Tuesday, December 10, 2013

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' (2013) directed by Peter Jackson

The biggest compliment I can give The Desolation of Smaug is that after 160 odd minutes I would happily have watched more.  High praise indeed for a film I was faintly dreading. The previous instalment, An Unexpected Journey, was chintzy as hell, narratively sprawling and generally bloated in the worst possible way.  Had Peter Jackson pulled a George Lucas on us?  Were we in for three Christmases of CG-smeared disasterpieces smugly trotting through our cinemas, shitting all over the reputation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy? 

The answer, thankfully, appears to be no.  The Desolation of Smaug isn't amazing, but it is solidly good with more than the occasional elevation into actually great.  I know this trilogy was all filmed at the same time, but there's at least the illusion that criticism of An Unexpected Journey was taken on board and this film tweaked for the better. Gone are the peril-saturated, incomprehensible kitchen sink action scenes!  Gone are the portentous Wizardly conversations!  Gone are the endless meal scenes!  They've even ditched the songs.  In its place is a narrative with a clear sense of momentum and direction,;well acted characters with interesting motivations and snazzy costumes; there's even an honest-to-god proper woman in it.  

The story picks up where we left off, the Dwarven warriors, Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins still on their way to the Misty Mountain.  Between them and it lies a bear-man, a forest full of talking spiders, a load of freaky mean elves, a fearsome metal-faced orc captain, Evil Mayor Stephen Fry and a big honking dragon.  The only fly in the ointment is a dull side-plot involving Gandalf wandering around on his own for little apparent reason.  It's a small fly though, and there's a lot of ointment to go round.  Jackson's self-indulgence does shine through from time to time, but on the whole the film is commendably propulsive - pointing itself in the direction of the Misty Mountain and stamping on the accelerator.

It's always nice to see the characters in real sunlight.  Little things I know, but it helps.
Along the way we see Martin Freeman's Bilbo continuing to evolve, even developing a vicious and scary streak that's hard to square with the gentle hobbit that left Bag End last December.  But though the journey has given him new reserves of bravery this is still the same old Bilbo Baggins.  Crucially he's still visibly terrified half the time, but is now able to act decisively even through his fear.  As the only character not wrapped up in manifest destiny and mystical prophecy, he's a vital anchor of humanity in an alien sea.

The calibre of this cast means there's no real weak link, though there are highlights and lowlights.  Jackson  takes obvious care to give each of the dwarves a character moment and at least one line - some of them finally becoming more than scenery.  Orlando Bloom's Legolas feels like a bit of an odd duck though, bearing little resemblance to the chronologically older Legolas of Fellowship of the Ring.  This Legolas is a snarling, uptight murder machine - a walking blender with pointy ears.  One surprising low point is Ian McKellen's Gandalf, whose increasing lack of interest appears to be a symptom of his being dispatched from the A-plot and relegated to battling against a demon green screen.

Lee Pace's Thranduil particularly stands out among the new members of the cast.  Pace chooses to go full ham, obviously relishing the opportunity to wear a silly hat, chew the scenery and strut around like he owns the place (which he does).  Fortunately, Thranduil is King of the Asshole Elves, so his close-talking dickish style fits the character like a glove. Also fun on the elf front is Evangeline Lilly as the warrior elf Tauriel.  It's a bit unfortunate that they take the time to create an entirely new female character, then promptly saddle her with a sappy romance that concludes with her deciding to skip the fighting and play nurse, but hey, it's at least a step in the right direction from the sausage-fest of the last film.

Gandalf regrets ditching his friends as he finds himself in a much worse movie.
Even with that relative embarrassment of riches there's one undisputed star of this film.  A main attraction that's putting asses on seats: Smaug. Mercifully, he's a peeved, fire-breathing, extremely scaly success, a near perfect marriage of dynamic CG and  outstanding voicework by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Though a CG dragon is hardly a new sight in cinema, this one not only has to breathe fire, bash things about and desolate stuff real good, he has to be able to act. (and yes I remember Dragonheart too but I'm pretty sure it hasn't aged well).

They pull this off so well that it's actually possible to simultaneously be terrified and sympathise with him, which was the last thing I expected to feel about a monstrous killer beast.  Sure he's a bloodthirsty monster who's first introduced to us annihilating a town, but his annoyance at being disturbed from a nice nap by a load of mewling, lying adventurers feels genuine.  This is all the result of a carefully designed face, with perfect burning eyes that allow him to retain his bestial nature even when coolly addressing Bilbo in Cumberbatch's syrupy smooth high-falutin' tones.

Pictured: an actor that's pleased as punch with his silly hat.
Though a river-rapids battle mid-way stands out as a clever, well realised action sequence, it's the Smaug sequence that people are going to remember when they think of this film.  At it's basic level, the scene involves around a visually stunning gigantic Rube Goldberg machine that our characters swarm over, all contributing to a final beautifully glittering money shot. The only thing that slightly tarnishes this otherwise perfect bit of choreography is that for all the dramatic oomph of scene, it doesn't really affect the narrative at all other than annoying an already very annoyed dragon.

So colour me impressed (especially given my decidedly mixed reaction to the press event).  My attention never fully wavered over the mammoth run-time and as the credits rolled a part of me wished they'd start playing There and Back Again right away. It was with a pleasant jolt of surprise that I realised that I now cared about what was going to happen. I can't give better praise than that.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is on general release from 6 December

Director: Peter Jackson / Screenwriters: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro / Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott / Runtime: 161 min

Tags: , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' (2013) directed by Peter Jackson”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights