Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Cinema File #292: "The Hobbit" The Desolation Of Smaug" Review

Being the second movie in a series that really shouldn't have been a series in the first place, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug already has the deck stacked against it for the most skeptical observer. Now, when I refer to the most skeptical observer, I'm not speaking abstractly. That's me. I'm that guy. I hated the first Hobbit movie precisely because it was far too long and drawn out to justify the effort and took the "boring but pretty" ethos of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy to new heights of, well, pretty goddamn boring. I hated it so much that I actually found the 90 minute Asylum knockoff with cannibals and the guy from Stargate SG-1 to be more entertaining. My point is, this one had a long way to go to impress me, and while it still has its flaws, many the same as the last time around, even I have to admit that this is a far superior, and dare I say even worthwhile film.

The Desolation Of Smaug continues the adventures of that plucky band of dull as Hell Dwarves trying to reclaim their homeland from the Orcs, or a Dragon, or a Necromancer, or....something. I'm not quite sure at this point, but it seems like these movies are taking great pains to throw so much at us as to suggest it doesn't really matter. I know they're not trying to take their land back from Tom Bombadil, that's for sure, but I digress. This time around the set pieces are a little more familiar at least in terms of my favorite scenes I remembered from the book, namely the shapeshifting bear guy, the capture of the Elves and the barrel escape, and the giant spider, all culminating of course with the classic Hobbit on Dragon confrontation implied by the title. That we had to wait until the second movie to get any of this is somewhat insulting, but now that its here, I can't say it isn't fun to watch, finally.

My main criticism of the original Hobbit was that it just took so damn long for them to actually do anything of interest, and by the time they did, the movie was basically over. The structure of this new film is pretty much the same, and the accomplishments are just as slight in retrospect, but this new movie is just a little better at hiding this fact and creating the illusion that the mostly pointless string of madcap escapes and adventures are actually significant to the mostly nonexistent story beyond eye candy. The Dwarf crew is captured and forced to mount a daring escape no less than four times throughout the course of the film, and until the last one, none of these feel like anything more than what they are, filler to get to the Dragon, but since they're at least a little more iconic, they don't grate as much.

If there is one solid reason to extend this franchise beyond the single film, it is to provide room for one of the few story beats this movie gets perfectly right, and that's the slow evolution of Bilbo Baggins from a timid woodland nobody to a brave adventurer with a dark secret. Now with the ring in tow, Bilbo is gradually transforming into the creepy addict we saw brief glimpses of in the beginning of Fellowship, and Martin Freeman once again proves why he's the perfect choice to embody this complicated protagonist, finally given the time and the chance to shine independent of the tedious warrior clan escorting him through each CGI set up. One moment in particular with the spider (or rather spiders, even though I remembered only one from the book) promises more of this character growth to come, and considering how much more intriguing it is than the rest of the quest, I welcome it.

The award for standout performance however must go to Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, who despite providing only the voice and motion capture for a character one would think was too inhuman to work in that medium, fully embodies this creature and brings it life in a way only he can. The evidence of Cumberbatch's face is subtle, just a glint in the eye and a twist in the smile, and his voice is masked somewhat by modulation, but he's so powerful and commanding that he forces his way through the technology and creates one of the best villains of the year and probably the next as well. Staring into his eyes as he stalks his prey, which is impossible not to do as they are so captivating, he lures you in just long enough to chill you to the bone, evoking the kind of alluring terror of classic fantasy demons like the Gmork or the Skekses, which for this 80's fantasy junkie is the highest praise I can give.

If only the entire movie could live up to its intense third act, then this whole three movie expansion gimmick might actually be justifiable. Until the Dragon shows up, its mostly trifling fluff, though admittedly much better paced than it was last time, and elevated by a more kinetic and less pretentious approach that seems to embrace the silliness of the whole thing a little more than any of these films to date. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is the first film in Peter Jackson's Tolkien obsession to feel anything like the Peter Jackson movies I grew up with and still love, certainly not as gory or uncompromising, but just a little more crazy and fun than we've been used to. Yes, the additions still feel like out of place padding (especially an extended subplot with Gandalf that really goes nowhere) but at least its not a chore to sit through, and if the fun parts are this fun the next time, even I'll have to forgive the shameless excess of this one book trilogy.
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