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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug

I don’t think that anyone would argue with you if you were to suggest that Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece, but his recent adaptations of Tolkien’s predecessor to LOTRThe Hobbit, is a bit more controversial. The main argument against Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy of films is just that – it’s a trilogy, three films based on one 300-page book in contrast to the three films based on three 400-600-page books. Regardless of your opinions on this new trilogy, it’s happening, and though the first film, An Unexpected Journey, wasn’t anything spectacular (my review), The Desolation of Smaug certainly steps up the game and brings to the table a better film.

The second film in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy picks up where the first left off, with the dwarves of Erebor, Gandalf the Grey, and the eponymous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, rapidly approaching the dark forest Mirkwood, with the orc company led by Azog the Defiler hot on their tail. They seek solace with Beorn, a skin-changer with the ability to transform into a large bear, who houses them and sends them off into Mirkwood. Along the way, the company of Thorin Oakenshield comes across terrifying giant spiders, the Wood-Elves of Mirkwood (including a certain familiar face from the LOTR…), Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the people of Lake-Town, and, finally, the dragon of Erebor itself – Smaug.

Martin Freeman continues to be the perfect Bilbo Baggins, from the way he reacts under stress to the way he communicates with the rest of the company. His energy on-screen surpasses that of any other actor in the film, though Richard Armitage as Thorin is also pretty great here. The character of Thorin is developed better than it was in the first film, with his conflict between his desire for gold and his dedication to his friends being brought into question. The other truly noteworthy performance here is Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Smaug. Cumberbatch provided both voice and motion capture for the dragon, and his work is nothing short of amazing. Aside from the fact that the CGI is beautiful and as realistic as it could possibly be for a giant dragon, his voice is an excellent mix of both creepy and charming, and his whole conversation with Bilbo in the hall of gold is every bit as clever and entertaining as the “Riddles in the Dark” scene with Gollum in the first film.

Other characters were not so great. While it was admittedly nice having a familiar face pop up, Orlando Bloom’s return as the elf Legolas feels shoe-horned in, as his character serves no real purpose other than for some cool action scenes and to be a member of the poorly setup (and thoroughly awkward) love triangle between him, Tauriel (an elf character created for the film, played by actress Evangeline Lilly), and Kili (Aidan Turner), one of Thorin’s nephews. The explanation behind the inclusion of Tauriel is to provide a strong female character for audiences to look up to, and, yes, she does have a couple of good action scenes, but the insistence of the filmmakers to create this romantic side-plot makes my feelings toward her and Legolas to be ambivalent at best. I’m also sick of the side-plots involving the orcs hunting down Thorin for his head – more stuff made up for the films that weren’t present in the book. I’m not a book purist, meaning that I don’t think that filmmakers have to follow the book exactly, and, hey, if the filmmakers come up with something that adds to the book’s story in a good way, cool for them, but that is not the case here, at least not in regards to the elf characters.

An addition that I did enjoy this time around is Gandalf’s (Sir Ian McKellen) quest to find out more about this “Necromancer” that we only briefly glimpse in the first film. In the book, Gandalf leaves for chapters at a time, but Tolkien doesn’t expound on what he might be off doing…at least, not in The Hobbit. Jackson has graciously given us a glimpse into those adventures, which are quite entertaining. The Hobbit as written by Tolkien is not a prequel to The Lord of the Rings so much as it is simply a predecessor that takes place in the same universe; you don’t have to read one to understand the other. However, Jackson is turning his trilogy into a prequel for his earlier trilogy, and it’s scenes like Gandalf’s visit to Dol Guldur and the impending rise of Sauron that fulfill this purpose nicely. Also worth noting is the expansion of the role of the Ring in this film; in the book, it is simply a magic ring that turns the wearer invisible, but, as we learn in LOTR, it is actually much more than that. We start to see Bilbo’s fascination and obsession with the ring in this film, watching him slash something to bits to protect his possession of it – or, rather, its possession of him.

I enjoyed the first film in this trilogy well enough, but I can’t deny that our second outing with Thorin and company is much better overall. The feel of The Desolation of Smaug is more natural and (thankfully) less expository, and the higher stakes of this part of the journey bring more action to the table and make the film more enjoyable as a whole. The run-time is about the same as the first film, but it doesn’t feel that way because it does a better job of keeping you on your toes and engaged throughout. Sure, it has its problems – the HFR is still a bit cartoon-y at times – but it’s on-the-whole a superior film, with an ending that will leave you thirsting for more. Howard Shore has composed another great, although more forgettable, score for the film, and Ed Sheeran’s outstanding song “I See Fire” is worth sitting through the credits for. I can only hope that Jackson doesn’t disappoint with the third and final film later this year.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

In the week preceding the release of Peter Jackson’s first film based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I avoided reading reviews or checking its Tomatometer over at RottenTomatoes.com, focusing instead on reading the book for the first time (my review here). In the book, we are introduced to a magical world of hobbits and wizards and goblins and dwarves, a world that was captured beautifully on the big screen in Jackson’s film trilogy based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. To say that Jackson and his team had a lot to live up to is a bit of an understatement. While it isn’t as good a film as we might have hoped, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey still manages to do Tolkien’s original novel justice.

The story is first presented from the point of view of the older Bilbo Baggins, played by Ian Holm, who is in turn writing the story down for Frodo, played by Elijah Wood, on the same day that The Fellowship of the Ring began. Of course, this was just the filmmakers’ subtle nod to the previous films, but it stands mostly independent of its predecessors. The advantage of the film to the book is that tales that were mentioned only in passing, such as Gandalf’s adventures away from the company, can be expanded and intertwined with the journey of Bilbo, Thorin, and the rest of the dwarves. Radagast the Brown, a wizard who was mentioned only once in the book, plays a larger role in the film, fitting in to a subplot that sets up the rise of Sauron for the story told in The Lord of the Rings. Through this subplot, we are re-introduced to Saruman the White – and it seemed to me that the filmmakers were hinting at Saruman’s corruption by Sauron, but that may be me looking too much into it.

Much of this film is definitely exposition and explanation, which could not be avoided in order to properly introduce the audience to the task at hand; even so, the amount of time telling of the past rather than exploring the present is a bit frustrating at times. There are two extensive flashback scenes where we are told the stories of Smaug’s overtaking of Erebor and how Thorin cut off the arm of the pale orc, Azog. This second flashback is significantly different in the book; while Azog is certainly mentioned, he is not alive for the events of The Hobbit. I was curious to know why this would have been changed, but the story arc that it creates for Thorin allows for something that was in the book, the dwarves’ growing respect for Bilbo, to be better explained onscreen, since the film doesn’t have a narrator like the book does telling us what is happening in the characters’ heads. Speaking of the dwarves, it is difficult to keep up with who is who in the film because of our lack of time spent with each character. This isn’t too big of a deal since Thorin is really the most important of them, but it would have been nice to be a bit more familiar with each dwarf.

My biggest complaint about this film is the special effects; they seemed cartoon-y and cheap. Azog, Gollum, the orcs, and the wargs are all heavily affected by this issue, and it literally made me cringe while watching. Perhaps part of the this can be blamed on the heavy use of CGI to create the orcs (versus the relatively CGI-free orcs in The Lord of the Rings), but I saw the film in IMAX 3D at 48fps, so I’m hoping that I can blame the poor special effects quality on the higher frame rate. Aside from the special effects, the higher frame rate didn’t bother me at all…it certainly took some getting used to, but the overall effect was a nice crispness that, while I can understand others’ disdain for it, I felt brought me further into Middle-earth.

While Richard Armitage does a great job of embodying the nobility and perseverance of Thorin Oakenshield and Ian McKellen makes a splendid return as Gandalf the Grey, not enough praise can be heaped on Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo Baggins. He perfectly captures the wit, the reluctance, and the overall spirit of the hobbit created by Tolkien; there were plenty of moments in the film where all of my smiles and laughter were solely inspired by what he was doing onscreen, whether it was him reacting to dwarves invading his hobbit hole or his negotiating with Gollum or any other number of things.

I walked into the theater for this film knowing that it probably wouldn’t be as good as Peter Jackson’s first venture into Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but I still had high expectations, especially after reading the original book. My expectations weren’t completely met, but I still enjoyed this film a great deal – minus the issues with the special effects. The other parts of the film that I didn’t particularly care for can be attributed to the fact that it’s meant to set up the rest of the story, which will be explored in the following two films. Despite its shortcomings, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is fine storytelling, and I now have no doubt that there is plenty of material to create three quality films – which had been a doubt of mine before. I would personally recommend seeing it in 24fps if you can (3D or not doesn’t matter), but, either way, be prepared for quite an adventure!

***EDIT***

After viewing this film for a second time in 2D at the usual frame rate (24fps), I am happy to announce that my issues with the CGI were (mostly) resolved with the lower frame rate, and I have accordingly raised my original rating from a 3.5 to a 4. Whether you see it in 3D or 2D, IMAX or not, I would personally recommend you view The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its sequels in the standard (non-HFR) frame rate.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Howard Shore, here!