Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Movie Reviews: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Beyond darkness... beyond desolation... lies the greatest danger of all.

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Fran Walssh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro (screenplay), J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)

Starring: Ian McKellen; Martin Freeman; Richard Armitage; Benedict Cumberbatch; Ken Stott; Graham McTavish; William Kircher; James Nesbitt; Stephen Hunter; Dean O'Gorman; Aidan Turner; John Callen; Peter Hambleton; Jed Brophy; Mark Hadlow; Adam Brown; Orlando Bloom; Evangeline Lilly; Lee Pace; Cate Blanchett; Mikael Persbrandt; Sylvester McCoy; Luke Evans; Stephen Fry

Synopsis: Desolation’s greatest fans will probably still be those who loved the books as a child and revel in every excessive, lingering moment of the films. I would be one. But Peter Jackson’s changes, however bloated, overall improve the book’s deficiencies. 

As the hobbit Bilbo and the company of dwarves continue their journey through the perilous Mirkwood Forest to rescue the dwarves’ gold from the dragon Smaug, the wizard Gandalf must leave them to embark on his own secret quest.

Though nearly as long as the first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is able to pick up a much faster pace. We’ve met the characters, we understand their quest, we’re ready for more action. And Desolation is filled with action.

Much has been made about how bloated The Hobbit franchise is compared to The Lord of the Rings films. The latter had three films to cover three books, each book averaging around 500 pages. The Hobbit films, in contrast, take another three films to cover a single book that’s only about 285 pages.

I’m okay with that.

First, it must be remembered that The Hobbit is more densely packed with action than any of The Lord of the Rings books (which, much as I love them, were a bit bloated themselves with excessively long descriptions of journeys that took pages and pages, telling us little). And action takes a long longer to show on the screen than to describe on the page. An army marching onto the field might take a single paragraph to describe, but a whole five minutes to show.

Second, Peter Jackson has the opportunity, using the appendices from The Return of the King, to show us things that were happening concurrently. In the book, Gandalf disappears repeatedly, including a long stretch that happens to cover most of Desolation. He hints at his reasons in The Hobbit, and explains a bit more in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s really only the appendices that fully explain what he was doing. Peter Jackson instead takes the opportunity to show us, and for that I’m grateful.

Jackson had to be careful with the tone of The Hobbit films. The book was much more lighthearted than the other Lord of the Rings books. Jackson has to capture that while still tying this franchise to the darker, sweeping epic that with thrust Bilbo’s nephew Frodo into danger. I believe he manages to straddle the line well enough, though perhaps he’s lost a bit of the whimsy along the way.

The film has a few significant deviations from the books. The first involves the elves from Mirkwood. In the book, their motivations seem to be primarily about greed. Jackson gives them a clearer intent, and introduces us to Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a central figure of The Lord of the Rings who never appears in The Hobbit, though we do meet his father and so it’s not surprising that he would be present, too. He also creates an entirely new elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female Captain of the Guard who helps address one of Tolkien’s greatest faults: the dearth of essentially any female characters in The Hobbit.

Jackson’s second change involves the dwarves themselves. In the book, actions happen to the dwarves. They are swept along by events, constantly rescued by Gandalf, Elrond, Beorn, Bilbo, even the men of Laketown. Jackson’s dwarves are more much active and, frankly, heroic. It’s another change for the better.

It’s a full two hours into the movie before we even meet the dragon, Smaug. But Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance makes the wait worth it. And like Andy Sirkis’ portrayal of Gollum, motion-capture technology was used so that Cumberbatch provides not only the voice but the movements of the dragon.

Desolation’s greatest fans will probably still be those who loved the books as a child and revel in every excessive, lingering moment of the films. I would be one.

Rating: 4 ½ stars

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