December 30, 2013

by Derek Defoe

Watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I thought back to one of the closing moments of final Lord of the Rings film, The Return of the King, where Bilbo Baggins is an old and withered man, ready to sail off to the end of his life. With his head on his nephew's shoulder, he affectionately muses that he wished he could hold that old ring of his, just one more time. Maybe he's thinking back to what we see in this film. Bilbo has a lot of interaction with this ring, finds a lot of use for it, and is able to maneuver with it in many ways. If these Hobbit films have taught us nothing else, it's that Bilbo, in his younger days, was about as clever and resourceful as a hobbit could be. He has a lot of fun with the old ring here, it's a shame about it being a horrible doom-impending trinket that could bring all of Middle Earth down under Sauron's evil. But anyway, curiously enough, ring or not, there are quite a few sections of this film where Bilbo disappears, taking a backseat to leave room for some other featured characters, which is fine, since he was such the central focus of the first film anyway, and with such a rich and detailed universe to behold, it only stands to reason that others should be given some light in the story.

A rich and detailed universe it is, with many characters and locations and plot points and histories, it's just extremely extremely intricate, which is very rewarding for the enthusiasts of these films, and opens the door to another world of fantasy and wonder. I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, I loved the first Hobbit, and I love this one, but I'll be honest: if you asked me on the spot to name all the main Dwarves in the movie, I would probably list one or two right, get a couple more close, start making names up, then start listing Santa's reindeer. I can't claim to be an expert. I know there are those who are very passionate about Tolkien's literature and feel the Hobbit movies do his novel a great injustice. I've read and enjoyed the novel but again, I am no expert. But I like to view the Hobbit films more as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings films than a direct adaptation of the comparatively short children's book by Tolkien. As prequels to Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy, the Hobbit films, now two movies in, have worked splendidly, capturing the mood and spirit and continuity just about perfectly, and are worthy companions to the much larger LOTR story. If one were to deconstruct the movie strictly from the point of view of Tolkien's text, the movie can't possibly satisfy, and becomes a series of events where you'll be saying "I don't remember this from the novel."

In the tradition of this series, the film opens basically where the first one left off, working on the assumption that you've already seen An Unexpected Journey and hits the ground running with the story. Once again it taps into the deep-seeded rivalry of the dwarves and the elves. Here we see an Elven kingdom, where once again we meet Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom. How great is it to have Legolas back in another movie, by the way? There's also a great new addition, Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lily, another Elf who finds herself in a love triangle between Legolas and one of the Dwarves, Kili. It seems like kind of a hackneyed plot element at first, but for one thing it's played subtly enough that it's not distracting, and also, I don't know, it has a certain kind of Montagues/Capulets charm to it, and that if there could be even the slightest hint of a romance between to mythic beings whose races hate each other with a burning passion, then there's something very positive about that, and very hopeful. It was nice. We also see the cold and ghastly village known as Laketown, ruled under the tyranny of a bumbling master, played by Stephen Fry, almost unrecognisable under fantastic makeup. He was great.

The main event has to be the introduction to the evil dragon Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (several theatre chains had to ask to turn down their speakers for his scenes as there were reports of several women getting pregnant). It's a wondrous special effect, very detailed, as photo-realistic as the technology can allow, and just intimidating as all hell. Smaug's moments are likely to be the key scenes of the trilogy, since up until this movie's last act, he was rarely seen and only talked about. He lives up to his reputation. Smaug is a very good villain, even it's in a somewhat cartoonish way. He's very conceited and proud of his own glory. Smaug, you may recall, topped Forbes' recent list of the most wealthy fictional characters of all time. An ego has to come with that.

It's pretty much what you can expect based on what was seen from the last film, which I think I liked just a tiny bit better. There's great adventure and action and special effects, a really committed cast of actors, and a sense of wonder that I'm glad isn't completely lost in modern cinema. Once again it was great to see Martin Freeman in the role of Bilbo, still very funny (his nose twitch when he meets Smaug is priceless), but with maybe a little more edge and maturity gained since the last time we saw him. And of course it's always a treat to see Ian McKellen as Gandalf.

So it's hard to review a movie like this. If you like these movies, it's not like I should convince you they’re great movies, and if you don't like them, it's not like I can. But I consider myself a fan and I'm very much looking forward to seeing the final entry, and dreading it at the same time because after that, it's all done and over with. It's nice to have an annual Peter Jackson Middle Earth film to see again. The Lord of the Rings films became such a phenomenon that this is all really just gravy. Too much of a good thing? No such thing! I say. Maybe one complaint about this one is the ending, which I'm sure has been brought up a million times by now. The cliffhanger is just teeth-grindingly unfairly awful - sort of in a good way, sort of not. When I reviewed An Unexpected Journey last year, I wrote that Jackson "could have literally stopped this movie in the middle of an action scene or the middle of a character's sentence and abruptly cut to credits, just to prove to us all that he could fuck with us and we'd still throw down our money." I thought I was joking. But that's pretty close to what's been done with this ending. It would have been nice to have a little closure before the next movie, wrap some things up like I felt they did so well with the first film, but at the same time, it takes a lot of balls to end on such a brutal cliffhanger, and end it so abruptly. Peter Jackson, though, is a filmmaking wizard. A wizard never ends his film early- nor late- he ends it precisely when he means to.

Directed by    
Peter Jackson

Produced by    
Carolynne Cunningham
Zane Weiner
Fran Walsh
Peter Jackson

Screenplay by    
Fran Walsh
Philippa Boyens
Peter Jackson
Guillermo del Toro

Based on    
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Ian McKellen
Martin Freeman
Richard Armitage
James Nesbitt
Ken Stott
Cate Blanchett
Ian Holm
Christopher Lee
Hugo Weaving
Elijah Wood
Andy Serkis

Music by    
Howard Shore

Andrew Lesnie

Edited by    
Jabez Olssen