January 2nd, 2014

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

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The quest to regain the Dwarf Kingdom Under the Mountain and place Thorin Oakenshield on the throne slogs on. The troop succeeds in eluding Azog the Defiler and his men with the help of Beorn, a man who can transform into an enormous black bear. When they arrive at the edge of Mirkwood, Gandalf leaves the group to stumble through the woods on their own with no explanation. With his fellow wizard Radagast he confronts the dreadful Necromancer while Bilbo and the dwarves fight their way through giant spiders, elven dungeons and the men of Laketown before they finally reach the Lonely Mountain, home of Smaug the dragon.





I picked this random image because I feel that it encapsulates everything that’s wrong with this movie. Keep it mind as we continue on.





The first problem with this picture? No Bilbo. With new characters to introduce and extra side plots to exploit (more on that in a bit) it seems like Bilbo doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as he did in the previous movie. And that’s a problem, because Bilbo is by far the most interesting character in this movie, especially with Martin Freeman’s brilliant performance. He’s still an awkward, somewhat bumbling hobbit, but in a relatively short time he’s grown into quite a fighter. Bilbo’s love of riddles and mind games, too, make him stand out from the dwarves, who may be stronger and brawnier but, with the exception of Balin, they’re rarely intellectual standouts. Bilbo is able to face off with Smaug simply because his clever tongue intrigues the dragon enough that he doesn’t fry him on the spot. Finally, there’s a growing darkness in him as the Ring begins to influence his decisions, corrupting him as Gollum was ruined centuries before, and it’s hard to tell how aware Bilbo is of his transformation. In some scenes he seems to know that the ring is trouble, but he’s too attached to it to get rid of it; in others, he treats it as just another tool for his use.

There is also too much filler material. The book The Hobbit is not a particularly long one, so stretching the novel out into a trilogy always struck me as a poor decision. However, what’s done is done – and to fill the time, the writers needed to come up with some extra material. I get that. But the new scenes are weak.

Rant beginning: LEGOLAS IS BACK??
Don’t get me wrong, I love Legolas. Well, more accurately, I love looking at him. When these movies first came out, Orlando Bloom was relatively unknown, but his role as Token Eye Candy in the Lord of the Rings trilogy coupled with his starring role in the Pirates of the Carribbean franchise meant that to young women of a certain nerdiness (y’know, the kind who love fantasy elves and reluctant pirates with equal fervor) he was the epitome of hotness. But Legolas the character never developed much of a personality in the original trilogy; he is only memorable for his flowing golden hair and his propensity for riding battle shields down castle walls and giant elephant backs like they were skateboards. Not Bloom’s fault; the elf is even less developed in the books.

So I suppose if you had to choose a character to bring back, he’s a good choice, because after three movies Legolas is still a relatively blank slate. But the writers decide that the best thing they can use this guy for is a stale love triangle, and that’s disappointing. Legolas is in love with a ginger-haired elf named Tauriel – or at least he has strong feelings for her, but I don’t recall him ever acting on them so the only proof we have that there is a potential relationship there is that his father, King Thranduil, mentions it. She, in turn, is of a lower class of elf so Thranduil warns her off his son, and she promptly starts falling for one of the dwarves. After the dwarves escape Mirkwood, she and Legolas follow them, killing off pursuing goblins and basically ensuring that one token female gets some screen time.

The trouble is that their scenes always feel like the padding that they are. Legolas does not experience substantial character development; he’s as prettily bland as ever. (It looks like he got some new contact lenses, though, because his eyes are a blinding fake blue that I do not remember from the previous movies.) I think it’s cool that Jackson & Co. decided to make one of the otherwise anonymous woodland elves into a kickass girl archer, but a total absence of chemistry with either of the male actors made the romance feel completely tacked on, which of course it was.

Of course, it’s not just the new stories that felt tacked on. The movie opens with Beorn the Bear-Man tracking the moves of the dwarves; later, when they are sheltered in his home, he mentions that he’s the last of his kind. Why couldn’t we spend a little more time with this guy? He probably has some secret skinchanger wisdom to share with the group. Or, if you’re going to write a few new scenes anyway, why not let him join the group for a while so he can show off his bear fighting techniques? Instead, we’re in and out of his cottage so quickly that Beorn feels like a throwaway character, included only because he’s an original book character and we wouldn’t want the fans freaking out over his exclusion as they did when Tom Bombadil got the ax.

But no, we’ve got a love triangle to force into the narrative.

The other new and unnecessary story centers on the Necromancer, who has raised the ring-wraiths from their tombs so that they can serve Sauron, who is gaining power so that in fifty years or so he can take over Middle Earth because he is EVIL. Gandalf leaves the group and with Radagast goes on a merry goose chase all over the dark and dirty bits of Middle Earth trying to figure out what’s going on. That’s fine and dandy, but unless Gandalf gets a big knock on the head in the next film he’s gonna have a tough time ‘splaining why it took him so ding-dang-long to get things moving in Lord of the Rings. Well, perhaps that’s not fair. In The Hobbit, I believe Bilbo reveals that he’s picked up a gold ring that grants him invisibility fairly early on. In the movies, he’s so far kept it a secret from everyone. So it may well be that Gandalf knows Sauron is coming, and simply can’t locate the ring right under his nose until Lord of the Rings. Anyway. My biggest objection to the duel with the Necromancer is it adds a sizable chunk to the overall running time of the movie, and it’s got nothing to do with the main plot – it’s just adding background and fleshing out story for the older trilogy.

So you’d expect that with all this ranting, I wouldn’t enjoy the movie very much, but that isn’t so, because when The Desolation of Smaug get something right, they really do it well. Richard Armitage once again shines as Thorin. I’ve never been sure whether to class Thorin as a hero or not – he’s cranky, he’s covetous, and some of his later decisions can be seen as quite villainous. At the end of the first movie, though, he certainly seemed like one. He was brave, strong, and willing to admit that he’d been wrong about Bilbo. But just as Bilbo is slowly being taken over by the Ring, Thorin’s lust for power and the Arkenstone is slowly destroying his sanity. While he still has his noble moments, Thorin’s negative character traits are starting to show up, and it isn’t good. He’s extremely greedy, he’ll turn his back on his friends…as yet, his better self pulls through in the end, but I can’t trust that it always will. He’s a great character.

Speaking of great characters, all hail Smaug! Usually I hate anything created by computers, but Smaug is one badass motherf*cking dragon. He looks fantastic. He sounds menacing, but a little bit needy in his desire for adulation and praise. His scenes are the best in the movie, and my only regret is that, like Bilbo, he isn’t in more of it.

Some of the dwarves get extra screen time, and we learn more about their lives. Kili – the beardless and therefore hottest dwarf – is the other member of the elf love triangle. He falls hard for the pretty Tauriel after they talk about stars and light. We learn that he has a mother who waits for him to come home – oh, how sweet. Goofy Bofur is, well, comic relief in a movie that sorely needs it, but he also proves to be compassionate and dedicated to his friends. One of them – Gloin? – is the father of Gimli, and carries pictures of his hairy wife and son in his pocket. (How sweet.) But I still don’t know the names of most of them – in fact, I was completely dependent on this guide for reference as I was writing this paragraph.

All in all, it’s not a great movie. It starts and ends abruptly, and very much feels like a middle film. But I have to give the actors credit – they all seem to be doing the best they can with the bloated script. The effects are good, and Jackson is still the master of creating spooky scenery that sets the perfect stage for the action. But I wish someone had said, “Y’know, just make one Hobbit movie. Not a trilogy.”






Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Fashionista Piranha Book Blog in 2013
2012: The Most Anticipated Reads of 2012
2011: Closing down for end of year Festivus…
2010: Summary of Book Reviews from June-December 2009
2009: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell