Sunday, December 22, 2013

In Theaters: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Hobbit poster

It's hard to separate one's feelings about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug from one's opinion on Peter Jackson and company's entire approach to the trilogy. Much more than the Lord of the Rings films, this is a radical rehaul of the source material, expanding upon it in such a way that the focus and tone fundamentally changes. There are downsides to this approach, on display in Desolation of Smaug as in the first film; an inevitable sense of bloat, a story that feels stretched and oddly contorted, characters getting lost in the cutaways. But even if the whole thing comes off a little indulgent and undisciplined, there's still a lot to be entertained by, from elven cities and dark foreboding secrets to a terrifying dragon with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch. It's just a little bit tighter and better focused than its predecessor as well, and its changes to the source material start to pay off in interesting ways.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and company are still on the way to the Lonely Mountain, first passing through the disorienting and spider-infested mess of Mirkwood Forest before running afoul of a group of extremely territorial wood elves. Bilbo, still in possession of a magic ring of invisibility (which will go on to cause a lot of trouble), evades capture, and sets about working on an escape to Laketown under the mountain. Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) continues, with Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), to investigate the dark force growing at Dol Gudur, where he discovers an ancient and powerful enemy raising an army.

There are also a few subplots, some from the book and some original, the latter revolving around the newly invented character of Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), an elvish guard captain who gets caught up in the longstanding emnity between her people and the dwarves, which cannot help but make things awkward when she finds herself striking up something like a romance with Kili (Aidan Turner); the character's presence may be forced but LIly is quite charming and the writing gives her a sense of purpose beyond rounding out the demographics. More in line with the book, though given more detail, is the story of the greedy, corrupt Master of Laketown (played by Stephen Fry), who has been wreaking all sorts of petty oppression on the poverty-stricken city while helping himself to the finest luxuries. This part of the story takes some interesting turns, because while the noble town guardsman Bard (Luke Evans) initially helps shelter the dwarves from the Master's prying eyes, he comes to fear what the return of the King under the Mountain truly means.

But never mind all that, what about the dragon? Smaug is a real beauty, toothsome and serpentine and voiced by Cumberbatch with just the right level of contempt for everything else in existence. He is first seen rising out of his hoard of gold and filling the room, and the design is classic old high fantasy which strikes a good balance between his monstrousness and the fact that he's an intelligent character. We also get to see him confront the dwarves in a way that the book never managed, which means lots of fun running around old mines and dodging fireballs. Yeah, there's a bit of a D&D feel to it all, but why would I ever complain about that?

The film is slightly trimmer than its predecessor but still a little bloated. It definitely overdoses on orc fights, at least in the early section where a trip down a river turns into an increasingly elaborate melee that, while it has some memorable moments, overstays its welcome. A number of minor plots go on a beat too long, and while there is a sense that it's setting things up to pay off later, we haven't gotten to the payoff just yet so it's still asking for patience. Still it does assuage us with some rather lovely production design and a continuing jovial and unpretentious tone.

So The Desolation of Smaug delivers a little more than its predecessor, not enough to become a truly great film but enough to keep us on the hook. It ends at just the right place, and there's a greater sense of storytelling momentum. It even has a few surprises, placing it a cut above most fantasy pictures. It looks like this trilogy as a whole is just plain going to fall short of the wondrous things Jackson and company accomplished with The Lord of the Rings, but it has its own messy charm, like the dwarves themselves.

Based on the book by J. R. R. Tolkien
Screenplay by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson

Grade: B+/A-

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

If ever there was a time a sequel needed to improve upon the first film, it's now, and that's exactly what Peter Jackson has done, even if only by a hair. Good review Evan.