Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Film Review - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is as much responsible for my devotion to film as anything else so I have to admit that when it comes to the director’s Middle Earth saga I come from a position of heavy bias. The Lord of the Rings, in particular 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring was the first time I became enamored with a film at an age where I could be analytical in my passion. There were plenty of films that I loved and devoured ad nauseam as a kid but The Fellowship of the Ring was the first time I really wrapped my head around the fact that it was somebody’s vision, and the hard work of countless talented professionals, that was making this magical world come to life on screen.

I unabashedly adore all of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth work and absolutely love the first two Hobbit movies. While I grant that they are not quite up to the caliber of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I for one will gladly immerse myself in as much of Jackson's Tolkien world as he is willing to create. While making The Hobbit in to a nine hour cinematic experience seems like a definite stretch on paper compared to the three hour running time each of the Lord of the Rings books received, I think Jackson has done an admirable of job filling in the gaps with material that is not only engaging but also substantive.

I especially like the way in which Jackson is setting up continuity between the two trilogies that did not exist in the books. The introduction of Sauron and evident turn of Sauraman are just two threads woven by Jackson to now be part of the entire story. I imagine that the big battle coming at the end of the next film will be significantly altered to set up the proceeding trilogy.  The Lord of the Rings certainly looms large in Jackson's Hobbit but I think it adds a masterful level of cohesiveness in mythology that exceeds the relationship found even between the books.

In The Desolation of Smaug some of the action scenes feel a little bloated and forced, as if there is a stopwatch running for how long we can go without some zany spectacle. The extensive river scene especially feels a little unnecessary. However the lengthy encounter with Smaug the dragon at the end of the film is a highlight of the entire Jackson Tolkien saga even if it is blown out of its humble origins in the book in to wild Hollywood proportion.
My biggest complaint with this second film in The Hobbit trilogy is (almost comically) that it doesn’t have enough Hobbit. Bilbo takes a backseat to the dwarves and elves whose roles are expanded from in the book or in a few instances entirely made up. The best and most iconic scenes, such as the group’s plight in the dark forest Mirkwood and the encounter with Smaug in the mountain bring Bilbo to the forefront and evidence why he is the namesake of the story.

All the technical mastery we have grown to expect from Peter Jackson is on display. The visuals are stunning, the soundtrack is bombastic, the performances inspired, and the entire fictional world just seems to buzz with life and depth. Some techniques, such as distant tracking shots of small frames running through fields and up mountains, feel a little customary and almost obligatory. Considering the challenges of executing something on this scale though, when it comes to minor techniques it is understandable to bear in mind the old adage “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”.

Did The Hobbit need to be three movies? Absolutely not. Would it have been better as one movie? Probably. In the case of Jackson’s Tolkienverse, it evidently doesn’t have to be quality or quantity though – we can have both. The Desolation of Smaug is more of an action focused thrill-ride than its predecessor An Unexpected Journey but also manages to match it in terms of atmosphere and drama. It is a worthy addition to Jackson’s epic Tolkien catalog.

Grade: B-

Posted by Terry Pierson, Library Clerk