25 December 2013

First Impressions: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Ever since Petey Jackson announced that he'd be directing a trilogy follow-up to The Lord of the Rings, anticipation has been reserved rather than eager. Maybe it's because of The Hobbit's strange position as a film prequel while the book actually preceded LotR, and general fanboy wariness of big cultural prequel events after Star Wars ruined things for everyone. Maybe it's just the fact that a book shorter than any of the LotR books was being adapted into three films of equal length, arousing suspicion or money-grabbing in Hollywood. For whatever reason, The Desolation of Smaug has almost become an under-the-radar movie, without a great deal of cultural weight. This is fairly undeserved, because regardless of source material or production drama, Smaug himself is well worth the wait, one of the best characters of the year, and possibly the greatest dragon ever put on film.
She also gets so much shit from snooty Blonde Elves.

The Hobbit remains an enjoyable alternative to The Lord of the Rings with a certain frame of mind. While The Lord of the Rings excelled (mostly) in being a serious, true adaptation of James Randolph Rodrigo Tolkien's work, The Hobbit goes completely bonkers, with much more freedom to expand into crazy, liberating directions. Since the actual story is so thin, this isn't really an issue if you can get past the commercialism conspiracy. Its complete disregard for being loyal to fanboy interpretation makes it a pretty engaging experience. Some of this works, but most of it is super-wacky. The result is this blend of an LotR-like "serious" epic fantasy experience and the more common CGI-fueled goofiness seen more often in contemporary tentpoles.

The film picks up right after An Unexpected Journey and goes right into more ridiculous dangers in Middle-Earth such as Beorn the Were-bear. He's kind of weird and random and far too chill with thirteen dwarves, a tiny little man, and an old geezer crashing at his secluded place without even a call ahead. What jerks.

The most interesting dynamic of this film is still Bilbo's relationship with the One Ring and how it grows on him, which is an ever-present theme in this franchise. While it increases his confidence and heroism, it does so only by making him more paranoid and defensive against threats against the Ring. The most compelling scene in the whole film so far is his "rescue" of the Ring from a big nasty white spider lurking in Mirkwood. Bilbo's becoming a fierce warrior, a slave to the will of the Ring, without even really knowing it.

See, Frodo always had people warning him in LotR. There was this feeling of doom around the whole movie as the Ring weighed heavier on his soul. Bilbo's basically in the dark in The Hobbit. He doesn't really know what the Ring is, nor does anyone else. It's just this mysterious force that's slowly pushing him towards the brink of corruption. It's a sinister twist on the Hero's Journey, where the audience is in on how the force making him grow into a warrior will also cause his downfall. Essentially, the inner conflict that most characters in the film aren't even aware of, is making these movies worth it. That, and Smaug. More on that later.

Despite the interesting dynamic between the inner conflict and heroic development of Bilbo, there's a lot of weird moments in this flick, which should almost be a given considering its bloated run time. Once we're out of the Spider's trap in Mirkwood (which includes some of the best set design I've seen all year - big movies like this are always technical achievements and this is no different), we get into the Woodland Realm of Thranduil. There the dwarves are all captured and one in particular instantly falls in love with Kili.

Okay, let's get into this. Tauriel, an elf made up for the film and played by Evangeline "Kate from LOST" Lily, gets a pretty cool introduction showing her badassery, as well as plenty of screen time. It's about time that Lily got something of a career going, but it's also funny that she's instantly involved in a love triangle after that took up most of her time on LOST. Now, the triangle in question is between her, the dwarf Kili, and Legolas. Yes, that Legolas.

See, Kili was always the "Legolas" of this group and acted in that exact role in Unexpected Journey. He's the incredibly good-looking archer dwarf for some reason who doesn't really have a full beard, just a bit of scruff. So basically, I'd consider Tauriel in a love triangle between Legolas and himself. It's so damn goofy. I'm not sure if there are any Elf / Dwarf pairings in the history of Tolkien's writings, or any idea what that offspring would look like or the abilities it'd have, but why not? There's this weird bit where Tauriel kind of likes Legolas but after talking to his dad, they're both like "hell no", then Legolas comes along with this kind of "mmm I would hit that" attitude. Considering there's no sign of Tauriel or Kili in LotR are we in for some doom? Or just who the hell cares? I'd go for the latter and just ride out this silliness while we got it.

Sneezy was killed in Erebor.

As far as the other elves, they're given about the same random treatment as they did in the first film. I didn't even recognize half of them. Besides Thorin, Balin, and Dwalin, you can recognize Kili, maybe Fili, Bombur just because he's the fat one, and possibly Bofur just because of his silly hat (and the fact that he looks like a 70s porn star). That leaves Nori, Dori, Ori, Gloin, Oin, and Bifur as just random fill-ins. And rightly show, that's about what they were in the Book. There is a nice moment where the film acknowledges that Gloin is the father of Gimli, where he shows a pic of his son to Legolas.

Bilbo tends to prove himself again in the Barrel Escape, which coats the film with a high level of madcap absurdity. It's surely a thrill ride and a very nice set piece, but the infusion of humour and action so improbable that it makes Furious 6 (2013) look like a lecture from a Physics Nobel Laureate. Then we get to Lake-town. Lake-town sucks.

It doesn't really suck from a narrative prospective but it's pretty rough in the metafilm. Why are the lands of Men in these flicks always these really impoverished, Dark Age-beset shitholes and every other kingdom glitters with gold in spectacular halls of fantasy? I suppose it's that sense of wonder for these fairer, fantastic races compared with the idea that, yeah, humans can't really do shit.

Lake-town is also filled with these really ham-fisted political allegories, with Stephen Fry's Master the cruel overlord of the town, his unibrow toadie under foot, and Luke "Owen Shaw" Evans' Bard the slightly insurgent rabblerouser. There's just no place in a film like The Hobbit to thoughtfully contemplate the nature of free elections, the 99%, or anything else it tries to deal with for a whole forty-five seconds. I'm just waiting for Bard's brother to show up, played by Jason Statham.

Like the first film, in addition to all these cray cray action scenes that really expand the story, we also get a ridiculous amount of villains. Azog the Defiler hangs around but isn't as much of a threat as the silent but deadly Orc Commander Bolg. Sauron himself makes a brief appearance, as do hints of the Nine in a pretty cool scene where we get to see where they were entombed. Finally, though, we've got Smaug. Oh greatest of calamities.
You know, this actually pretty damn
similar to the Eye of Sauron

The plot works by coming down to a more philosophical battle with Smaug rather than an outright physical confrontation. There is a lot of hate in both sides between both Smaug and Thorin, and it's far more interesting to hear him jest with Bilbo than to run amok, although both are visually impressive. Smaug is a huge dick basically just because he's effectively immortal, but he's also generally content to be just left alone sitting atop his pile of gold. That's not really a sustainable future for anyone, though. He's absolute power corrupted, an untouchable and cruel asshole because he can be. Thorin is understandably pissed that he gobbled up all his kin and stole his home for two centuries. They both attempt to use their wits and strengths to battle, where Thorin eventually covers the beast in molten gold. That really just pisses the dragon off, though.

Speaking of which, Smaug is also the richest fictional character ever, according to Forbes. He is worth the price of admission and essentially two films worth of anticipation. Benedict Cumberbatch nails his voice to perfection, and hearing that thing boom across a crowded IMAX is a treat to the ears that rumbles the soul. Bilbo's banter basically trying to stay alive rivals that of his riddle game with Gollum, and Smaug's keen senses are perfectly put on screen. The physical effects itself, including his massive on-screen presence is also a delight. Basically, everything about this fucking dragon is perfect.

The Desolation of Smaug is a pretty decent improvement over An Unexpected Journey. It tones down the weirdness slightly, raises the stakes, moves at a bit brisker pace, and adds a lot more insane characters and situations. Depending on what you are looking to get out of a fantasy movie you might still be better off with the first three Lord of the Rings films, which tend to be a little bit more prestigious, while The Hobbit films still veer into the more obscure parts of Tolkien's mind. 

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