Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Ah, Middle-Earth. An entire generation of pop culture consumers was wowed by director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films a decade ago. Could he reach the same heights of quality storytelling and box office success with a trilogy based on The Hobbit, author J.R.R. Tolkein's much smaller, lighter-hearted prequel novel? Sadly, no. We discovered as much with last year's first Hobbit film. Whether because of an over-reliance on whiz-bang special effects technology, the softer tone of the story itself, or some other variable, Hobbit is no Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, fans found enough to love in that first installment, and now the world gets to unwrap this early Christmas present for 2013: Part 2.

This second chapter in the trilogy is simply better than the first in several important ways. The first chapter, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, paid a very careful, sometimes line-by-line allegiance to the novel on which it was based; while this pleased die-hard fans of the novel, it made the film seem longish and uneventful to many critics and casual theater-goers. Also, the first film's most memorable scene is "Riddles in the Dark", in which the trilogy's title character, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, a delightful presence on screen) meets the creature Gollum in a deep cave and acquires from him the One Ring; while the sequence was a pleasure, it did not offer anything dramatically new, as does the second film's encounter with the marvelously rendered dragon Smaug (voiced perfectly by Benedict Cumberbatch). In fact, the entire third act of Desolation is a thrilling wonder, as we shift nimbly between critical action in Laketown (where an injured dwarf is miraculously healed by an elf), Dol Goldur (where Gandalf [Ian McKellan] comes face-to-face with the great enemy of all Middle-Earth), and Erebor, the Lonely Mountain (where the fiery Smaug lies buried in an eye-popping sea of golden treasure). Just when things start to drag a little, around the 90 minute mark, this trio of sequences begins and Mr. Jackson proves himself just as capable of wowing an audience in this decade as he was in the last.

Another way in which this film out-does its 2012 predecessor is the well-handled, if unlikely, romance that buds between Kili (Aiden Turner), a dwarf, and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elf who was invented by Mr. Jackson and company rather than by Mr. Tolkein. Novel purists may turn up their nose, but it was a stroke of genius to introduce a strong female lead into a decidedly male-dominated story and have her drive an interesting subplot. She's also just as good with a bow as her fellow wood elf, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the pair of them send scores of orcs to their deaths in support of the dwarf company's mission to reclaim their homeland and wealth.

The Desolation of Smaug features two other notable and very memorable scenes, one in which Bilbo and the dwarfs are rendered delerious and entrapped by a swarm of giant spiders in an evil forest, and another in which they escape imprisonment by floating down river rapids using wooden barrels as precarious makeshift life rafts. In a film full of almost non-stop action and in a competitive cinema environment where CGI-laden action sequences abound, it is impressive that Mr. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters, Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro, are able to set sequences like these apart, making their film unique and (mostly) deserving of the hype that surrounds its release. Shortcomings--like the near-sidelining of the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), the long running time, and a Howard Shore musical score that never seems to get where it needs to go--are overcome with innovative set pieces, a better-than-expected script, and a well-planned abrupt cliffhanger ending. The wait for the trilogy's conclusion, scheduled for December 2014, will be a difficult one for fans. Until then, they can be encouraged that Jackson hasn't lost his touch, and no one can blame them for anticipating a triumphant conclusion to this rambling heroic tale.

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