Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Down the Hobbit Hole, Part Deux

There can't possibly be a human alive who who has watched Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and didn't fall in love with them. From 2001 to 2003, the man behind such studio bombs as Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners tackled the beloved series of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, and in doing so became the hero to fantasy fans around the globe, culminating with the climactic The Return of the King's win for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. There are many who consider that movie as among the greatest movies ever made, and many more would include it within their top 10 of all time. That's why people were so excited when Jackson was eventually tasked with taking Tolkien's introductory novel "The Hobbit" and adapting it to the big screen, even if it was going to be three movies (that's about 100 pages per entry), and featured brand new technology that showed the film at a crisp - albeit occasionally nausea inducing - 48 frames per second.

The one moment of rest in this crazy thing.
And it's also the reason many were somewhat disappointed in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a movie that felt both overlong and overly-saturated with blatant Lord of the Rings fan service. While it was still better than most people gave it credit, there's no doubt that Jackson's delicate balancing act didn't quite pay off, as his additions to what was otherwise a bare-bones plot came off as not intended to make the best movie, but please the biggest crowds. However, despite An Unexpected Journey's many flaws, it was still good enough to keep both die-hards and casual viewers excited for Bilbo Baggins' continued adventures in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which came out this weekend. While Jackson still has to add a LOT in to make up for the fact that he's made a two-and-a-half hour movie out of such a small part of a small book, his continuation of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and their company of dwarves as they journey to liberate the treasure-laden Kingdom of Erebor from the clutches of ginormous dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Desolation sees the party arriving at the Lonely Lountain, after contending with Orcs, giant spiders, uncompromising elves, a huge shape-shifting bear, and - worst of all - small-town politics.
That's right, Bilbo, welcome to Camden, NJ.
That Jackson can create a genuinely fun film where his protagonists essentially face their threats through the same means every time (fighting and running, usually in that order) is very much indicative of how good a director he really is. No matter how big or small a budget is, bad directors will usually blow it, while good directors will almost always shine, and this is a man in his element. Jackson, through a mixture of New Zealand scene-capturing and green screen implementation on par with Lucas or Cameron at their best, recreates the world of Middle Earth with such clarity and vision that even the most discerning eye couldn't find fault with his approach. Most notably, the character designs are a huge step up from An Unexpected Journey, where most of the monsters were a bit cartoonish and lacked menace. Here, secondary antagonist Azog (Arrow's Manu Bennett) is vastly improved animation-wise, and Smaug himself is terrifying, through the latter is also enhanced by the talent and charisma of Cumberbatch, who steals the movie much in the way fellow motion-capture specialist Andy Serkis' Gollum did the first time around.
He's one bad mama jama.
Jackson also seems to show a keen insight of what worked and what didn't work in An Unexpected Journey. The Desolation of Smaug, story-wise, is superior in just about every way to the first installment. That's partly because Jackson finally gets it across that this is not Bilbo's story. Yes, the name of the movie DOES start with The Hobbit, and the young adventurer is certainly no passive observer, as things would easily turn out much different without him. But this middle entry makes it perfectly clear that the whole affair is really about an exiled prince's quest to reclaim his homeland, and what that journey does to him emotionally. Armitage's character grows so much this time around, as Thorin finds himself surrounded by familiar territory and the prospect of power looming. Borrowing from Lord of the Rings, the idea of power corrupting the noble is yet another link back to the first trilogy, but thematically it fits and stands as one of Jackson's better implemented connections.
You still can't remember all their names, can you?
But Smaug's overall quality improvement is also because there's more of a flow to the storytelling this time around. Jackson's addition of legitimate Tolkien lore - plus a few improvements all his own - don't feel nearly as ham-handed this time around. There is still a ton of fan service, but most of it - for instance the appearance of Orlando Bloom's Legoas - are perfectly sewn into the plot (although they couldn't resist throwing in a Gimli jab). The prequel elements are still in play, as Gandalf's adventures reveal more elements that won't come to fruition until The Fellowship of the Ring, but gone are the forced cameos from Christopher Plummer, Cate Blanchett (who does still have one small appearance), Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, and Elijah Wood, which did little more than appease fans of the original trilogy. And you have to imagine that Jackson learned his mistake in including Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown (also known as "Jar Jar") in reducing his screentime in Desolation. I'm just glad the director did not try to shoehorn a Gollum appearance in, as it would have been cool but counterproductive to the project.
Between this and Magneto, McKellan never has to work again.
As to the tale, there are four converging storylines - Bilbo and the Dwarves, Legolas and elf captain Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, added because The Hobbit sadly has no ladies) hunting orcs, Gandalf tracking down the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch) and the political struggle of Lake-town between Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the town's Master (the always amiable Stephen Fry) - and while three of those things were most definitely NOT part of the original novel, almost none of it feels out of place or unnecessary. The dwarves even have a bit more to do and say, although I still defy you to identify each one on sight and point out how each individual is important to the overall story. The only one of them to have an arc is Kili (Aidan Turner) who takes an arrow in the knee AND falls head over heels for Tauriel. Well, he is rather tall for a dwarf. However, I say "almost" all the sub-stories fit because the Lake-town political struggle comes late in the game and does little more than pad out the film's already-gargantuan run-time. But it also allows Richard Armitage's Thorin to make a big speech (aww, almost like a little Aragorn) and show what a leader he could be. So between that and setting up much of the struggle for the third movie, it serves its purpose.
Mark my words, Luke Evans is going to be huge very, very soon.
Because of that strong storytelling, Tolkien's characters also have quite a bit more to do this time around. Martin Freeman looks more comfortable in the hairy soles of Bilbo Baggins, and his natural charm combined with the character's everyman heroics make for an easy hero for whom to root. Armitage, McKellan and Evans also stand out, each bringing a slightly different bravado to the big screen that cements their identities in wholly different ways. Bloom, Lilly and Lee Pace (as the elven king Thranduil) add quite a bit of variety, with Bloom's obviously CGI-enhanced skin the only serious gripe I can muster. All the characters have something to add, whether it's plot exposition, or classic sword-and-sorcery tropes, or humor, though Jackson thankfully shies away from singing or childish gags this time around. Everyone's personalities are coming to a head, just in time for the epic showdown that will be next year's There and Back Again.
Because Middle Earth needs at least one kick-ass femme fatale...
In fact, The Desolation of Smaug shows few of it's many flaws on the surface, though some are remarkably vivid. Some scenes, such as an early one with Mikael Persbrandt as the skin-changer Beorn, feel included solely to appease fans of the novel, their actual relevance to the plot shoddy or un-revealed. Some new characters are merely rehashed versions of minor characters from the original trilogy. For instance, Ryan Gage's Alfrid (the Master's assistant) is practically a carbon copy of Grima Wormtongue. And the action sequences, while a whole lot of fun, tend to get more than a little silly and nonsensical, as well as over-long.
He's baaaack...
But the movie's biggest fault (beyond the story, of course) might become apparent if you see it on IMAX screens. Jackson's decision to film his newest trilogy at twice the normal framerate is quite the ambitious affair, as 48 frames per second was the next - albeit untested - effort to create a brighter, more crisp picture. But what happens when you're able to see things more closely is see more visual errors. This is apparent in the Lonely Mountain sequence, were a meticulously-rendered Smaug is perfect, while the settings around him have not been given nearly as much attention, and it shows. It's distracting, and can easily take the viewer right out of the experience, no matter the quality of the cast or director. It's not as noticeable if you're watching on a smaller screen (and certainly not in 3D), but it doesn't do much to positively endorse Jackson's ambitious method.
Oh, right, he IS in this...
I still contend that Tolkien's first major novel did NOT need to get separated into three films, as there simply hasn't been enough story for our main heroes to engage in without blast after blast of narcissism, nostalgia and unnecessary fan service in a deliberate (and when you consider the popularity of Lord of the Rings, unnecessary) attempt to appeal to audiences. That said, The Desolation of Smaug is still a big step up from its predecessor (let's call it an 8 out of 10), and there's nobody I'd trust more to compile this series than Jackson, who shows he's still got the goods a decade after his last great movie. And let's face it, if and when you see this (and An Unexpected Journey, which isn't great but is still a good, solid effort), there's no chance you won't be chomping at the bit to see next year's finale, which now feels ages away. It's not nearly up to the quality Jackson set with his first foray into Tolkien's work, but his Hobbit trilogy is turning into a decent - and more importantly, fun and exciting - moviegoing experience.

No comments: