Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Much as "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was my most anticipated film of 2012, so was "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" my most anticipated film of 2013. While the first film was plagued by some substantial pacing issues and overindulgence of stuff that really should have been saved for the inevitable directors cut, I found it to be a fun ride that managed to open the floodgates to memories from my childhood. The second entry was set to absolutely blow the roof off the theater, promising some of the more memorable sequences from the book and introducing the greatest dragon in fantasy literature. Needless to say I was stoked beyond words.

Perhaps too much so, in all honesty. After a year of waiting impatiently, the film is now finally out, and I can't help but feel conflicted over my thoughts on it. Much like the first film, I can't say with a straight face that "The Desolation of Smaug" is a great movie. It suffers from the same problem that the first one had, which is that it's too damn long for no good reason, being padded out by the stuff from the appendices that was not in the original book, which slows the pace down like a drag-chute on occasion.

On the other hand, it's "The Hobbit," so I was still entertained. And to be fair, this is a much faster-paced, rousing, action-packed film that manages to be quite thrilling on more than a number of occasions, and the things that they do right is done very, very, very well. There are moments that are straight up sublime in how accurately they convey the wonderment and adventure from the book. The nerd in me had a very good time, particularly in the first half which follows Bilbo and the dwarfs through Mirkwood, providing the best action in the movie. What can I say? I'm a mark for this crap.

I was singing "The Greatest Adventure" in my head SO HARD at this.

It was when the group reaches Laketown and then Erebor itself that I found myself getting slightly off-put by some things which were not as present in the first film, those being the liberties taken with the story and characters. Some of them are worse than others. Now are any of them enough to make me say that the movie is bad? No, but as a die-hard fan since I was a child, I feel within my rights to objectively and calmly say that I don't think these changes were for the better, they are ultimately pointless, and they reek of studio interference, which I would like to believe that Peter Jackson would be above by this point.

"The Desolation of Smaug" follows Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company through the forests of Mirkwood and the spiders, escaping the Wood Elves and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), down the river to Laketown, reaching The Lonely Mountain and confronting Smaug himself before ending with a cliffhanger that will no doubt be horrendously frustrating for anybody who hasn't read the book. Throughout the affair they are being chased by Azog and his orcs, who show up every once in a while to inject action scenes where there were none previously. That works I suppose, and does tend to heighten the sense of urgency, but it still smacks slightly of superfluous.

He's kind of the Gilgamesh to the Necromancer's Exdeath.

New additions to the cast include Bard (Luke Evans), a man of Laketown who doesn't seem nearly as badass as he should considering what he manages to accomplish later, and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a wood elf who actually does manage to be a total badass when she's not stuck in a non-canonical and shockingly out-of-place love triangle between her, Legolas and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). While I'm not a huge fan of Evangeline I do think she does a great job here, and is one of the more hardcore characters, which makes it a shame that they thought that they needed to subject her to a cliched and meaningless romantic angle. Luke Evans on the other was just acceptable. He was kind of bland, he didn't really sell me on the character of Bard, and he looks way too much like Orlando Bloom. At first I legitimately thought they put a different wig on Bloom and cast him twice. In fact, the exact same thing happened to me and "The Three Musketeers," which also stared him and Evans. They really need to stop casting them together. It's distracting.

But we're all here to see a dragon, right? And true to my hopes and expectations, once he rises from his massive pile of gold, Smaug did not disappoint. He is sufficiently awesome and scary looking, and Benedict Cumberbatch provides a deep, mountainous rumble of a voice that conveys his power and savagery. I still prefer Richard Boone's portrayal in the animated version, but Cumberbatch is arguably the highlight of the film, as he is in roughly everything that he's in. And while the pacing is different than the source material, much like Gollum and Bilbo's scene in the first film, the famous conversation between Smaug and Bilbo is just as awesome as I was hoping it was going to be. Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch play so well off of each other that its difficult to imagine anyone else doing it.

The issue I had with Smaug wasn't his portrayal, although he is oddly unobservant on a number of occasions, but the situation that they put him in. Not content with keeping the encounter with the dragon a game of wits and hiding between him and Bilbo, the film unexpectedly pauses the scene about two sentences before it would have normally ended, and decides to inject Thorin and the dwarfs into the situation. This leads to an extended action sequence that finds the dwarfs running around Erebor trying to defeat Smaug in a Boss Battle straight out of a video game. The problem is that literally nothing is accomplished by it. After it's done, Smaug simply picks up the conversation he was having with Bilbo half an hour previously, finishes the thought he had been having, and then flies away. And absolutely nothing had changed. It was as if our regularly scheduled program had been interrupted to bring us an unrelated action scene seconds before it was over.

"Hey. HEY. I'm way too good looking to not get an extended action sequence where I stand on a dragon's head."

I wouldn't have as big a problem with it had the scene accomplished something. But by its very nature it HAS to be pointless because the dwarfs don't defeat Smaug. The dragon flies away to attack Laketown, and there's nothing the movie can do about that. Nothing the dwarfs do there can amount to anything. So why even have them there? Was the movie not long enough? Maybe they wanted to end on a bang, but I tell you what, maybe instead of closing the film with a half hour long fight which is completely meaningless, you could have used that half hour to instead stick an action sequence that actually was in the book in there, and ended the film with Smaug attacking the city. And hey presto, the film would have actually had something close to an ending, too. I can see why they did what they did, but I really don't see the point.

I also feel it necessary to point out that despite the heroics of Thorin and company during the fight with Smaug, in the end, their plan was completely stupid. I'm no Tolkien scholar, and I don't know everything about dragons in that universe, but I am a fairly big nerd. And being a big nerd I must point out that if one desires to kill a dragon - an ancient fire-breathing red dragon - perhaps a strategy involving massive heat is not the way to go. I'm just saying that if your plan to kill a red dragon involves using its own fire to heat something else up which you will then use to attack it, therefore by extension ensuring that at absolute most, the fire will be no hotter than what its own body naturally produces, you have no idea how dragons work and have no business fighting them. And what do you know? We go through half an hour setting up this elaborate scheme, and in the end it does nothing except to mildly irritate Smaug before he walks it off and leaves, which makes less sense now because after all that B.S. they just put him through he'd probably stick around and eat all of them out of pure annoyance.

And maybe I'm being nitpicky...but why in the name of Gandalf's beard does Bilbo take off the ring while talking to Smaug? THAT. MAKES. NO. SENSE.

All that aside, there's still enough to call this a fun time. It's definitely got some fantastic action in it, which really saves it from many of its problems, but I am getting a little irritated at the persistent unnecessary padding this trilogy seems hard-set on subjecting us to. I'm sure we're going to get more of that come next December, as well. But "The Hobbit" is still "The Hobbit," and I can't help but be entertained. I just can't believe that my vision for the extended cut is actually shorter. Who would have thought?


THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Desolation of Smaug" is better than "An Unexpected Journey" due to rampant action, a much faster pace, and Smaug The Most Terrible of Calamities. However, it's still too long and there are some weird additions that annoy and some pointless action that is shockingly distracting, at least to me. It's mostly nerdy nit-picking, to be fair, but it's enough to make me feel ever so slightly let down. But it'll probably get better with rewatching, and it's still Tolkien. I'd still rather watch "The Hobbit" cartoon any day, though.

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