Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Desolation of Smaug fails to live up to my (perhaps too lofty) expectations

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

A few months ago, I posted an analysis of the trailer for the upcoming movie, The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment in the Hobbit movie trilogy. I titled my analysis: "All the tales and songs fall utterly short." I would love to post that as the title of my review of the movie itself, but unfortunately, a more accurate title would be something like: "The movie falls utterly short of all my expectations." Because, while I enjoyed the movie and did find certain moments very wonderful, I was, ultimately, rather disappointed.

Now, because I don't want to seem like a pessimist and because I do want to express my admiration and appreciation for the parts of the movie that I thought were really great, I will start with the positive (and end with the negative so that, after you finish reading this, you will either be completely depressed or very angry at me).

So let's start with the single best thing about the movie: Martin Freeman. I'm almost kidding, but not really. Wow, he is a talented actor. In my opinion, while he showed great acting throughout, there were three scenes in particular when he really shone: the barrel scene, the spider and ring sequence, and the conversation with Smaug. What was great about these scenes was that they really just focused on Bilbo and, in these moments, we saw him developing as a character in significant ways.

In my opinion, the first moment when we really got to see Bilbo doing and feeling significant things was the spider sequence in Mirkwood. By this, I mean the sequence that starts with Bilbo climbing the tree and ends after he kills the baby spider and begins to realize what the ring is doing to him. I loved the tree scene because it was true to the book and expressed the idea that, even when everything seems dark and hopeless, if we just take a moment to step outside of everything and look at the bigger picture, we'll see that the issue we are struggling with isn't such a big deal after all. Then came the scene where Bilbo comes down from the tree and fights the spiders of Mirkwood. Once again, this was good because it kept an important moment from the book, namely, Bilbo really becoming courageous and going in to save the Dwarves on his own. And yes, I liked that they kept the naming of Sting more or less as it was in the book, because that also is an important moment in both the progression of the book and in Bilbo's character development. Lastly, I liked the scene with Bilbo and the ring because it added a new level of complexity to his character and because I enjoyed watching the process he went through to come to the realization that the ring was doing something to him.

The barrel scene was great because we saw the growth of Bilbo's role in the company. I thought it was interesting that Thorin was counting on Bilbo to get him and the other dwarves out of prison, and when Bilbo fulfilled his expectation, it showed that he really is becoming a second leader to the company. He saved them from the spiders, and now he saves them from the Elven King's dungeons. But my favorite part, of course, was when, after all the dwarves had gotten into the barrels and slid into the river, Bilbo realized the one flaw in his plan. The way that Martin Freeman conveyed this process of realization was brilliant and very funny. He didn't immediately figure it out, instead, he gave the audience time to watch it all play out on his face and in his gestures. The result was very effective, and, consequently, this was one of my favorite scenes.

I also liked the scene on top of the Lonely Mountain, when Bilbo refused to give up on finding the keyhole, but I don't feel like I have a lot to say about that, other than that it showed how different Bilbo is from the dwarves (which is a theme in the book, as well) so I'll move on.

One of my favorite scenes was Bilbo's conversation with Smaug. I LOVED that they kept several of Bilbo's riddles along with much of the original dialogue from the book. And both actors did a fantastic job, though of course we could only hear Benedict Cumberbatch and it didn't even sound like him. I guess that is a mark of just how well he played Smaug. It was great to see all the stages Bilbo went through in the conversation, from scared to confident and then back to scared but still determined to get the Arkenstone. And, while we are here, we may as well consider the question: did Bilbo actually get the Arkenstone? Initially I was pretty sure he didn't, as we never saw him pick it up, but after talking to other people about it, I become less convinced. After all, when Thorin confronts Bilbo and asks him if he has the Arkenstone, Bilbo doesn't answer, whereas if he really doesn't have the Arkenstone on him, couldn't he have just told Thorin so? The fact that he avoids a direct answer makes me think that maybe he does have the stone, after all.

Anyway, as you can gather, most of my favorite moments involved Bilbo, the... uh... hobbit. Because contrary to the evidence, this movie actually is titled The Hobbit. Really? Not The Elves or The Dwarves Riding in Barrels or The Man from Lake Town? Not even The Elf and the Dwarf Who Have a Weird Romance? No, it really is called The Hobbit.

But speaking of weird romance, I did enjoy the Tauriel/Kili plotline, mostly, I think, because it gave us a break from all the wild, fast-paced action and allowed for some fun character development. So while it was a little cheesy in parts, I didn't really have any objections to it.

Other things I liked: I loved Bard. I'd been a little dubious about his character from seeing the trailers and posters, but I found him a very compelling, strong and likeable character. I also thought the portrayal of Smaug was great. He was very impressive visually, and, as mentioned already, Cumberbatch did a very effective Smaug voice, apparently inspired by his father's performance in reading The Hobbit aloud to his son.

And now, on to the things that I DID NOT like. You can stop here if you like; I won't be offended.

There was way too much action. The first ten to twenty minutes of the movie felt like whiplash. We were running from the orcs, then we were in Beorn's house, then we said hello and goodbye to Beorn, then we were in Mirkwood, then we were with the spiders, and then we were in Thranduil's dungeons. I would have liked a little more conversation, a little more insight into some of the characters, and a little more focus on Bilbo (the title character) throughout.

Once we reached the Elven Halls, I felt like we slowed down a little, just enough to see some relationships forming and learn a little about Thranduil and his kingdom. But, again, we weren't there for long, and then it was into the river for the 45 minute barrel scene (yes, I know it wasn't that long, but it felt like it). And why do the orcs have to keep popping up every five minutes? I get that Azog was important for moving the action forward in the first movie, but I feel like this one had so much action and so many plotlines without the orcs pursuing Thorin, that they were really just a needless, annoying distraction.

Another somewhat irritating element of the film was that they felt the need to constantly refer back to The Lord of the Rings, as if to remind us what world we were in and what story this was. Now, I'm not against having allusions to the previous films in The Hobbit; when done tactfully, I think it can be very effective, interesting, and even funny in some cases. For example, I did enjoy seeing Peter Jackson walk across the screen while eating a carrot in Bree, but I cringed at Balin's comment on "the courage of Hobbits." I think the difference is that the first allusion was somewhat subtle and consistent with the rest of the movie, whereas Balin's comment was rather jarring because it was not consistent with the rest of the movie and thus called too much attention to itself. I was under the impression that the Dwarves had never met any hobbits other than Bilbo, or, at least, they had never had the opportunity to observe the courage of hobbits before, so Balin's comment doesn't make any sense. It would have been fine if he had said something about how Bilbo's courage never ceased to amaze him, or even if he had drawn a conjecture about the courage of hobbits from his experience with Bilbo, but as it was, I felt like his comment was very out of place and inconsistent.

Finally, what was the deal with the long and apparently useless sequence with Smaug and the Dwarves, culminating in a giant golden dwarven statue? First of all, the question arises: what in the name of Durin were they trying to accomplish? And secondly, why in the name of Durin did we need that scene? I get that the filmmakers wanted the Dwarves to mount an attack on Smaug, and I think I would have been fine with that if the scene hadn't lasted so long and seemed so utterly pointless. The Dwarves don't attack Smaug in the book, but with the way the filmmakers are developing the dwarven characters and their desire for revenge, it doesn't really make sense for Thorin & Company to sit around outside while Bilbo goes in several times and interacts with Smaug. Also, just visually, it makes sense to have a fight scene between the Dwarves and the Dragon, whereas in the book it isn't needed. So far, fine. But, again, why did the fight scene have to last so long? It seemed to go on forever and it was confusing. Nothing was accomplished. They could easily have shortened this sequence and still kept the element of the Dwarves trying to fight Smaug as well as Bilbo's courageous act at the end, which I do think was an important element.

If you've made it this far, then I have to say thanks for bearing with me, and sorry if I seemed too negative. I think it's only fair to add that, while I was disappointed in the movie, I had a lot of fun watching it and did enjoy the experience. I've seen it twice now, and enjoyed it much more the second time, after I knew what to expect. Additionally, I want to make it clear that I haven't covered every single aspect of the movie, as, if I had, this review would be much much longer. Obviously, I can't discuss the whole movie. So if you haven't seen it yet, you can go and decide for yourself whether it lives up to all of your expectations. Or maybe we shouldn't measure it by that. Can any movie ever live up to everyone's expectations? Probably not. So I suppose, at the end of this review, I should just be grateful that I get to see one of very favorite books made into three enjoyable movies. And anyway, after everything that I've said, we did get some great things out of this movie: Martin Freeman and other talented actors doing some great work, breathtaking scenescapes, a pretty awesome dragon, and a really cool song. Oh, and let's not forget Kili.

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