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Desolation of Smaug: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

17 Dec

Deciding whether a movie lives up to your expectations is a little like interpreting a prophecy: you pick apart the smallest detail, bending, twisting and occasionally outright coiffing your thinking to make it make sense, or fail to if you expected the worst…

It’s a natural product of nerdiness, and probably not really a healthy one, but it’s accursedly difficult to avoid, especially with something as hotly anticipated, and with such a literary and filmmaking pedigree as the Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, the second part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the forebearer of the Lord of the Rings.

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In this instalment, Bilbo, Thorin and the rest of the company are on the run from orcs, and are forced to head into the dark and sinister Mirkwood forest, rasping against the pride of elf-King Thranduil, and ending up in the politically tense Laketown, near the Lonely Mountain itself. Winning over the people (and particularly the town’s venal ‘Master’) with promises of a new golden age, they embark for the secret entrance, leaving only a wounded Kili and some others behind. A good thing too, since the orcs are closing in, seeking to stop Thorin, and endangering Laketown.

Not that Thorin, Bilbo and co. are in much better shape, because Bilbo the burglar rouses the sleeping dragon, while Bard, a descendant of the Lord of Dale, readies to face Smaug’s return with the help of the remaining dwarves, and some civic-minded and thoroughly badass elves, including the son of Thranduil, one Legolas.

Meanwhile, Gandalf, having left the company at Mirkwood, confirms his suspicions that the increasing orc activity is directed by the Necromancer of Dol Goldur, and that the Necromancer is what they’d most feared: the Lord of the Rings himself.

I will say that I liked this movie better than the first one, and I liked Unexpected Journey quite well. The action’s better paced and more exciting and tightly bound to the story (the barrel-chase was particularly excellent), if still a little excessive; they might have gone further in recreating the game of wits that defines Bilbo’s interaction with Smaug, and had less of the protracted runaround it becomes. Thorin’s character arc is progressing on an even keel consistent with the book. Bard has been expanded into a conflicted character who is quite interesting to watch, and Bilbo is as great as ever. I was pleasantly surprised by the design and rendering of Smaug. He’s just different enough not to be ‘just another dragon,’ resembling a lizard with wings on his forelegs, as opposed to a six-limbed dinosaur. Add to that the voicework of Benedict Cumberbatch and he’s no end of memorable.

The inclusion of Beorn was also a nice touch. He’s in a better place narratively than was Tom Bombadil, as a chance for the characters to catch their breath before things really get going.

As I’d hoped, the one big problem I had with Unexpected Journey is rendered moot: the sense that Azog was a tacked-on extra, since he’s one of the Necromancer’s reserve officers. Pertinently, the Enemy’s strategy of keeping Smaug as an ace up his sleeve is heavily implied throughout.

It bears repeating: the Sauron-in-Mirkwood thing isn’t in the novel proper, but it is part of the mythology. In the book, Gandalf organized the quest to happen specifically when the elves were going to attack the Necromancer so that Smaug wouldn’t answer any call for backup from Dol Goldur. In the movie, Gandalf seems motivated more by general dislike of letting the dragon stay there unchallenged, and the strategic aspects are discovered within the movie. It’s awkward, but the alternative would have been even more flashback sequences than we already had.

In the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens exercised good judgement about when to change things, to heighten the drama, to allude to the larger mythos, or to keep the narrative focused. Some such choices here, such as the poltical conflict between the Master of Laketown and Bard, are basically versions of that kind of thinking.

A similar series of little touches are put in to tie the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies together – funnily enough, Tolkien himself only worked the Hobbit into his Legendarium when he started on Lord of the Rings. In particular, Bilbo is already feeling the influence of the Ring. He realizes, for example, that he enjoyed killing the Mirkwood spiders a little too much. It’s really well-acted and compelling; I have modest misgivings that it’s happening a little too fast. After all, remember, it took sixty years for Gandalf to even suspect who the original owner of that Ring was!

Some of them are a little silly, a nudge and wink at the fans and nobody else at all. When the elves catch the dwarves and search them, Legolas, leading the elvish party, sneers at Gloin’s picture of his son. Who is Gimli. Who becomes Legolas’s pal in LOTR. Eh? Eh? *nudge nudge*

But, just as Azog finds his niche in the narrative, a new extraneous element swans in. And I am genuinely sorrowful to announce that it is Legolas himself.

Look, I was thrilled when learning that Legolas was going to be in the Hobbit. I don’t like when creators pander to fans, because it’s basically bribing them to like the movie. But there’s no call for being wantonly unkind either by refusing to put him in. But I figured Legolas’ role, vis a vis the dwarves at least, would end with their escape from Mirkwood. He’s obliged by the story to be a bit of an anti-dwarf jerk. Indeed, the whole movie does a good job at showing ordinary, non-magical, and working-class elves, and I like that.

And then we have Tauriel, Thranduil’s Captain of the Guard, played by Evangeline Lily. She represents an attempt to get a female character or two into this movie, Tolkien being notoriously short on those. There’s a massive amount of talk to be had over tokenism, female representation and the limits of how far you should bend an source work in adaptation. More than I have space for. Giving the elves some distinct characters to focus on for the next movie seems perfectly reasonable to me though, and why not throw in a heroine since you’re doing so?

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All perfectly fine. Where I, and, seemingly, Jackson and his team, lose the plot is that, just when I want to be experiencing the climax of Smaug and Sauron’s plotting, I find myself watching the Orlando and Evangeline Variety Hour. Tauriel is Legolas’ and Thranduil’s foil, trying to get through to them that the larger picture and the people in it are important. So she drags Legolas to Laketown and they run into the Orcs and proceed to kick ass with standard elvish aplomb.

Meanwhile, Kili, left behind with some of the other dwarves after being wounded (and also to have some of our heroes on the ground for this front in the fight) is tended by Tauriel, with whom he seems to have a bit of chemistry. She gets hold of our favourite healing herb, kingsfoil, says some words over him in Elvish, and pulls him back from the brink.

And here, to my perplexity, we seem to have Jackson et al undermining elements they captured so well from Tolkien in LOTR. As speculated by a neighbouring blog, the uniqueness of the interracial friendship between Legolas and Gimili just lost a lot of its punch. Also, I’m 95% certain that the spell/prayer Tauriel says over Kili is the same one Elrond says over Frodo when he’s similarly injured in Fellowship of the Ring. So suddenly this military officer has the same skill as the greatest loremaster in Middle Earth? Admittedly, she sounds like she’s doing it in a ‘what the hell, I’ll try’ kind of way but she’s in critical danger of entering ‘Mary Sue’ territory.

I assumed that she’d be the one to persuade Legolas and Thranduil to go take on Dol Goldur, having been impressed by the dwarves and their place in the bigger picture. Instead the main story of the Hobbit gets usurped by the two of them. It’s jolly cool and exciting, but not what I signed up for.

Look, the movie is really good. It’s just tackier than it deserves to be. The Rings fanservice is laid on a little too thick. The acting is superb, funny, intense, and wilfully over-the-top, the action much better-paced and exciting, and the cliffhanger ending is first-rate. When the writing sticks close to the book, it’s really good. Actually, when it doesn’t it’s still really good anyway, the problem is the deviations are going a little too far now, to the point that it’s almost two distinct movies towards the end. And it breaks my heart to say it, but the soundtrack is just not up to snuff this time. The ending song in particular sounds…wrong somehow. Not like a song somebody in Middle Earth might sing. But then I didn’t like the end song of Two Towers either so maybe I just have a problem with middle-chapter end credits or something.

Lord of the Rings was a once-in-a-lifetime High Fantasy Epic film experience. The Hobbit, thus far, is a Fun Movie. A very Fun Movie, as only Sir Peter Jackson can make, but still lower-grade than Rings, and the same was true of the book, albeit for different reasons. My advice is to kick back and enjoy it for what it is, not torture yourself with what you imagined it might be.

And, of course, stay tuned for the next one!

 

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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Movie

 

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