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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Hey there, my fellow followers of the Ruinous Powers. Old Man Chaos is back with a (somewhat brief) review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which I shall just call Hobbit DOS just for short). Shall we begin?

OK. Let me be honest. I was very disappointed with Hobbit 1. As a guy who loved Lord of The Rings trilogy, seeing them as the pinnacle of what film-making could accomplish in terms of story, characterization, and special effects, it is understandable that my expectations were quite high for the adaptation of The Hobbit. Now, I knew that there was no way it could live up to LOTR (how could it, it's a single story, lighter in tone), but I was unprepared for just how bad Hobbit UJ turned out to be. I hated it. I have never felt so dejected about a movie (even, believe it or not, Episode I)- I left the theater not wanting to see it again (I saw each of the LOTR movies multiple times in the theater). My original review is HERE - it captures my disappointment and bitterness quite well. A few weeks ago, they released Hobbit UJ Extended Edition, and I decided to pick it up and give it another try. It was telling that the extended cut is only like 10 minutes more footage. At any rate, upon watching it, my opinion remained largely unchanged. My complaints about Hobbit UJ remained, despite my giving it a second chance. At this point, I felt little desire to see Hobbit DOS.

However, last week some reviews began to appear on line. Although they varied in their enthusiasm, the consensus seemed to be that Hobbit DOS was a great improvement over the first. Now, I was torn. I wanted this movie to be good. Perhaps Hobbit UJ was just a fluke. Maybe it was just "ring-rust" that Jackson and company had to work through. Or... was Hobbit DOS destined to fail? Were the reviewers just so elated that Hobbit DOS wasn't the train-wreck that the first was, that they let their positive hyperbole get the better of them? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me...

Bilbo wasn't too happy with the first movie either
Luckily, that was not the case. Hobbit DOS was pretty darn good. Now, it at no point reached the stately, graceful power of the LOTR movies. However, it was a really good, fun, action packed, and at times contemplative film. Gone were the inane attempts at humor, the slap-stick, the fart/bleach jokes, the "forced" moments that meandered and moved along at a snails pace. Instead, we have a  movie that has a mission, and pretty much sticks to it throughout. The characters- even a few of those 13 dwarves, are developed a bit more, while new characters add some much needed depth and contrast. The action is almost constant, with many deeds of daring do, and the stakes are getting higher. Finally, there is a theme emerging here, which I did not expect, which the dragon Smaug ties into perfectly- how greed destroys you from within.

Let's take a few things in turn. First, the action sequences are plainly better. In Hobbit UJ, the few action scenes there were simply were stupid. The fight in the Goblin kingdom was the height of it- no danger, no menace, with a compete disregard for the gritty semi-realism that made LOTR so powerful. In DOS, the action scenes are frantic, with injuries occurring and at all times there is a real threat. From the Mirkwood spiders to the barrel chase to the confrontation with Smaug, their journey is fraught with risk and danger. The action scenes (mostly) mean something to the plot, and characters change as a result of these perils. There's one or two bits that echo UJ, but those are few, and the rest more than makes up for those deficiencies. 

Now, about the characters. Bilbo certainly shines in the first part and the last part (admittedly he gets a little lost in the shuffle in the middle section). Bilbo is clearly becoming braver, more shrewd. He saves the dwarves single- handed in more than one instance. His confrontation with the Mirkwood spiders was a real highlight for me, and his "escape plan" in the barrels is amusing and cunning all at once. Then, at the end, his "confrontation" with Smaug is just wonderful (more on that later). However, Jackson carefully posits the question- is Bilbo getting braver, or is it the ring already manipulating him? A great moral shading here, and well handled.

Some of the dwarves are also given more to do. Thorin, of course, is a strong presence here, being brave but also facing impossible odds- it hangs heavily upon him. His decision to abandon an injured comrade is both sad but very believable. However, Jackson again adds some shading here- is Thorin doing right by his people, or is it "personal"? Does he want to restore his homeland for his people, or does he simply want to be king again, whatever the cost?

The new characters get plenty, and are indeed essential to the theme that Jackson seems to be working on here. The first is Thranduil, the king of the wood elves. His elf king is all but detached from the world, and this is due to an underlying selfishness- the troubles of the world are not for him to get involved in. He simply wants to carry on as he has been. His son, Legolas (back from LOTR in a big role, as it turns out) generally agrees with his father, but his views are tested by Tauriel (well-played by Evangeline Lilly) a female elf that realizes the need to help others and begs Legolas to look beyond to the rest of the world (thus, Legolas will have a transforming arc, which is quite interesting). Finally, there's the people of Laketown, notably Bard, an honest man who has a great doubt gnawing at him; and the greedy and corpulent "Master of Laketown", who decides to aid the dwarves for selfish reasons. All these new roles are preformed very well, adding some great new characters to Jackson's cinematic universe. Lee Pace in particular is great as Thranduil- selfish, uncaring, and short-sighted. He is a great contrast to the wise Elrond and the inspiring Galadriel and the actor plays him very well.

Now, let's get to the titular dragon and the theme of the movie (indeed- the whole Hobbit trilogy?). If it plays out as it looks to, Gandalf is aware that Sauron is trying to return (in the form of the mysterious Necromancer- who is realized by a brilliant special effect). Now, Gandalf goes to investigate this Necromancer- and his fears are realized. What is allowing Sauron to make his return? Greed and selfishness. At the end of DOS it hit me how many of the characters are motivated by greed or entirely selfish needs: Thurandril and (initially) Legolas, Thorin, the "Master of Laketown", the people of Laketown, and, of course, Smaug. These are contrasted by characters who act to help others, who want to aid those in need, including Bilbo, Balin, Tauriel, Bard, and of course, Gandalf (he sees farther than all the others, admittedly, but he is motivated to help all of Middle Earth).

This shot has more thematic importance than might be guessed at first glance
Greed and selfishness have driven the "free peoples of Middle Earth" apart. Insular, self-serving, and indifferent to the needs of others, most of the kingdoms of Middle Earth have put their heads in the sand, unwilling or unable to acknowledge the growing threats and work together to form a solution. This moral failing allows Sauron to begin working toward his return. If they peoples of Middle Earth are busy being suspicious and angry at one another, how can they possibly join hands to stop Sauron?

And, tying all this together is Smaug. Voiced (and played, via motion capture) with superb skill by Benedict Cumberbatch (he's still NOT Khan), Smaug is the brilliantly realized (both in technical and in character terms) epitome of the evil of greed- scary, fearsome, and neigh unstoppable. As a greedy dragon, Smaug wants all the gold he can get (why does he want/need it? Who knows? It makes no sense, which is exactly the problem with insatiable greed), thus he has driven out the dwarves of Erebor and has stayed with his gold for decades, never leaving the Lonely Mountain. He is powerful, vicious, slightly slothful, greedy, and very condescending while being supremely intelligent. He has all this great and terrible power, but all he wants is to guard his hoard.  Smaug is the ugly side of such greed and selfishness, his flames filled with hate and jealousy at those who would wrest his wealth from him, and Thorin has similar feelings- does Thorin want Smaug out to reclaim the kingdom for his people, or does he simply want the wealth and power of Erebor for himself?

As Sauron returns, Smaug would be a natural ally, one who would burn all of civilization just for more gold, while scaring the people of Middle Earth into submission, making Sauron's job easier. Thus, greed becomes a force for even greater evil. Each of the characters is going to have to make a choice- help others or let greed and self-interest have sway. As Bilbo says at the end of the movie- "What have we done?" fits the mood and theme of the film perfectly. I commend Jackson and co for expounding on this so well- after UJ I didn't think he had it in him. Luckily, I was wrong.

There are, of course, flaws in the film that certainly keep it from LOTR status. There's a bit too much going on at times, the screen is a bit too busy for its own good- and you can't get a good fix at what's happening. There is also a lot of padding, with some bits that simply could have been cut- I'm tired of the Orcs mindlessly chasing the Dwarves for the umpteenth time. I also felt that the dwarf battle with Smaug was a bit too much, as it was apparent they couldn't win and as the "battle" went longer the energy of the scene dissipated. Finally, since the Hobbit is such a smaller book, its insane that there are 3 almost 3 hour movies to come from that one book, and you can just feel how they are adding stuff just to fill that run time. There are still issues with having too many dwarves, and there's the occasional bit that just doesn't ring true. Could Tauriel really "love" a dwarf? I'd prefer to think that she is just fascinated by this outsider, rather than "in love", which smacks of studio demographic testing.

Overall, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is superior in every way to its predecessor. The action, the stakes, the characterization, and most importantly, a bigger theme are all well done. IF this had been the way The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey had been handled, this doubt about the Hobbit trilogy would never have come to pass. The quality of DOS makes UJ all the more maddening- how did they make such a poor film, and follow it up by such a strong one. The best I can say about DOS is that I left the theater happy, and I may see it in theaters again. At the very least, I will be looking forward to seeing it on DVD, and I am hopeful now about the third Hobbit movie, concluding the trilogy. If it is as good as this one, I'll be thrilled. I guess two out of three ain't bad. I give it 3 out of 4 Marks of Chaos

Until Next Time!!

1 comment:

  1. My son loved the movie but to be absolutely honest I did not like it as much. I do not fault the material nor the actors and director for this 'meh' feeling I had. It is just that The Hobbit while a good book does not hold a candle to the much more fleshed out LOTR trilogy (duh stating the obvious ... sorry). Being a massive LOTR fan since I was 12, I felt that Peter Jackson did do justice to the trilogy and gave us a massive epic. Even if he delivers an awesome job in The Hobbit, it will never be at the scale of LOTR and therein lies the problem. But I agree 100% that it was better than the first movie. ^_^