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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (2013)

13. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I can’t recall the last time a major nerd event like “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” was met with such resigned duty. No one was excited about “The Hobbit,” a simple story, getting bloated to three long films, stretched out over three years, with a total run time in the nine-hour range. Despite these reservations, we’re all going to see “The Desolation of Smaug.” I liked “An Unexpected Journey,” in spite of the excessive padding. Even then, I approached part two of this unnecessary trilogy with a weary sigh. It’s December. Must be Middle Earth time.

I knew there’d be a bunch of extra double-long bullshit stuffed inside its two hours and forty minutes but I was looking forward to “Hobbit II: Bilbo Harder” for one reason. The motherfucking dragon. Give me a bad ass giant dragon, Peter Jackson. As its subtitle promises, “The Desolation of Smaug” does indeed get to the dragon. Eventually. First, the hobbit and his dwarf friends have to navigate a labyrinthine forest, battle some big ass spiders, encounter stuck-up elves, duel orcs while rolling on the river in barrels, encounter more political hand wringing in a floating human city, and angst out about a key that may or may not work.

All still that isn’t enough to occupy an epic run time. The second “Hobbit” film double-downs on extraneous subplots. Gandalf spends almost the entire film separated from his friends, instead investigating the soon-to-be resurrected Sauron. The orcs that was so important last time spends this film hanging in the margins, building their army. Sort-of beloved fellowship member Legolas shows back up for some action theatrics. His would-be elf girlfriend gets stolen away by the most handsome dwarf. That plot line continues into the third act, two of the dwarfs stranded in Lake-town, one of them dying from a poisoned arrow. Not to mention political conspiracies involving the townsfolk. All of this distracts from the truly exciting stuff involving Smaug. Whatever movie, with your necromancers and boring romantic shenanigans. Just get back to the awesome dragon.

Man, that dragon is awesome. Smaug is, with little question, the best realized dragon to ever grace the silver screen. The film conveys the scale and sheer size of the creature exquisitely. Smaug takes over the entire theater screen. Hobbits, men, and dwarves are tiny next to his claws and eyes. His wings summon up gale force winds. The dragon’s fire is illustrated as a truly destructive force, spraying out as hot, molten lava. A fantasy troupe I’ve always liked is the talking, intelligent dragon. Up until now, that concept wasn’t represented in live-action film. Smaug is actually quite verbose. He mocks and toys with Bilbo, enjoying watching the little creature squirm. The dragon is arrogant, greedy, and proud, qualities befitting any human. Though Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is digitally altered beyond the point of recognition, Smaug is still a fully formed character. Amazing to look at and interesting to watch, the dragon is, in many ways, a more layered person then any of his human co-stars.

While “The Hobbit: The Book” was a kid-friendly adventure fantasy, “The Hobbit: The Trilogy” has to fit uncomfortably within the epic action film parameters of his mother franchise. It starts out fine enough. The encounter with the giant spiders is well orchestrated. Though not as impressive as the dragon, the huge arachnoids are similarly detailed with a little personality of their own. I love their chattering, nervous language. Bilbo and the dwarfs swinging around webs, stabbing giant spiders left and right is exciting enough to hook you in.

After that, sadly, the film’s action falls into a predictable formula. Legolas and Tauriel slide into scene like video game sprites, jumping around in stylized fashion. During the river chase scene, the elf jumps around on dwarf heads, slashing and shooting enemies. Decapitated heads, axes, and hairy bodies are tossed into the air. Sure, it’s cool to look at. Yet it feels exaggerated compared to the previous trilogy’s more grounded combat. At times, it’s as if the filmmakers are repeating “Look! Legolas is still a badass! LOOK AT HOW BADASS HE IS!” The elves are even shoehorned into the last act. Thorin got an arch-enemy last time with Azog. Legolas gets one too, an orc bruiser he sword fights in Lake-Town. Why is this shit in the movie?

How about those cancerous subplots? Gandalf does time in his own storyline, wearily investigates tombs and castles, occasionally throwing balls of light at monsters. This subplot climaxes with a belabored showdown with the nearly reborn Sauron, a ludicrous battle of light and shadow. Occasionally, Ian McKellen’s natural charm slips through but he seems mostly depressed and bored.

The elves are even worse. Evangeline Lily is fine, charming even, as a character invented solely for the movie, looking all the world like a gender bent Link. The love triangle between her, Legolas, and Kili is especially forced in, an appeal to romance-crazed fan girls. The political upheaval noticed in Lake-town is blatantly inserted to extend the conflict, keeping Luke Evan’s blandly handsome Bard occupied while more important shit happens to more important characters. This becomes a major issue in the scrambled last act, the other story lines constantly interrupting the more interesting dragon related business.

Smaug is so brilliantly created and such a justified threat that you’re willing to overlook some minor quibbles. The dragon looks great, even if that CGI melted gold looks weirdly fake. The way the dwarves distract the beast is silly, occasionally slipping into the film’s bad habit of overdone action. Still, it works, the intensity building, Smaug getting more and more pissed off. He flies towards the water-set city, determined to burn it to the ground, the audience’s excitement at peak level. And then… It ends! Just when the film is getting really exciting, it ends! To be continued, see you next December. Peter Jackson, you tricky motherfucker.

Aside from its non-ending and bloated screenplay, the biggest sin “The Hobbit Strikes Back” commits is relegating its title character to a supporting role. Martin Freeman’s exasperated reactions were frequently the best part of “An Unexpected Journey.” Bilbo is shifted aside in favor of other characters, Freeman mostly replaced by his CGI double. Yet, even with the sharper focus, the dwarves are still sketchy outlines at best.

Peter Jackson’s direction can be overdone, focusing too much on 3D eye-gouging, the camera swirling around in CGI assisted ways. Even the score isn’t as good as last time, only hinting at the richer, deeper themes used in part one. But… That dragon. Man, he’s awesome. I’m trashing “Desolation of Smaug” more then it deserves. The whole time you’ll wish this was the last half of a duo and not the middle chapter of a trilogy. Yet when it works, it works exceptionally well. Maybe some day, we’ll get a proper, abbreviated cut of the whole series, no filler, just the good parts. [Grade: B-]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice review Zack. If you enjoyed the first, you'll love this one and you'll get your money's worth, but if you were just very so-so with the first, you may feel the same about this one, while also feeling like there's something good coming up around the bend with this last movie.