Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Better Than the First: Pretty Good

Note: This is a very long review because I’ve also begun with a combinative look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first Hobbit movie to put this review in perspective. If you want to only read my thoughts on this film, scroll and look for the quintuple-spaced paragraph break or just “Ctrl+f” “but this is a review”.

I must admit to having begun viewing the first entry in the Hobbit trilogy segment of Peter Jackson Middle Earth sextology of adaptations during the approximately 4 hours before attending the midnight premier of this, the second entry. (I actually was unable to see the end of the film as I had to leave in order to get a reasonably good seat at the theater.) Also, I have not read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit since I was in 7th grade, and therefore remember very little about it. I felt I should mention these two points as a disclaimer before I begin in earnest, so take them for what you will.

I will begin with some thoughts on the first film as well as on the Lord of the Rings trilogy in order to put my thoughts on this most recent entry into perspective.

That first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure was, most certainly, a letdown, though still a passable effort. The film was, as can be expected of a Peter Jackson film or any film benefitting from New Zealand’s scenery (the film, of course, had both of these going for it), visually great. But with a decided smaller amount of panning scenery-shots, its cinematography paled to that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while its CGI was about on par.

The LOTR trilogy had terrific writing in my opinion, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and Jackson, did a terrific job making the fantasy genre accessible, as well as meaningful, to people for whom elves, dwarves, and orcs might not be their elevensies, sorry, cup of tea. The storytelling was masterful, and while there were a fair amount of obvious lines, I can let them slide because that’s just something you get in fantasy and because watching Orlando Bloom deliver them is a real treat (“They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!”).

The acting is also quite good from much of the cast, despite the limitations on the characters. Sean Bean and Ian McKellen in the first, Bernard Hill and Andy Serkis in the second, and Sean Astin and Ian McKellen in the third give great performances, with Viggo Mortensen providing consistently solid support, that were worthy of awards recognition (McKellen’s first, of course, was the only one that received any). Along with the storytelling, the editing was fantastic, with each one of the storylines cut exactly where necessary to make the story flow perfectly.

The first Hobbit film did not really have any of these qualities. In fact, where the film really floundered, I thought, was in the writing. It was, admittedly, a lively film with occasionally great humor, humor that, at times, rivalled anything the trilogy has on offer, but the storytelling itself was greatly lacking. Despite expanding the writing trio to a quartet with the addition of the great Guillermo del Toro, the story was disappointingly episodes and queasily edited. Storyline jumps were haphazard (and there weren’t even that many of them), and the story just failed to flow as any sort of cohesive whole.

As a result, the rest of the film suffered greatly, directly and indirectly. The acting, especially, was sunk. Acting in these film has always been difficult, especially in certain roles because of relative lack of character arcs, but the first film’s lack of plot all together made any attempts to create a compelling character essentially moot. Martin Freeman, who I think is a great, emerging actor, creates a wonderfully loveable character in Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellen is solid at being old and wise (which he probably does in his sleep), and Richard Armitage tries really hard as Thorin Oakenshield, and might have actually succeeded to some noticeable degree if the script had provided any character development whatsoever.


But this is a review of the second film, not of the first and not of the trilogy, so I’ll get on with it, 675 words in.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, compared to the collective averageness of the first installation I have just described, a definite step up. The writing is much improved, the editing pretty well-done, the cinematography and CGI are gorgeous, and the acting firmly founded.

The improved writing yields a cohesive storyline that provides pretty good character development opportunities, a well-done examination of the title phenomenon, a very fun and adventurous tone, some terrific action sequences, and at least one hysterical moment that surpasses any humor theretofore present in Middle Earth.

Because the cohesion and character development improves, so do the performances. Freeman is, once again, a complete joy, but, simply because of how his character develops relative to the storyline, he will not get a chance to show his true stuff until the third, and final, installation next year. He reminds me somewhat of Mickey Rooney, except that Freeman is much better. They both utilize(d) a pretty set repertoire of mannerisms. The difference is that, while Rooney’s could get annoying and repetitive and sometimes, depending on the part, were out of place and failed, Freeman’s aren’t. In fact, they make his character endearing, and he understands how to use them to the appropriate ends. Many of the mannerisms he uses in this are essentially identical to those in Sherlock, but they evoke something completely different.

McKellen is given a much better storyline, and he delivers admirably, but, as I hinted at earlier, he’s done this same thing many times before and here he does none of it any better than he has in the past.

Richard Armitage succeeds far more than he did in the first one, mostly because his storyline is much improved. But I do not wish to take anything away from him. He quite effectively portrays Thorin’s ongoing battle between the side of him that wants to retake the Lonely Mountain for his people and the side of him that wants to retake it for, to best honest, I have no idea. It’s not really his greed for gold, at least not too much more than the greed any other dwarf feels toward it, but it’s not really the power, but this open-endedness isn’t really an issue because Armitage makes you it real and believable, even though I can’t really name it.

As the voice of Smaug, Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific. His voice is one of my favorites currently in show-business, so its masking in the first half of his performance was unfortunate, but not his fault. Voice performances are typically hard to judge, but not this one. He voice alone exudes the malice, greed, intelligence, manipulation, conniving, and convincing nature of the dragon.

Armitage and Cumberbatch would be vying for my favorite performance in the film if not for Luke Evans. As Bard, he surprised me completely. In his character, as well as in Armitage’s to a lesser extent, is seen the exploration of the titular desolation of Smaug, and they both do an amply good job in portraying it. In addition to looking like Orlando Bloom from Pirates of the Caribbean, Evans very effectively portrays the mysteriousness of his character and the pain from his past and his present, much of which is due to Smaug. He quietly commands every scene he’s in and is the character I cared about the most.

Not everyone is great, though. Lee Pace, who I think was brilliant on Pushing Daisies, but who I found underwhelming in Lincoln, convinces me even more he should only be in comedy-dramas. As the king of the wood elves, he exudes so much malice it’s actually ridiculous and renders him ineffective. This malice also makes any of his attempts at exuding the grace and elegance of elves fall totally flat. In a later scene with a captured orc, he’s quite good in a short reaction, but this cannot make up for his earlier debacle.

The editing, as well, is much better, though there still are a couple of rather awkward cuts, such as the final Gandalf-Necromancer one. The CGI, especially inside the Lonely Mountain (especially Smaug and the forge sequence), is absolute brilliance and completely deserves to win the Best Visual Effects Oscar. The action sequences, too, are excellent. The forge sequence is astonishingly brilliant and beautiful and the escape from the wood elves is terrific, especially because of the inclusion of Legolas (who, quite thankfully, speaks very little and fights very much) and, more importantly, because of what I will call “Bombur’s Barrel Bowl,” is the funniest sequence in any one of the Middle Earth movies yet.

But all is not sunshine and rainbows and puppy dogs. The writing quartet introduces Tauriel, a female elvish archer. I’m not complaining about her introduction, not least because the stunning Evangeline Lilly portrays her. I am complaining, however, about the ridiculous love story tacked on with her on the female end. It’s decently well done for what it is, but it’s wholly unnecessary and adds an additional 20-30 minutes to a movie that’s already long. Also, despite being better written than the first, Desolation still completely pales in comparison to any one of the three LOTR film in terms of its ability to storytell and draw the audience into the story.

As a side note, I would’ve liked to have heard a less self-derivative score from Howard Shore. He succeeded completely with the LOTR films by making the scores somewhat derivative of each film’s main theme (Two Towers’ scores flounders somewhat because it’s too fanfare-oriented), but in the first Hobbit film and now this one, he is simply being completely derivative of his LOTR work, which would be fine in moderation, but moderation is nowhere to be found.

Overall this was a pretty good film that could have been so much better.


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