Friday 13 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Spoiler warning: This review is being posted on the film's day of release and some spoilers are discussed.

Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves have escaped from the orcs on the banks of the Great River and made their way to the home of Beorn. From here they must brave the depths of Mirkwood and cross the Long Lake to finally reach Erebor and conclude their quest. Meanwhile, Gandalf is summoned south to investigate rumours of great evil stirring in the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur.

The Desolation of Smaug is the middle film of The Hobbit movie trilogy, Peter Jackson's prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies of a decade ago. Its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, had a mixed reception last year with its lighter tone, great performances and occasional visual splendour being lauded but the overlong running time, over-use of CGI and jarring tonal variances being criticised.

The Desolation of Smaug is, thankfully, a stronger and more consistent movie than its predecessor. Indeed, it feels like Jackson has even listened to his critics, though with most of the trilogy in the can before the first film was released this seems impossible. Still, it may have affected his editing choices. The film is both punchier and pacier than the first movie. Action beats and quieter moments of character-building support one another more organically and there's a distinct lack of totally time-wasting, filler material: no overlong goblin king japery or random moments of erinaceidae resuscitation here. That's not to say there aren't moments that could have been trimmed (most of the action sequences tend to go on a bit longer than they should, though not to the extent of the likes of Man of Steel or The Matrix Reloaded), but generally you can see what Jackson was aiming for and most of his ideas - this time around anyway - are actually good. Sequences that could have bogged down the movie are surprisingly brief: the interlude with Beorn (thankfully much more convincing in motion than the early photographs) is so quick, to the point, effective and then dispensed with that it's hard to believe that Peter Jackson directed the sequence. Presumably a 35-minute version of the scene will be on the extended cut.

Similarly, the trip through Mirkwood unfolds at a rapid, crisp pace, with montages used to depict the wearying journey rather than having it just go on and on. The passage through Mirkwood is one of the areas where the book slows to a crawl and it's rather pleasing that this is one area that the film handles more effectively than the novel. Jackson employs some cleverness - or cliche, depending on your POV - to depict the talking spiders by having the Ring translate their hisses into speech. This idea is not incompatible with what was shown in Rings (with Frodo first hearing Sauron's Black Speech and then what he was saying in Westron) and handily gets around what appeared to be a tonal incompatibility between The Hobbit and Rings (talking animals are present in the former but not in the latter). Jackson again strikes gold by suggesting that Bilbo's surprising viciousness in combat is driven by the Ring and layers some moments of internal struggle into the film, as Bilbo is shown being surprised by this new side to himself, but willing to use it when things get rough. This is a darker, more edgy Bilbo than we saw in the first film and Martin Freeman relishes the chance to play him.

The visit to Thranduil's realm is where the film threatens to go off the rails. Intriguing ideas (like Thranduil being hideously scarred from a previous battle with a dragon but masks it with magic) are presented here and Evangeline Lilly debuts as new character Tauriel, the captain of Thranduil's guard. Tauriel is a more earthly warrior-elf than Liv Tyler's Arwen from the first trilogy, less likely to bog down in emotional self-examination and instead get out and take action. Lilly - who had retired from acting after concluding her role on Lost - provides a stronger performance than some of the material warrants: her flirtation with Kili (Aidan Turner) only really works because both actors sell it so well but some of the dialogue is painful. Fortunately, it's less interminable a relationship than Aragorn and Arwen's constant angsting in the original trilogy.

Less successful is Orlando Bloom's reintroduction as Legolas. Much as the make-up and effects teams do their best, they can't totally hide the fact that Bloom is a decade older (and, a pain I can relate to, just ever so slightly heavier). In particular, he seems to be wearing some contact lenses that look slightly unnatural and make him look a bit more ethereal than in the original film, something I found distracting. Legolas also has no real role in the film: what should have been perhaps a background cameo in the elven-king's hall has been fleshed out into an arse-kicking action hero, the character who took down a mumakil singled-handedly in the original trilogy here turned up to eleven. The scenes where he's using the dwarves' heads as stepping stones to cross a river whilst shooting down multiple orcs are less 'badass' and more 'unconvincing' due to the amount of obvious CGI in use. A scene where he mocks a picture of Gloin's son is also amusing until the film decides to spell out the irony of that son being Legolas's future sparring partner Gimli in neon glittering letters fifty feet tall. Yeah, we got it, Peter.

The Laketown interlude works surprisingly well in the film.

A more surprisingly successful decision is the one to flesh out Laketown. What was a brief waystop in the novel turns into a full episode in the film, complete with scheming intrigue between Stephen Fry's Master of the Lake (not a role that stretches him, but one he plays to the hilt anyway) and Luke Evans's well-played Bard the Bowman. There's also a potentially controversial decision to split the dwarves up here into two camps, but this actually works out well, giving us a leg in both locations where the inevitable showdown with Smaug will unfold.

The film's climax - or the closest we get to one - involves the showdown between Bilbo and Smaug in the caverns of Erebor. This goes pretty well, with Benedict Cumberbatch bringing the requisite level of menace to the dragon, up until the confusing decision is made to give the dwarves an epic battle of their own with Smaug. This results in much running around and jumping on machinery in an over-clever attempt to kill the beast. It appears this scene stems from a perceived (but unnecessary) need to have the dwarves more active in the battle with Smaug, but all it does is reduce the threat of the dragon. Given the flashbacks in the first film showed him storming the fortress and slaughtering hundreds or thousands of dwarves in minutes, the ease with which nine dwaves give him the run-around makes him look like an idiot and the concluding scenes (which are from the novel, where they are much more logical) unfathomable.

Spliced between these scenes are why this had to be a trilogy in the first place: the new storyline where Gandalf travels to Dol Guldur to investigate the mysterious 'Necromancer'. These scenes would be creepier if the Rings-seasoned audience wasn't sick of ancient, mysterious and creepy towers by this point. Gandalf's face-to-face confrontation with the Necromancer is also rather disappointing, and carries less weight than his fight with Saruman in Fellowship of the Ring (the use of Gandalf creating a magical force shield complete with lighting and strobing effects is also rather unnecessary compared to the more subtle effect he uses to stand against the balrog in the original trilogy). Watching through these scenes, one can't but help feel that Tolkien's decision to keep the Necromancer as an off-page threat was the correct one.

Ultimately, The Desolation of Smaug (***½) is more watchable, drags far less and is less twee than its predecessor. The new characters and actors all do great work, the effects are better and more of the dwarves are given their moments in the sun (even Bombur takes a level in badass at one point and turns into an orc-killing machine). New locations, characters and subplots - even non-Tolkien ones - are inserted into the story with more skill than I think many were expecting, and Jackson is able to tie most of the narratives together satisfyingly (the Dol Guldur strand excepted, which still feels too disconnected from everything else). But where the film comes undone - to the point of triggering audible gasps of horror and then anger from the audience I watched the film with - is the exceptionally bad choice of where to end the film. The last act of the film builds and builds to an epic showdown...only to push it off at the last minute to the next film. If this was in just the main storyline it could perhaps be borne, but no less than five plots and subplots are all left on cliffhangers for the final movie, robbing this one of any sense of satisfying climax or catharsis. It's a poor editing choice by Jackson, one which will presumably leave the next film with a very muddled and anti-climactic opening.

The Desolation of Smaug is on general release now and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray, again twice over, in 2014.


Dan O. said...

While it is a bit better than the first, that still doesn't mean all that much to begin with. Then again, I'm glad to say I have something to look forward to with this already overlong trilogy. Good review Adam.

Anonymous said...

Having not yet seen the film, my general thoughts:

1 - Walking into this, I'm just expecting a fun ride, I don't expect it to be a traditional pace/format for a film (sort of like Two Towers or Return of the King) in that it just expands to fill the story. Good that the pacing is physically better.

2 - The only part of Hobbit 1 that I felt outright dragged or felt tacked on...was the final fight with Azog's warg-riders (and his previous appearances setting that up). It's just weird to have Azog alive, I wonder where this is going. But the ending fight scene itself...was...pleasant, but having Bilbo *saving* Thorin just to make him important? Loosely works I guess or at least doesn't detract. But in my head I had this grand vision of a combined Warg/Orc army attack and it just sort of dragged with Azog - but not outright terrible. Ending at the Carrock wasn't a bad decision but we all took it with a wink and a grin that you could plausibly see the Lonely Mountain from the Carrock (even if its a mountain).

3 - Fine, I wanted them to expand Lake-town. There's a lot of story to see in such a new, unexplored location and I wanted that.

4 - I also look forward to more Beorn in the extended editions. Good that Mirkwood was handled well.

5 - I honestly *liked* the Dol Guldur subplot in movie 1, and simply accepted that it was only tangentially related to Bilbo's main story. Heck, a major problem in the LOTR trilogy is that while Frodo is the central character...the narrative is sort of split between him and Aragorn by the mid-point, and many characters just don't relate to Frodo (the movie's problem was that they felt the audience are idiots and unless Frodo has a direct relationship with all of them, they'll be lost - so they invent Arwen scenes with Frodo?) So I'm not too concerned about it being not very connected -- I think of it like watching Game of Thrones and shifting between King's Landing, the Dothraki Sea, and the Wall. They're all *tangentially* related but in Season 1 don't particularly intersect. I am okay with this. As for how its handled - we shall see about the special effects. Even Radagast in movie 1 fighting a Ringwraith at first I thought odd but later couldn't see why it was even a problem.

6 - The "Ring being a subtle bad influence on Bilbo" I can loosely see as just trying to be realistic (not so much "invent angst where none existed" as "reconciling the dark nature of the Ring in LOTR with its dormat form in The Hobbit" --- which I always reconciled as that it was just that, dormant, without Sauron being active - i.e. Ian Holm is fine using it at the Long-Expected Party at the beginning of FOTR. But then again you need to show that it always had subtly bad influence. Fine.

Ack, I'm rambling. Point is: from your description it sounds tight through Beorn and Mirkwood, Bilbo-Ring dynamic good, and depending on execution, I simply accept that Dol Guldur is only tangentially related to the rest. It's showing us the wider world, I have no problem with that. And who among us didn't read the book and go "wow, I wish we actually got to see more of Lake-town, it's an interesting place with interesting characters" (they're humans but they're traders so they see people from far away and even other races like Elves regularly, they're the hardy descendants of the survivors of Smaug's original attack on Dale, etc.)

The Dragon Demands

Anonymous said...

Things I forsee as potential problems, based on your descriptions:

1 - as you say...the Mirkwood Elves? I don't have a problem with Tauriel on general principle - "extras we bothered to give names" are okay, and why not make it a girl to vary it up? So many Elves were nameless in the original. Good they also tried to vary it by making her a very young Elf. As for Legolas being inserted? Part of that is fun for the fans but I see your point about "could have been a fun cameo" versus....even I thought the Oliphaunt fight was gratuitous in ROTK, as they openly admitted they inserted it because Legolas simply doesn't have much to do otherwise...but I've come to enjoy it as just "a fun action beat" (I mean it plausibly COULD have happened in the books, that battle was huge).

Yes, the Elf actors are all ten years older but have to look the *same age* (arguably younger)....Blanchett is ageless, and Hugo Weaving holds up surprisingly well thanks to the makeup department (he only looks slightly older if you *really* look for it, but he was always an older Elf radiating authority so this doesn't hurt much). So Legolas being older, or too "ethereal" to try to overcompensation....(shrug) I know they can't get blood from a stone.

But on to specifics:

The Tauriel/Kili thing will have to be seen to be believed. Then I think "shades of Gimli's courtly love for Galadriel?"...good that the actors sell it well.

To be blunt I was never a fan of the elves even in LOTR and their dialogue always comes off as really silly (Galadriel and Elrond get a pass because they're practically demigods, but the others always sound overly serious).

Probably the reason I didn't openly revolt at Kili/Tauriel flirtation is because we know Kili dies at the end of the books, so they're just setting up a tragic gut-punch rather than a long-lasting change to Kili's life. I can live with that.

--The Dragon Demands

Anonymous said...

So there are only two things which concern me:

1 - I literally did a spit-take when you revealed that Thranduil is actually badly scarred from a previous dragon attack and uses magical glamour to hide it. That Thranduil could have previously faced dragons? Why not? We know nothing about him - he was apparently around when Doriath fell in the First Age - he easily *could* have faced Morgoth's dragons. Logically, as he's thousands of years old and been in a lot of wars, is it a stretch that he might be battle-damaged a bit? No.

Using an outright magical glamour to hide really bad damage is a bit much, but not implausible given the rules within the story. All hinges on...are we talking full-on Freddy Krueger here? All hinges on if the scars are too over-the-top.

Second thing, actually two things: stretching out the barrel river fight and the Smaug climax.

I'll have to watch the barrel river fight to actually judge it. Not in the book of course, but "have the Elves try to recapture the Dwarves as Orcs simultaneously attack as well in a three-way fight"'s not as if it changes the "story" that much, so I'm not TOO concerned....more worried about dramatic pacing. And the old worry of "is this a cool Legolas thing, or way over the top blatant CGI?"

Eye of the beholder.

But dragging out the Smaug climax?

This reminds me of the climax to the first film: needlessly insert Bilbo dramatically saving Thorin to forcibly make him more relevant. Similarly, "try to have the dwarves ambush Smaug in the leadworks" etc....not the worst idea, in general.

Holy shit did they leave out Roac the god-damned talking raven? I will be up in arms over that shit. Nobody puts baby in a corner. I want my god-damned talking ravens (then again, Roac only appears after Smaug dies in the books...nevermind).

GREAT that Bombur gets stuff to do - he didn't even have *speaking lines* in the first one.

So my only real fears are:

1 - Is the Thranduil scar makeup over the top?
2 - I don't mind the barrel-rider river fight scene being extended a bit, but just as in any fight, it doesn't get TOO CGI does it?
3 - Needlessly included dwarf attempt to attack Smaug in the leadworks? Lets hope that doesn't drag out too badly.

Annoying that they didn't end with Smaug's death, but the entire "Smaug versus Lake-town" scene should last 15-20 minutes so if they didn't get there near the end I wouldn't want it just tacked on.

--The Dragon Demands

Dan said...

Why did they cut out so much of the chit chat between Smaug and Bilbo? In the book Smaug almost makes Bilbo anti-Dwarvish...don't have anything to do with Dwarves! He shoulda listened to Smaug.