Saturday, December 14, 2013

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” – Improvements and a dragon.

There are certain things in life you don’t prepare for, but in retrospect, should have expected. When I walked into the theater for the screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it really shouldn’t have surprised me that people would be dressed up in costumes. There were elves and wizards, both female and male, nothing too elaborate as to be pretentious, and it made me smile. I was glad to see people having fun and enjoying themselves while trying to make watching a movie more of an event. Since nobody at least year’s movie wore costumes, I felt like this was good sign for the screening to come.

As I wrote in my review of An Unexpected Journey, I hoped that Desolation would feature less silliness (like slapsticky trolls and dishwashing songs), no more dopey characters (the Great Goblin), and better CGI. While I mostly got what I hoped for, there’s still room for improvement, though at this point, I don’t know how much more they can do considering the third movie is pretty much in the can.

The film picks up with our group of dwarves and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) seeking refuge at the home of Beorn after temporarily escaping the orcs that have been pursuing them. With Beorn’s help (in the form of horses), they make their way to Mirkwood, where Gandalf parts ways with them to investigate some tombs in the mountain. This is where the film splits into two separate stories, not unlike the divergence of the fellowship in The Two Towers. The journey through Mirkwood brings a very good sequence featuring a bunch of spiders, as well as what promises to be the biggest contrivance of the entire trilogy – the appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his girlfriend (?), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). For those of you who aren’t familiar with the source material, Tauriel is a completely manufactured character just for these movies. I’m not sure why they felt the need to invent a love interest for Legolas, but I’m guessing she’s going to die at some point in the third film.

Aynway, the film mostly follows the book (wood elves, barrels, Laketown) until we finally get to the part that everyone has been waiting for – the dragon, Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). And let’s just admit it – Smaug is what everyone has been looking forward to since we saw his eye open at the end of Journey and he definitely was worth the wait. Cumberbatch delivers a perfect performance through his fantastic dialogue delivery, as well as some unbelievable movement via motion capture. I have no idea what he was actually doing with his body to create Smaug’s movements, but I’ll definitely be throwing down the extra money for the bonus features on the DVD.

Of course, as fantastic as Smaug was, I couldn’t help but notice how much of contrast there was between Smaug and the orc commanders. In addition to Cumberbatch, the CGI on Smaug was perfect (hyperbole notwithstanding, he looked real) and he was a truly threatening, if not frightening, character. On the other hand, the two main orcs, Azog and Bolg, were poorly rendered and the opposite of threatening. They are great examples of CGI run amok, especially considering every (EVERY) orc in the original trilogy was the stuff of nightmares. Sadly, at this point, there’s no chance we’re going to see that problem fixed in the third film.

On the bright side, the tone of the film is far more serious than Journey and rightly so. I know that the book is a light-hearted affair, but that’s just not what Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth is. I’m not saying there isn’t room for comedic relief – Legolas and Gimli in the original trilogy provided the perfect amount – but Journey just tripped all over itself whenever there was an attempt at humor. Desolation dispenses with that nonsense, though introduces a couple more silly characters in the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his oddball lacky, Alfrid. Alfrid seemed to be a poor attempt at replicating Wormtongue and another overt attempt to mirror the original trilogy that just came off as contrived. The Master wasn’t so much silly in action as he was in costume design, appearing as kind of a grease-ball with bad hair. It’s not terrible, but noticeable enough to be distracting. Luckily, he’s not given enough screen time to go from distracting to annoying.

All in all, the quality of the film is essentially the same as the first one, which comes as no surprise. Traditionalist fans of the book will probably be annoyed at some of the liberties taken with the story, but most people will just chalk them up to standard Hollywood-isms needed to stretch a relatively short novel into three long films. In addition, as great as the climactic scene with Smaug is, they are broken up with scenes of Gandalf facing off with orcs and the Necromancer at a ruined castle. It’s a little disorienting and does not flow well with the parallel dwarf/Bilbo storyline. The CGI seemed better than the first film, but that’s probably because I didn’t see Desolation in the high frame rate, like I did with Journey. Finally, there’s the ending. The biggest question you probably have is “where does the movie end?” Well, it ends with Smaug…

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back. Smaug is worth it.

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