Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug Review

This review contains spoilers for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

I am a huge fan of The Hobbit. It's easily my favorite book by Tolkien, and one of my favorite books in Fantasy. I loved what Peter Jackson managed to do with The Lord of the Rings trilogy; The Two Towers is on the list of my favorite movies of all time. Lastly, Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors. Needless to say, I was excited to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Needless to say, at least to those of you who have seen it, I was a bit disappointed.

An Unexpected Journey was a mixed bag. It returned us to the beauty of Tolkien's Middle Earth, reunited us with Gandalf and Gollum, and introduced us to a dozen colorful, if not all memorable, characters, in the dwarfs. But most of all, it gave us Martin Freeman as a young Bilbo. There was beautiful landscape exhilarating battles, and one song that stayed stuck in my head for days after watching it. Guillermo del Toro's fingerprints on this Middle Earth added a needed flair the series.

But the movie also gave us a half-hour history lesson for a prologue, extraneous scenes, and mood whiplash. It was uneven, rushed in some places, drawn out in others, and just overall, felt like the very long first installment to a three-part adaptation of a rather short book. I neither loved it nor hated it.

I had this on my mind as I sat down to watch its sequel, The Desolation of Smaug. My expectations were suitably lowered.

They needn't have been. The Desolation of Smaug is ten times as good as An Unexpected Journey. If it's not quite as good as the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's a movie I have no hesitation in recommending.

The acting is solid from beginning to end. Benedict Cumberbatch is the shining star of the movie; his performance as Smaug captures the dragon with depth and complexity perhaps even beyond the book. Ian McKellen is wonderful as Gandalf, of course. Martin Freeman's Bilbo is nuanced and subtle, and Richard Armitage captures Thorin Oakenshield's obsession perfectly. The only performance I take issue with is Ryan Gage as the lackey of the Master of Lake town--and this performance wasn't precisely bad, but was rather outclassed by every other main player on screen.

The score is as wonderful as ever, a true service to the development of the narrative. For instance, every time the One Ring comes on screen, you can hear faint traces of its theme from the main trilogy. The Ring is a background player throughout much of the story, perhaps moreso than some of the dwarfs, and the music keeps you from forgetting the truth of it.

The tone is far more even in this second installment than it was in the first, and manages to maintain a balance between the quirkiness that The Hobbit demands and the solemnity that any story involving the One Ring deserves. The suspenseful scenes, such as the first appearance of the Elvenking Thranduil, run smoothly and convincingly, while the over-the-top, almost goofy, action scenes entertain and amuse. Neither seems out of place.

What does seem out of place, however is some of immense amount of content that is added that wasn't in the book. There is an all-new character created specifically for the screen which demonstrates this perfectly. I applaud the addition of this new character, and for most of the movie, I look forward to the moments she is on screen. However, she becomes a part of a subplot that is unnecessary and unwelcome padding, which makes it disconcertingly easy to dismiss her character as equally frivolous.

The subplot of the Necromancer continues to unfold, now fitting into the whole more naturally. On the other hand, the entire climax serves as padding and build-up for the last movie.

There are two points working for this movie that cannot be overstated.

First is Smaug. I realize I have touched on him before, but I can't express how perfect his execution was. He was my adolescent imaginings brought to wondrous life. The effects, from his movement to the texture to the lighting, to his expressions, to the voice acting and and audio work, to his integration with the live action performances, is something you must see to believe. He alone is worth the ticket price.

The other thing working in this film's favor is the unparalleled way in which Middle Earth is brought to life. Never--not in An Unexpected Journey, not in the original trilogy, not in any work of fiction set on a secondary world--have I felt so drawn in to the world itself. never have I felt transported, as a book can transport me. This is a landmark in the industry, and will be a benchmark by which I judge the immersion of Fantasy films in the future.

Let me be clear: This movie has many changes from the book. Some minor, some overreaching. Some good, some bad. Most were necessary, even if they did not work for one reason or another. As an adaptation, it may disappoint hardcore fans of the book. As a movie in its own right, it is a success. As a piece to the greater whole, it can be spoken of in the same breath as The Two Towers, even if there is never any doubt which is better.

I'm giving The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 8 out of 10. If you like Fantasy, Dragons, or incredible CGI, watch this movie. If you don't, watch it anyway, and you will.

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