartoonish, too silly, too much, I can only say that I found it to be completely enthralling and joyful - along the lines of the best Spielbergian set-piece action sequences to ever grace the screen. Jackson has always had that Spielbergian influence in his action (perhaps even more evident in King Kong than in LOTR), but the barrel sequence is full-on Spielberg - a rip-roaring rollercoaster ride of an action scene that is exciting, hilarious, surprising, and just flat-out amazing on both a creative and technical level. To me, LOTR was an epic, and The Hobbit is an adventure. There's a difference. And I think that difference opens things up for Jackson to be a little more playful with the action here. In LOTR, the barrel sequence may have been too much, and not keeping with the tone of the films. But here, in my view, it works - and works wonderfully, at that.

The barrel sequence is perhaps the set-piece highlight of the movie, but other scenes show off Jackson's horror-movie chops to great effect. I talked about Gandalf's sequences at Dol Guldur, which definitely have a creepy, creature-feature vibe at times. But the most horror-ish sequence in the film has got to be the spider-attack. The spider sequence is done fantastically, with a mind-melting combo of action, horror, and humor that is vintage Jackson. It's a great character moment, as Bilbo plays the hero and saves his friends with the help of his ring. But it's also an expertly-staged, awesomely-visualized bit of action that is breathtaking to watch unfold.

There are any number of great little bits in The Desolation of Smaug that work brilliantly. John Bell's shapeshifting Bain is a fun, menacing character - and he has some fantastic dialogue after letting the dwarves take refuge in his remote home. Stephen Fry is excellent, of course, as the slimy Master of Laketown. I do wish that his character got a little more fleshing out, but he does a great job with what's there. Elf king Thranduil is another character whose screentime is relatively brief, but who makes a strong impression thanks to actor Lee Pace. And then there's Smaug, who is voiced so well and so menacingly by Benedict Cumberbatch that it's hard to now imagine anyone else playing the part.

By the way, the music here continues to be top-notch - with Howard Shore's score an ear-pleasing mix of old and new themes. I really liked the Laketown theme, and think it's up there with previous LOTR classics. The one glaring omission to me was the lack of a reprise of the Misty Mountain song when the dwarves finally arrive at their long-sought after destination.

The film does, again, get a bit draggy in parts. Part of me does still, inevitably wonder if we needed three films to tell this story, and if all of the setup of LOTR was really necessary. But this is what Jackson and team decided on, and it helps that the additional material he's added or elaborated on has been, mostly, pretty cool. In any case, there's less here that feels tangential than in the first film. The story flows more organically, and there's more a sense of it all building towards something. One other complaint though: Jackson seems to develop an unwelcome habit of occasionally, almost compulsively cutting from the action right before a key beat. The timing of the editing, at times, seems a little off - and once in a while (as with an abrupt cut during a key moment between Kili and Tauriel), it's even a bit jarring.

But mostly, Jackson seems to more fully find his footing than in the first film. His direction seems more confident, more free. And there is a narrative momentum here that wasn't there in The Hobbit. When The Hobbit ended, there was not that old LOTR feeling of "must see the next one ... right now!" But here, I think Jackson recaptured that. Despite the long running time, I was ready for Part 3 immediately, and so too was the majority of the audience in the theater. Jackson tantalizingly, teasingly ends this one on one hell of a cliffhanger - prompting one young boy in our audience to cry out "aww, come on!" as the credits rolled. And you've got to love that. I don't know that this prequel trilogy will ever be held in the same esteem as the original Lord of the Rings movies, but I do feel that Jackson got some of his mojo back for Part 2, and is poised to deliver a fairly epic Part 3. So yes, there are things about The Desolation of Smaug that bother me. But when a movie is so exciting, so full of magic, that you forget about those flaws and just get caught up in this world and this journey - well, that's something special, and rare in the world of blockbuster filmmaking.

My Grade: A-

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