Tuesday, November 5, 2013

'The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug Fan Event, 4th November 2013

I felt like a right lemon sitting in the middle of a crowd of squealing, jubilant Hobbit fans. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I particularly dislike Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptations, but lately I'm a bit numb to the prospect of yet more short, hairy people running through computer generated caves.  So this is an odd place to be; sitting next to me are people with pointy rubber elf ears glued to their head, scruffily bearded men holding plastic swords and a very high ponytail-to-person ratio.  This is heaven for these people.  And a kind of hell for me.

I can see why people get so lost in this stuff, Tolkien's world is exhaustively detailed world that rewards close attention, a world Peter Jackson brought to life quite magnificently in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I always looked forward to these films as they were came out and was hugely impressed by the sheer amount of talent and passion that was poured into them. From the intricate costuming to the state-of-the-art special effects to the great central performances to the music - just about everything was ace.

Cut to 2012 and  The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey and it tasted unexpectedly sour. While it's not without its plus points, the film was ultimately bloated and reeked of self-importance. There's a nasty aura of exploitation in The Hobbit films that was absent from Lord of the Rings.  The previous trilogy was an underdog, a gamble and ultimately a huge-scale independent film - this, on the other hand is about as safe a financial bet as can be.  So we find a relatively short and straightforward children's book pumped up into a three film epic; Tolkien's literary udders milked until they bleed.

Thorin is back!

This 'fan event' is one long advert designed to get the fans creaming their knickers for more Middle Earth and subsequently hopping on social media to loudly proclaim their anticipation. There's a goody bag stuffed full of Hobbit merchandise (rather ominously the supplied t-shirt is XL size) and a costume contest to start the night.  It's kind of sweet looking at these people in their home-made costumes.  Sure they look impossibly dorky but a) they seem to be aware of this and b) are obviously very happy.

But I'm not happy.  And as the evening draws on the constant high-pitched squealing (a snatch of Benedict Cumberbatch does crazy things to a room of excited girls)  begins to get to me.  The event is split over three satellite feeds, one here in London presented by Edith Bowman, Lee Pace, Luke Evans and Andy Serkis, one in New York presented by Anderson Cooper with Orlando Bloom and Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly in Los Angeles and Peter Jackson in Auckland.  To the credit of the technicians everything works pretty well, though the cast often look slightly uncomfortable in the face of such unbridled joy.  The Q&A is pretty uneventful.  No-one's asking any interesting questions: "What's your favourite line from the film?" is about the baseline standard.  

For all these interviews, it's the 20 minutes of new footage everyone here is desperate for. There are multiple, repeated pleas for us not to film it and put it online.  They warn us that security guards are watching us with night-vision lenses, that we'd be breaking the law and that the footage would be immediately stopped if they catch anyone (at this point a genuinely emotional girl in the audience turns around and pleads for us not to do this to her).  

Legolas is back!
And so, with the audience whipped into rapt attention they launch into the preview.  To everyone's crushing disappointment we're first forced to sit through a fucking godawful acoustic guitar number by Ed Sheeran.  I don't particularly like him at the best of times, but my annoyance is amplified when he's droning on lamely about misty mountains and goblins and so on.  The song goes on and on and fucking on - I'm not even allowed to fiddle with my phone as a distraction for fear of being manhandled by an angry security guard.

But after this, finally, we get to the much-anticipated footage.  In rough order we get to see Bilbo fighting some talking spiders, some elves interrogating an orc, the dwarves escaping from an elven prison, the dwarves on a boat heading to a floating city and finally Bilbo creeping through the gold-laden dragon's lair and waking Smaug.  The first and most crushingly obvious thing to say is that it looks much like An Unexpected Journey.  If you liked that, chances are you'll enjoy this too.

This similarity is a double-edged sword, so everything that wasn't so hot in the last film is back with a vengeance.  The 'comedy' stylings of the dwarves, the tacky blue and gold colour grading, actors striding about in front of a green screen delivering portentous, hammy speeches - they're all here.  It's interesting to note how the aesthetics of Jackson's films have evolved from Fellowship of the Ring, with its relatively subdued colour palette and heavy use of location shooting.  Now every colour is blown into high-saturation; Bilbo strides across the screen with skin so orange tinted that he looks like an Oompa-Loompa. The effect is a slight cartoonishness that's appropriate for an adaptation of a more frivolous and lighthearted material.  Still, there's an off-puttingly perfect digital sheen to everything that stands at odds with a film set in earthy, organic environments. 

Bilbo is back!  And looking rather tanned.
The new characters seem like a bit of a mixed bag.  Bard is essentially Aragorn II (slightly embarrassing I assumed he was Aragorn's dad). Tauriel, an original character, played by Evangeline Lilly on the other hand is a breath of fresh air.  This franchise is in desperate need of women characters - the An Unexpected Journey was a total sausagefest - but Tauriel looks dynamic, exciting and entertainingly vicious.  Elf King Thanduel on the other hand, is a self-important git - who even in a few scant minutes manages to be tedious and dull.  Legolas, though he's supposed to be 60 years younger, not only looks perceptibly older (though that's no-ones fault), but seems to act more maturely.

My favourite parts of these films tend to be when there's as little going on as possible.  The huge set-pieces with whirling virtual cameras and hundreds of CG baddies swarming around our CG heroes leave me cold.  But put Martin Freeman on screen with another actor and the thing suddenly starts working.  Within all the bombast, the best bit of footage we see is Bilbo talking with Balin in the doorway to Smaug's lair.  Balin explains that there's no honour in turning back, but Bilbo, though terrified, feels obliged to press on.  There's a touching humanity here, bravery, terror, respect and admiration all intermingling brilliantly.  

The low points are the fights.  Watching a CG Bilbo struggling against CG (talking) spiders is, to put it bluntly, a bit lame.  This something we've seen before even within this franchise. There's zero sense of danger, the choreography is confused and chaotic and there's a definite 'going through the motions' feel to it.  We didn't get to see too much of the climactic dragon, but fortunately at least he appears to have a real personality.

Even after all this celebration and whooping I'm still not exactly looking forward to this film. It looks safe and dull - episodic with little new to offer. Whereas once this franchise was a doorway into a mysterious world it now feels overly safe; the wonder replaced with fan-pleasing box-ticking and a risk averse sensibility. Consider my prognosis pessimistic.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is released 13th December 2013

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