Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) – Review

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a fun epic adventure; but like An Unexpected Journey, it is probably overlong and overstuffed for casual fans. The film finds Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves on their journey to reclaim their home from the powerful dragon Smaug. However, just getting to the Lonely Mountain is a trial onto itself. The company is being hunted by a pack of Orcs, not to mention that they must travel through unfriendly Elfish territory. And worst of all, the mighty dragon Smaug awaits them.

Much like An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug is a film filled to the brim with characters and subplots. For the casual movie-going fan, it is probably all a bit too much – on top of the massive action set pieces, which while fun are also probably largely unneeded to the extent that they exist presently. As is, The Desolation of Smaug is a film so packed (as to appeal specifically to fans of the film universe, made by maybe its biggest fan Peter Jackson) that it may all feel a bit overwhelming.

And yet, the film gets more to the heart of the narrative – the reason why Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin and the rest have all embarked on their quest, which inherently makes the film more interesting. Plus, Jackson does a good job exploring some of the other characters a bit more – as really Bilbo is not the clear lead in this film (at least not all the time). Gandalf goes off on his own to investigate the rumor of a dark sorcerer, Thorin’s motivations for wanting to return to the Lonely Mountain are fleshed out to a greater extent, Bilbo feels like more of a member of the group than an outsider, and the Elves play a part too (seeing fan-favorite Legolas return).

This all builds up to a great confrontation between Bilbo (and later Thorin, et al.) and Smaug. Jackson does a magnificent job with the dragon, both visually and tonally. Smaug commands the screen, which is everything one could want for a film’s main draw and climatic character. Smaug alone is enough to make this film successful, on top of the great characters and fun action.

Jackson does a good job as well balancing all the action, the excitement, the drama, and the character moments. Each has their place and time – though, again, some of the action scenes probably go on a bit too long. But, if nothing else, the film is very entertaining and visually stunning, which should be enough to hold casual fans’ attention (despite the film probably feeling long to them).

However, there are a few issues that continue to persist in this series. As mentioned, the film is too grandiose for the casual fan, and as it is now probably would have been better suited for the Extended Edition. And, because the simple narrative has been stretched into three films (though all the added story elements and subplots are great for people who love the world and characters), what would have been small action beats have been blown up into superfluously massive set pieces that seem to go on and on (because, what would a big epic adventure film be without its huge action scenes?). To his credit however, Jackson does make these unnecessarily grand scenes a lot of fun even so (like the barrel escape scene).

Another issue, arising partially due to the nature of this series being a prequel and everyone knowing that most of these characters make it through the end and thus are never really in any danger, is that the film just does not have real stakes for the audience. Yes, the audience to some extent cares about the characters, but there is never a sense of real suspense. Jackson presents these characters without a true sense of mortality. They feel like cartoon heroes, invulnerable to any and everything. And thus, there is no tension, suspense, or stakes for the audience – which really is what keeps this film from being great.

Even in the writing, stakes and suspense are diminished. For example, in the second half the audience is told that the only way to kill Smaug is with a black arrow, and then we are shown that there is one last black arrow in the laketown under the mountain – thus, the audience is told what will happen narratively. And yet, the dwarves undertake this big plan to kill Smaug by other means within the mountain. This big action scene exists to give the film a stronger sense of structure as this sequence ends the film, but emotionally it is vapid because the audience already knows that it will not succeed before it even takes place. Thus, these big action scenes play as purely spectacle without emotional resonance (which is too bad). In the end, it does not accomplish its goal narratively all to well either, as by the nature of the story, the film still ends feeling very unresolved (because there really is not a good stopping point).

Still, all that said, the film is a lot fun and very entertaining, especially for fans of The Lord of the Rings film universe (which I am). It is clear that Jackson too loves this world and has set out to make an expansive narrative with as much Middle Earth stuff as possible, and to this he has succeeded brilliantly. I think fans will enjoy the film and love many aspects of it (like Smaug), but I am not sure the same is true for those casual moviegoers who just want to see a big Hollywood adventure epic.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Peter Jackson continues to showcase his visual talent for making grand epic films. Like An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug is not as good as any of The Lord of the Rings films, but really that is because it is plainly not as good a story (and we all already know what happens, having already seen The Lord of the Rings Trilogy). However, the film does set up There and Back Again to be one big adventure with a wonderful climatic battle or two. Likely, it will be the best and most satisfying of the trilogy.

The cast and crew are again all in top form. Composer Howard Shore’s music is fantastic as usual, while Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is beautiful. I especially enjoyed how void of color his photography became when Gandalf went to find the Necromancer. Dan Hennah’s production design is fabulous as well. His talent really shines in the design of the big sets.

The acting continues to be very good as well. Stephen Fry and Orlando Bloom (returning to the franchise) have some great stuff in supporting roles, while Evangeline Lilly is wonderful as Tauriel (a warrior Elf who falls for Aidan Turner’s Killi). She brings a needed female presence to the action and dynamic of the film. What is also good about the potential relationship between Tauriel and Killi is that it gives the audience something to latch onto, relate to, and care about (something very much needed). Benedict Cumberbatch, voicing Smaug, however steals the film. His scenes opposite Martin Freeman’s Bilbo are easily the film’s best moments. Cumberbatch has such power in his voice. Freeman, also, is again phenomenal as Bilbo. He is quietly maybe the best part of the whole trilogy so far.

Summary & score: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a grand adventure epic made with love and affection for really only the diehards (fans that should enjoy it quite a lot, as I did), while everyone else will likely find it all a bit too much. 8/10

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