Monday, December 16, 2013

The Desolation of Smaug: A More Concise Hobbit

     Plenty of people complained when Peter Jackson decided to turn J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit into two (and then, finally, three) films. Considering the book's length (300ish pages) and the fact that Jackson turned the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy into only three films, some more caring fans sniffed out some potential studio money grubbing like Gollum sniffs out the Ring when it's nearby. And after witnessing last year's introduction into the Hobbit universe, An Unexpected Journey, many of the fan's concerns were warranted: Journey was overlong and suffered from far too many false starts towards the actual "Journey". At the end of my review for that film, I stated that Jackson "left plenty of room for improvement." And with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson improves immensely. The middle portion of The Hobbit trilogy is a much more compact affair, and it's filled with an actual sense of purpose and a destination that is finally within reach.
      When we last left the main characters--Bilbo (a comfortable Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan, who could perform this role in his sleep), and a company of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)--they were journeying to the lair of dragon Smaug to retrieve an ancient and powerful relic (called the Arkenstone) that would allow the dwarves to shower the land in wealth and supplies. Since the characters have already been introduced in the previous film, Jackson wastes no time throwing us back into the journey, and Smaug is all the better for it. Unlike An Unexpected Journey, the feeling of darkness and actual tension starts right from the beginning of Smaug, as the characters make their way to the dangerous forests of Mirkwood.
      Jackson has always had a knack for creating intricate set pieces where danger lurks just around the corner (like the Ring Wraiths in Fellowship or the Orcs outside of the gates in The Two Towers), and though the first Hobbit incarnation lacked any memorable excitement, The Desolation of Smaug has a couple of scenes that are extremely notable: Mirkwood is full of giant spiders that any arachnophobe would lose a night's sleep over. You can almost feel the sticky web as our characters are captured and cocooned. Some fans were also worked up over the fact that Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who hasn't missed a beat) and a new she-elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, not nearly as annoying as when she was on Lost) have entered the picture. They weren't in the original Hobbit novel. But I am surely not complaining: The Desolation of Smaug contains one of the most entertaining scenes in the entire Middle Earth film universe, where Bilbo and the dwarves are floating down a rapidly moving river with Orcs in pursuit and the two elves picking them off like archer champions. It's Peter Jackson-directing at its best.
     But one could claim that the film's titular character, the dragon Smaug, is the real star of the show. Deliciously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (who shined brightly in this past summer's great Star Trek Into Darkness), Smaug hordes his gold and jewels in his massive ancient layer, almost begging someone to try and make off with a little bit of treasure. When Bilbo enters the scene, like a horror-movie teenager slowly entering the basement down the creaking steps, it sets up an enjoyable interplay between the man and the beast, where each character thinks they can verbally outplay the other one.
     This Hobbit film is still nearly three hours, much like the first, and though it barely drags at all compared to the mostly-set-up of An Unexpected Journey, it's still only one third of a trilogy based upon one (relatively) short book, so some filler is inevitable (namely the dungeons of the Elves and the lake town of Esgaroth). But there's a big difference between the filler of The Desolation of Smaug and An Unexpected Journey: the scenes that slow down this second entry in the series actually set up great action and excitement instead of just more walking...and more walking...and more walking....And though Smaug ends on a cliffhanger that sets up an important scene in the next film (titled There and Back Again), Jackson's ability to put the focus on much more specific and concise plot points allows The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to rise far above the Journey of the first film.     (B+)

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