crap i have watched recently #21

bilbo comes to the huts of the raft-elvesLuckwearers, Barrel-Riders, and SPOILERS below!

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013):  I have an ongoing discussion with a friend about the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies.  He’s a fan of the films and believes that any faithful adaptation of The Hobbit would be little more than a children’s movie.  I like the films in general but think that adhering more closely to the text would make a completely compelling and exciting movie.  To be clear,  I’m not the sort of person for whom a faithful adaption includes being scrupulously correct about the order in which the the dwarves enter Bilbo’s door or where exactly Bree is on the map.  I am less sanguine about entirely unnecessary embellishments of and additions to the text, particularly when they appear to exist solely in order to pad out a straightforward adventure into three blockbuster films (all approaching three hours in length).  A review somewhere that I read called this “very expensive fan-fic” and in many respects I agree.

The film starts with a short bit of back story.  After a brief but obvious cameo by Peter Jackson Himself, Gandalf the Grey meets Thorin Oakenshield in The Prancing Pony in Bree and convinces him to obtain the Arkenstone, a jewel that his family possessed before the fall of Eredor to Smaug.   Gandalf suggests hiring a burglar to steal it away from the dragon and thus we are off.  We rejoin Bilbo and the dwarves as they flee from Azog the white orc, who is still obsessed with making Thorin pay for lopping off his arm.  They take refuge in the house of Beorn, who is a shape changer.  Beorn shelters them and gives them ponies so that they can make it to the forest edge before the orcs overtake them.  At the edge of the forest Gandalf leaves them to go off on his own quest.  In Mirkwood, the group loses the path and is attacked by giant spiders.  Bilbo uses the ring and Sting to free them but the whole party (less the invisible Bilbo) is  captured by wood elves, led by… Legolas?  Wait, what?  What’s he doing here?  Never mind, we have places to go and things to do!  Thorin mouths off to King Thranduil and the dwarves find themselves locked in the elves’ dungeons until such time as they can manage to be polite.  Bilbo, ever ingenious, finds a way to rescue them by floating them out of the city in empty provision barrels meant for Lake-Town.   Thus ensues one of the oddest chase scenes ever, with the mostly weaponless dwarves stuck in barrels, Bilbo clinging to one for dear life,  orcs chasing them downriver and being chased in turn by Legolas and Tauriel, a sexy girl elf with a thing for Kili (he’s tall for a dwarf).  Wait, what?  Never mind, on to the next scene!

Meanwhile, Gandalf and Radagast (still smeared with bird poop) investigate the suspiciously empty tombs of the Nazgul and Gandalf goes off to Dol Guldur to see what all this business with the Necromancer is about.  He strides purposefully into the ruins, speaks a spell or three, and finds the place infested with big, nasty, orcs.  While he’s beating a judicious and hasty retreat, the Necromancer confronts him, there is a flashy CGI wizard battle, and then Sauron appears in all his giant eyeball glory.   Gandalf is imprisoned and watches helplessly as the orcs march in force out of Dol Guldur into an unsuspecting Middle Earth.

Safely downriver, the dwarves decamp from their barrels and meet up with Bard, who smuggles them into Lake-Town.  Bard is a sensible smuggler with three plucky children and he is deeply suspicious of any scheme that might involve waking the dragon that sleeps in the mountain that looms over them.   The Master of Lake-Town, however, eventually welcomes the dwarves, especially when Thorin promises to share the mountain’s gold with the town.  So Bilbo and the dwarves (minus Kili who was injured in the barrel chase and some others who stay behind to care for him) head off to the Lonely Mountain.  After some shenanigans with the secret keyhole of the hidden door they gain entrance to Erebor and Bilbo is off to find the Arkenstone.  While poking around in a literal mountain of gold and gems he wakes up Smaug.  The dragon and the hobbit engage in some witty banter but Smaug tires of it pretty quickly and is about to snack on Bilbo when the dwarves show up.  This sets the scene for the movie’s big finale, wherein the dwarves use Smaug’s fire breath to relight the forges of Erebor, smelt up a crap ton of gold (there is really a lot of gold inside that mountain), and attempt to drown Smaug in a lake of molten metal.  It’s pretty damn spectacular but it fails and Bilbo watches in despair as Smaug, shimmering in gold, flies off to lay waste to Lake-Town.

What works and what doesn’t?   Well first off, let me just point out that Stephen Colbert has a cameo.  That alone is full of win. Overall, this film is an improvement over the first one in the trilogy, if for nothing else than that there is much less walking.  The action starts almost immediately and pretty much never stops.  Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage are still fine as Bilbo and Thorin, respectively, although Bilbo is on-screen far too seldom.  Ian McKellan is Gandalf, as wise and grey as ever.  A bunch of people play the indistinguishable dwarves.  Benedict Cumberbatch voices Smaug adequately.  Orlando Bloom comes back as a stouter and disconcertingly older-looking Legolas who is not not nearly so charming and playful as he was in LoTR.   Stephen Fry plays the Master of Lake-Town as a bloated, gouty, one-percenter obsessed with maintaining control of his town.  It’s always nice to see him.  Luke Evans is Bard the Bowman, portrayed in the movie as a smuggler with Occupy Lake-Town sentiments.  Evangeline Lilly joins the cast as the entirely unnecessary Tauriel, who exists primarily to bring a little dwarf-elf romance into the tale.

I was prepared to be distressed about Jackson’s wholesale invention of stuff that is utterly and completely NOT IN THE BOOK, but some of it makes sense even if it is filler.   Much of it was adapted from the appendices to The Return of the King but quite a bit springs from Jackson’s fervid imagination.  The changes to pacing, character development, and to the particulars of various parts of the tale are in general fine and well within the bounds of artistic license.  Let’s face it:  Tolkien does meander a bit and the film feels nowhere near as long as it really is.   Leaving out the songs and the poems and the various back and forth wandering Bilbo sometimes engages in serves to tighten the narrative even as all the various subplots Jackson creates bloat it.   In most cases Jackson’s innovations are reasonably plausible:  meetings of persons who might have been in the book but weren’t, family for various characters, that sort of thing.  Some roles are expanded (Bard, Radagast) and some are truncated (Beorn).   Some events are spiced up just a wee bit.  In the book, for example, the dwarves spent their trip downriver enclosed in their barrels while Bilbo watched for a safe place to take them out.  They did not ride the rapids with elves standing on their heads shooting arrows at pursuing orcs.  Legolas, or, Sir Not Appearing in the Book, is a prince of the Mirkwood elves and the company do spend time enjoying their hospitality.  It does not entirely stretch the bounds of credulity that they might have met him.  In this respect Gandalf’s side quest to Dol Guldur is convenient because it means that Legolas and Gandalf are strangers when they meet at Elrond’s place in Fellowship (otherwise Jackson might have to do a little Lucas-esque retconning).   Some things Jackson leaves out entirely, particularly the little matter of Bilbo telling the dwarves about the ring just after they escape from the spiders.  Kind of a big omission but there you have it.

The reworking of Thorin as a noble figure mostly works, especially because by the end of Desolation we begin to see that nobility falter.   In the book, Thorin is a bit of a dick.  He’s all about the gold and the Arkenstone and whenever he goes into his “son of Thrain, son of Thror, blah blah, King under the Mountain” speech it comes off as pompous bluster.  The entire trip to the mountain is to recover the gold and Bilbo is even promised a share of it.   Thorin’s single-minded greed is evident throughout the story and it ends up precipitating a war.  In the movies Thorin is leading his people back to their ancestral homeland from diaspora against epic odds and his “King under the Mountain” speech is moving and inspiring.  He explicitly promises the people of Lake-town that he will be a better dwarf than his ancestors and share the treasure.  It’s not until the mountain is in sight that he begins to put the goal ahead of his companions and family.  This will make his eventual fall that much more tragic.  If it even happens, because honestly, at this point who can tell what the fuck Jackson will do with the rest of the story?

The continuing storyline of the pale orc Azog and his lust for revenge is more problematic.  Azog doesn’t appear at all in The Hobbit because he is, well, dead.  He died years before the events of the book took place and Gandalf mentions him once (as “Azog the Goblin”).  Now, I suppose one could posit that this is a different Azog and maybe he is.  A different Azog who also has a son named Bolg, but whatever.  Azog was resurrected to give the first film a bad guy.  If you recall, and I’m sure you do, in the book the hobbit and dwarves are not chased by anyone until they escape from the goblins.  The goblins chase them until they enter the Mirkwood and that’s the last of them until the war starts.  There’s hardly any dramatic tension in that.  In Desolation first Azog and then Bolg pursue the company every damn place they go.  They even manage to get into the elf city and they patter across the roofs of Lake-Town and I am pretty sure they will spearhead the attack of the orcs and goblins that starts the War of the Five Armies.  The series is rapidly turning into one with too many villains.

And this brings us to Smaug.  I’d say Cumberbatch does an awesome job but it’s really the CGI team who should get the praise here.  Unlike Gollum, who was played by a real person, Smaug is entirely a creation of computers and it shows.  As Smaug slowly emerges from his blanket of shinies I’m sure we are meant to be awed.  Instead, all I could think was “I wonder how long it took to render that?”  As with most CGI, he’s best when he’s moving.   Whenever he stops and the “camera” gets in close he looks as fake as  he is.  I rarely had this feeling with Gollum.  They could not layer the CGI on deep enough to cover the eloquence of Andy Serkis’ portrayal of the first doomed hobbit to find the ring.  In any case, the best part of this scene isn’t the dragon.  It’s Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, desperately playing for time with the only weapons he has, his ring and his wit.  His conversation with Smaug is reminiscent of the riddle game with Gollum.  Bilbo flatters the dragon while he frantically searches for the Arkenstone.  Smaug, like every villain ever, talks too much.  When finally provoked into rage,  Smaug chases Bilbo and the dwarves through Erebor, crashing against ancient ruins, blowing fire everywhere, and generally tossing a dragon-sized tantrum.   One of the finer scenes in the film is the golden dragon bursting into the air and shaking the now solid metal from his scales in a shower of gold as he heads off to get medieval on Lake-Town.  “What have we done?,” indeed.

What works not at all for me is this whole “a darkness is coming” crap.  Every facet of the story is bent to this, the orcs, the spiders, Smaug, all of it.  Jackson has invented a miasma of foreboding that is entirely lacking from the book.   Everything that happens at Dol Guldur is either invented or pulled into the tale from sources written long after the book and it is meant to tie directly to LoTR and, I don’t know, it’s just disappointing more than anything.   Piggy-backing The Hobbit on the back of LoTR indicates a lack of understanding of the strengths of the work.   Perhaps it’s merely Jackson pointing back at past glory and saying “See? I made that and you loved it.  Love this too because it’s the same thing!”

This is not the movie I see in my head when I read The Hobbit.   That movie is more adventure and less spectacle and is in no way a “children’s” movie.  Let me tell you something.  Tolkien’s children did not grow up listening to namby-pamby bedtime stories.  I think what bothers me most about the Jackson films is that they are backwards.  When you read The Hobbit as it was written, as it was initially meant to be read, as I first read it many years ago, it is an entirely different story than what it has become.  There is only the barest foreshadowing of events to come and this is the case even when you’ve read LoTR and you know what is coming.  It’s even the case after Tolkien rewrote parts of The Hobbit to fit better with LoTR.  In its own right it is an amazing story, filled with unlikely heroes, mythic creatures, evil in dark places, greed, nobility, dragons, spiders, were-bears, orcs, goblins, and above all, a Quest.   It is about the risks and rewards of stepping outside of your own comfort zone.  Jackson has turned it into nothing more than an elaborate prequel to LoTR.   In the book Bilbo’s own actions and experiences change him from a content home-bound hobbit to Someone Who has Had an Adventure.  In the film the only thing changing Bilbo is the ring.

When I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring my overwhelming impression was that it was made by a man who loved the book and knew it well.  If not entirely faithful to the text it was completely true to the spirit of the work.  Unfortunately success may be Jackson’s worst enemy; with every installment the LoTR trilogy became longer, louder, and emptier and this trend has continued with The Hobbit.  Watching the two films completed so far I get the impression not so much of a director who admires and respects the source but of one who’s pretty sure he can improve on it.  Whether or not he succeeds in this is up to the individual viewer.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on January 2, 2014.

One Response to “crap i have watched recently #21”

  1. Nice analysis, I agree that Jackson is trying to improve and add to a masterpiece, but may not be accomplishing this goal.

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