Friday, December 20, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


“My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”

Yeah, and your voice is sexy.

For the second year in a row, one of the wrapped presents under the tree is a new foray into Middle-Earth from Peter Jackson and his merry band. Given my excitement over the first film (here’s my review!), you can bet I’ve been waiting to tear open the wrapping paper and see what cinematic fireworks have been bestowed upon us this time. The Desolation of Smaug, part two of the saga of Bilbo Baggins, picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield, and all the other Dwarves are still being hunted by the orcish forces of evil, still struggling to reach the Lonely Mountain (jeez, the eagles couldn’t have carried them at least a few more leagues?). In their way are a few episodic escapades, including a brief visit with the ursine shapeshifter Beorn, an encounter with giant-ass spiders, and a tussle with the arrogant Wood Elves. Then it’s off to ramshackle Lake-town, and from there, Erebor, ruined kingdom of the Dwarves, where Smaug the dragon awaits foolish adventurers. Meanwhile, Gandalf has to take a detour to further investigate the shadowy Necromancer, leaving hero duties on Bilbo’s diminutive shoulders. But Bilbo has help from that mysterious ring he found earlier, and the more he puts it on, the more he wants to put it on...

This is a darker chapter than the first, largely (though not entirely) bereft of whimsy and lowbrow humor. It has been praised for leaving behind the goofball vibe, though I continue to believe that The Hobbit deserves a more kid-friendly tone. Still, you can’t help but feel the creeping dread of evil returning to Middle-Earth, especially in the Necromancer subplot, which doesn’t go so well for poor Gandalf. Of course, they’re still struggling to marry all the plot elements, and every time some “Big Picture” is alluded to, it feels forced. I think Team Jackson made a mistake in trying to overly prequelize their Hobbit trilogy; it struggles to hyperlink itself to the Lord of the Rings films when it could have simply stood on its own. I prefer to focus on the ways in which it does distinguish itself. Whole new geographies of Middle-Earth are unfolding, from the ghastly snarl of Mirkwood Forest to the delightful waterlogged disorder of Lake-town (seems like the ghost of Guillermo del Toro still haunts the films, bless him). Having witnessed the shining glory of Erebor in the first film, we now see it as an echoey ruin, its vertiginous layout giving M.C. Escher a run for his money. What a playground for the characters!

And the characters? Well, many of them are more broadly-defined than in the LotR trilogy, and that’s both good and bad. They entertain us and are often happily free of the arch seriousness you’d get from an Aragorn or a Théoden, but that also makes us less invested. Orlando Bloom reappears as a younger Legolas, and it’s kind of weird, because Bloom has become a better actor in the interim and you wonder when exactly Legolas lost the gleam in his eye and became so damn whitebread. It might have something to do with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, way cooler than Arwen), a lady Elf who was entirely invented for the films, and who Has Feelings for Legolas in a rather generic way. She’s a good character but doesn’t feel very Elvish, more like Katniss Everdeen with a better complexion. For that matter, the Elven King Thranduil hit the wrong note for me; Lee Pace plays him as a paranoid asshole with a quavering note of dementia that’d be more appropriate for, say, the Master of Lake-town (portrayed with lovable repulsiveness by Stephen Fry). Compare that scenery-chewing with the effective work by Luke Evans, whose Bard the Boatman is not a dashing hero but a humble working man forced to dredge up ingrained reserves of bravery. And then there’s the continuing lame presence of Nasty Albino Orc Dude, who now has a sidekick, Nasty Fungus-Covered Orc Dude, who I care about even less, somehow. The tonal unevenness of the films stretches to the cast as well.

That said, the main characters are still awesome, when given the chance. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo has some good heroic moments but is often yoinked offscreen or into the background. Richard Armitage’s Thorin continues to smolder effectively, though he and Bilbo have a weaker “conflict” this time around and he has the unfortunate habit of pissing people off right when he should be winning their trust. Gandalf has less to do as well. The plot is swelling dangerously with peripheral characters, each of whom needs a token motivation and arc of their own. The supporting Dwarves have been shuffled around in importance: while the first film gave extra material to Bofur (James Nesbitt) the jovial one with the glorious earflaps, now the focus is on Kíli (Aidan Turner), Thorin’s prettyboy nephew, who gets both a life-threatening injury and a totally random romance with Tauriel the Elf that transcends a helluva lot of taboos (it’s even more surreal when you consider that she dated a Hobbit for awhile). It’s a tribute to a fine group of actors that they sell the script even when it’s pinballing all over the place.

And it pinballs, alright, often in a highly amusing way. I was a bit frustrated by how rushed the first half of the film seemed. We get Beorn (played with compelling mystery by Mikael Persbrandt), the spiders, and the Elves in a big lump, rushed across the screen so the more important stuff can start happening. The action, as usual, ignores the laws of physics, but I liked it more than the video-gamey Goblin City stuff from the first film. The spider sequence perfectly captures everything awful about spiders, and there’s a fun three-way chase between Elves, Orcs, and barrel-riding Dwarves that sweeps you up in its zany energy. But it’s all an extended prologue till we get to Smaug, and...hoo boy, paragraph break.

Smaug needs his own paragraph, you see, because he is one element of the film that delivers one hundred and ten percent. He’s been teased for so long, merely glimpsed in the first film and in previews. His slow reveal, emerging like a bad dream from towering mounds of gold and jewels, is calculated to make you as awed and terrified as Bilbo. The filmmakers wisely avoided an avant-garde design and just made the most dragony dragon they could. He’s huge, he breathes dripping gouts of fire, he’s not a lumbering brute but a sleek, clever beast who can glide around with the agility of a striking cobra. His face is frozen in a knowing leer, like he’s privy to all the dreadful secrets of the world. He’s voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, an awesome actor who specializes in arrogant charisma, and though his voice has been electronically dragoned up, it’s lost none of its unsettling sexiness. Smaug threatens Bilbo not just with his size and fiery breath but with his brain, and you never once feel like Bilbo’s gonna win the verbal battle. It helps that Freeman and Cumberbatch are super-tight, thanks to their roles as Holmes and Watson on Sherlock; even with one of them as a CGI reptile, their chemistry makes the screen thrum like a high-tension wire. Of course, Team Jackson had to go and tack on a more action-packed showdown with Smaug that drags on forever and seems to take its cues from Home Alone, of all things. Meanwhile, two or three other climaxes are occurring elsewhere, and it’s all a giant fake-out, since the film ends with the worst cliffhanger since Riker told Worf to fire. So, yeah, the final act feels bloated while the earlier stuff felt scrunched. But that dragon. Oh, that dragon. I might have a crush.

I loved the film. How could I not? My delight with Jackson’s excessive visual smorgasbord is well-documented by now. Even with their uneven tone and ADHD pacing, the Hobbit films are some of the best entertainment out there, simply because of how much is invested in making them look and sound like an entire fantasy world that really existed...or still exists, somewhere beyond our ken. Part of me would love to inhabit that world, though I’d probably need to be a native, since my IRL self would curl up and die without internet and Yoplait. There’s still one film to go, which is funny because the first two covered most of the damn book. Luckily, they’ve assembled quite a cast of heroes, nasties and oddballs who are all gonna bounce off each other in a big climactic fantasy smackdown. There will be death. There will be magic. There may be even more beards. And, one hopes, Bilbo Baggins will remember that the trilogy is named after him and step up. Lest we forget, a Hobbit is valued not for badass heroics but for holding onto deep empathy and compassion, even while the world around him goes up in flames. That’s what matters in the end.

Merry Christmas and a Hobbity New Year!

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