Thursday, December 19, 2013

Love: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

What's the point of reviewing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?  I'm not sure there is one. It's not a sequel, it's not a conclusion, it's just the midpoint of a frustratingly fractured long-form adaptation.  At this point, you're either going to watch the whole business no matter what or you didn't give a shit about the first one and won't give a shit about the second one.  For those of us in it for the long haul, there's little to do apart from approving, disproving, or -- if you're so inclined -- picking apart Peter Jackson's strange edits.  I'm pretty firmly in the camp of those willing to stamp a seal of approval on The Hobbit and move on.  All of my commentary from last year still stands (visit it here): it's a lovely, rich fantasy film that feels true to the relative lightness (opposite Lord of the Rings) of J.R.R. Tolkien's work.  It remains slightly cheesy, whimsical, a touch nostalgic, and too labored over...but it's a brilliant children's film even when the orcs are losing their heads by the dozens.
If it's better than part one, it's mostly because the dwarves sing less, there's a dragon, and it's shorter.  If it's worse, it's because there's too much leaping elf CG and too many fan fiction liberties.  Typing that, I realize it's overstatement. Really, it would be hard to deny that Desolation of Smaug is better than its predecessor.  As we continue our travels with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan), and the occasionally merry band of dwarves, we find ourselves thrown directly into the action.  There's no mincing about and overeating, just running, jumping, orc-battling, and non-stop heroics from our largely diminutive journeymen. Bilbo has learned how to take advantage of the one ring and the course set for the Lonely Mountain now promises significantly more rapidly-paced twists than initially anticipated.  In part two, we're treated to several of the novel's most memorable episodes: they enter Mirkwood, encounter giant spiders, step into the treasure hoards of the mountain, and engage in combat with the enormous dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).  Much as this review is, the whole thing is comma, comma, comma, and then, and then, and then; frequently in the excitable, wonderful way it should be.  Still, this is no hulking summer monstrosity.  Jackson retains the elegance of his take on the series, and throughout Desolation of Smaug, the action is allowed to linger in each of the worlds built. We're given a keen sense of place, and if you're predisposed to appreciate the lofty spaces imagined, you will enjoy luxuriating in every new corner of the map.
So, Desolation of Smaug is a placeholder. It's just a thing lurking in the middle that's more interesting than the first chapter, maybe less so than the last. As with all books split in half, it ends on an unsatisfactory note and teases what's to come. Though only time will tell how the series pans out, I remain optimistic.  It's a lovingly constructed project, though an incomplete, and overlong one.  Serious purists, though, may be disappointed. With Desolation of Smaug, Jackson continues to attempt to mold the storybook qualities of The Hobbit to the epic contours of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  He's determined to make it function as a more direct prequel, and the films go to great lengths to add and append glimpses into the future.  The result is, unfortunately, that The Hobbit is becoming a far less intimate object than it should be.  It loses too much of Bilbo even as it allows the filmmakers to apply some of their own imaginative capabilities.  Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a warrior elf, is a completely fabricated addition to the series designed, one can assume, to break up the sausage fest.  She's an alright character, though her story comes attached to the too early appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a rather distracting, unnecessary love triangle.  Sauron enters the picture too, dragging the fantasy into the murky politics of war long before such things are required. The revisions are weird, but I can't say they bothered me too much. I came to accept that in the three-film expansion this would never be a clean-cut project, and Jackson has a ways to go before he stumbles into Phantom Menace territory.  So, we'll keep judging this as one massive film. The same rating applies. 

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