The Hobbit – The Desolation Of Smaug (2013)
Well met, weary travellers. Come, please, remove your sodden cloak and saturated boots, pull a stool up to the fire and join me in some Buckfast ale and fine Farthing pipeweed as we have much to discuss. After another long year of turbulent disruption, like an Noldorian wine bottle tossed into the threshing waters of the Anduin we eventually find ourselves alighting on the shores of a chilly December, and the second of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien Blockbuster adaptions of The Hobbit is finally amongst us. The decision to split the slim novel – 300 or so pages all told without the usual associated appendices, etymology or pages or cartographical delights that distinguishes the wider literature – into three epic films appears to be paying dividends for some of the hardcore fans, with supplementary world-building material provoking a wider sense of this period of Middle Earth’s history, inducing a denser strategic context of unremarked unseen events such as the rise of the Necromancer and Gandalf’s investigating a new shadow distinguishing the new movies with a malevolent purpose. Nevertheless this is a path as perilous as the caverns of Cirith Ungol as the inclusion of characters from other material (most visibly Orlando Bloom returning from LOTR as Legolas) and the sacrilegious introduction of completely new characters (the silvian warrior Tauriel played by Lost’s Evangeline Lilly) for romantic enhancement seems destined to provoke a War of Wrath against Jackson and his screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens. Like the seraphic song of the Ainur the fidelity and fan boy service that this behemoth production trilogy showers upon the literature has filled souls with light, as much as the concessions to modern bloated cinema by orienting affectations around broad humor, set-piece action extravaganzas and a panting pace have caused consternation and a haughty fury worthy of Melkor’s molestation of the same Ainulindalë origin myth. The pixel pilfering perfect CGI, the elongated 3D dimensions, the difficult parley with the audience through the rearguard deployment of High Frame Rate in some specialist screenings all sit uneasily with Tolkien’s pastoral pleas, as a man clearly content with the comforts of home all this stuff and nonsense would probably have irritated him no end.
As a lifelong Tolkien fanatic I have a foot in both camps, I also tire greatly of some of the pandering that Jackson has deployment throughout his sojourns through Middle Earth which do not gel with the legandarium – making the Dwarves celtic hued objects of ridicule to a certain extent, having elves perform some ridiculous stunts as per Legolas shield surfing in The Two Towers, Jackson’s feeble enforcement of comedy which do not connect with my sense of humor – but you cannot escape the staggering attention to detail, the core nucleus of love and respect for the vast scope of the beloved material, the quality sprung from the apex of modern blockbuster cinema lavished with production values which only the likes of Cameron and Spielberg can still command. So I concur with the opinion that these are clearly Jackson’s, Boyens and Walsh’s take on Tolkien and that is enough, if you approach the films from that angle rather than getting all irked about the changes then I think you can enjoy the experience from its immersive qualities, as after all the original literature endures and we’ll always have
Paris Gondolin. We will have spoiler paragraphs which will be clearly marked as such, and rather than delve into diagetic techniques or detailed use of space along z axis compositions I’m writing this from a pure fan-boy perspective, in that way I can let my beard down and let the fanboy shine like the scintillating rays of the Arkenstone of Thrain…..
Picking up from the companies deux ex machina saving by the Eagles from the clutches of the albino Azog the Impaler in An Unexpected Journey our intrepid band of miniscule heroes continue their epic quest to the Lonely Mountain. Their perilous quest is to usurp the firedrake Smaug, to depose his slumbering realm and restore the prestige of the refugee dwarven clan and the rule of the heir Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to right an ancient wrong and restore the kingdom of Erebor to its rightful glory of the days of old. Having grown in heroic stature the hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) now seems more sure of himself and his function within the group, as by the film’s end he has managed a series of heroic feats which would keep the songwriters of Arda in copper pieces. Gandalf remains an enigmatic presence, frequently nipping off to investigate the wider threats which are slowly gaining purchase, as the journey takes them all through a menagerie of friends and foes peril which fans of the book should delight in finally seeing realised on-screen, whether it’s a claustrophobic encounter with a skin-crawling nest of sneering arachnids, a boisterous battle through a barrel laden white-water rapids, or the first glimpse of a crimson thundering behemoth with a fiery breath and tyrannical attitude…..
First impressions from a matinée viewing in full eye splendoring High Frame Rate 3D is a heady brew of enormous frustration, exasperated anger and immense relief as certain canonical moments are throughly mastered, but the choices of certain additions and affectations had me mentally cradling my head in my hands and whimpering an inaudible ‘why?’. I quite liked the first one although I concur some of my fan-boy adoration of Tolkien may have impaired my critical faculties, and early word was that this was a major improvement in terms of pacing, structure and magical wonder, so once again I find myself relegated to the deepest dungeons of Utumno critically speaking as broadly I simply cannot agree – let’s break this down with MAJOR SPOILERS;
For the first half then yes I agree the pacing and speed of the film is a distinct improvement on An Unexpected Journey, the film powers through the books chapters and encounters with an admirable passion yet once they finally get to Laketown and we are introduced to Bard (a non descript John Bell) the film careers over a cliff and wallows in the murky waters of emblazoned foreshadowing, clumsily embedding events and resolutions which will not be realised until the final film in the trilogy. An entire half hour of this film could have been shed of the Dwarves and Bilbo poncing around this aquatic ghetto and nothing would have been lost, it really does feel like extraneous padding in order to maximise revenue which are allegations I must finally and grudgingly accept. That said some certain story beats are beautifully, perhaps perfectly realised – ‘Flies and Spiders’ is exactly how I have imagined it in my head over the past thirty-five years, Gandalf’s illumination and grapple with an ancient enemy will have fans squealing with delight, and a certain titanic reptile was worth the price of numerous admissions alone – more on him later. The effects and designs are incredible, the feel of the world for much of the film is inspirational and surpasses all other Tolkien adaptions in any medium, and a sense of wonder and magic trickles through the film even if it never quite breaks through the constricting dam that modern blockbuster cinema dictates. Although I have my personal reservations you must see this on a big screen, as a three-hour immersion into another world its one of the years best, and there is one prolonged action sequence which is simultaneously the most audacious, ridiculous and hilarious combat scene ever beheaded in fantasy cinema.
The highlights then are clear, my major problems I’m sorry to say chime with the usual purist concerns – the introduction of new characters, and the drafting in of Orlando Bloom as Legolas which while logical given the films trajectory through the Wood Elves dominion had me cringing in disbelief. Look, on paper I have zero problems with these additions, I have zero problems with the focus on the Arwen / Aragorn love story in LOTR for example which I thought was a fantastic enhancement that completely worked in establishing deeper stakes to that quest and a sense of romance to the male orientated material – Tolkien has frequently been criticised for making the major protagonists of his work as men and placing the women on literal pedestals – so a little updating to reflect more modern sensibilities, when merited, should and would be welcomed. I’m also no fool (stop laughing), I understand how the film is aiming to appeal to not just 18 – 24 blokes but also the same female demographic, and pushing aside the slightly sexist demeanour of such narrative decisions (because all young women are only interested in lurve stories right?) a more feminine slant to the narrative could be profitable. While Tauriel is actually a cracking addition in terms of kinetic tumblings the addition of a terrible potential romance between her and one of the more dreamy dwarves is just terrible to behold, it serves no purpose other than some weird extraneous side-plot which wastes precious time and is badly executed, whilst Bloom still has all the charisma of a Númenor sodden potato. Thankfully the appearances of Radaghast The Brown are kept to a minimum (I just loathe Jackson’s conception of this side character) but all the Laketown sequence fumbling is tedious in extremis, and crucially there is no sense of closure of a film in its own, independent right – this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem but this is specifically what Jackson and Boyens have cited as their intention for each installment of this trilogy.
SMOULDERING SMAUG SPOILERS – If you’re a monster movie fan then you’re in for a bellowing treat, he might be inferior in epic wingspan than Glaurung the wicked or less volcanic than Ancalagon The Black but Smaug is a deeply beloved character in children’s literature, and the opportunity to perhaps see the first truly brilliantly realised wyrm on-screen – no, Dragonslayer, Reign of Fire nor Dragonheart don’t count – is the film’s great triumph from a genre perspective. Quite simply the gauntlet of on-screen representation of this majestic mythological breed has been roasted, poached and toasted, and this achievement is probably the only factor that will get me back into seeing the movie again on the big screen. Jackson is clearly deficient in some areas but the direction of his designers, his command of his epic magnificence and the genuine threatening heft of such a CGI behemoth is immediately awe-inspiring, all emulsified with Benedict Cumberbatch’s venom laden silken purrs. The fashion in which he is established and prowls the cavernous tomb of Erebor gives him the terrible majestic power that the literature deserves, as the trilogies smouldering antagonist his treatment and execution possibly saves the entire franchise endeavour from a cataclysmic defeat – just like getting Gollum absolutely note perfect in LOTR now that I think of it. An unapologetic accruer and controller of wealth at the pain of all others may also hold some contemporary resonance as well…….
It’s a perplexing puzzle, if we’re honest then The Hobbit, the book itself is incredibly twee and silly in many ways, it’s a book for young kids more akin to a concise Disney adaption rather than craving to the booming demands of current nine figure budget blockbusters. On the one hand Jackson and co. must satisfy two opposing concerns, those whom desperately crave another magnificent epic trilogy with numerous connections and asides to the wider legandarium, and those who imagined a more faithfully brisk and fun romp with songs and scenes of hilarious domestic cleanliness. The two do not gel easily and when you add in the potential souring factor of filmmaker inventions of new characters to capture the widest possible audience, of striving to craft an immaterial gathering darkness and honouring beloved characters, of honouring celebrated story events and literal Arda histrionics you’ll never win everyone over. I just wish this film was a little more focused on the central quest rather than being distracted with sub-plots and cutting between parralel narrative streams, did we really need such an expansion of Laketown’s political poison and splitting the company between the two arenas further coupled with a tension deficient appearance of the Elven interlopers to build such a tepid finale? That said despite my initial reservations Freeman has excelled as the central character Bilbo, he does seem to have an arc and feel more confident and centred which suggests some development, and overall the world building remains unsurpassed even as it ignores some of Tolkien’s deeper mythological structure at the expense of pyrotechnics, but Jackson needs more directorial tricks other than resorting to the usual choir infused, undercranked ‘epic’ scenes to crown the finale, especially when this movie guillotined its ending on a deeply unsatisfying stroke which is more poised toward a TV series pendulum than a majestic movie masterpiece. As an obvious point of comparison I loved the end of The Two Towers which was simply superb, the fantastic drowning of Orthanc merged with the final charge at Helms Deep – that’s epic cross cutting storymaking from a cinematic standpoint (see Intolerance, Star Wars etc. etc.) – which then led to perhaps my favourite closure of the entire franchise – it’s the most obvious statement imaginable but The Empire Strikes Back this ain’t.
(Big sigh). Will I go and see this again? Of course I fucking will, preferably in normal frame rate as I don’t think the enhanced projection did me any favours this time around, although I remain open to the technology I did find it quite distracting yesterday and will attune my cinema viewing seat position accordingly – these are important considerations I think you all agree. Like Yavanna in this festive period I am the bearer of gifts, as I have accrued a Neutral Good haul of Tolkien related material over the past year, and of course a new film has ignited a wealth of new analysis and consideration of the Oxford don’s legacy and letters. Firstly this is a amusingly brief precis of the entire Middle Earth & Undying Lands genealogy which made me smirk, if you’re looking for some audio material which delves deeper than the halls of Belegost then The Tolkien Professor is detailed discussion from a qualified academic but the tone isn’t of a dry and scholarly bend, for example they have conducted a three-hour dissection of the first trailer alone which I know will send many of you shrieking away in dragon fear but for us weirdos it’s +3 proficient background audio as we go about our web surfing business. This is always the definitive audio version which I grew up with, its remains my favourite translation of Tolkien in any format, and let’s hope that Jackson and his team can finally pull the frying pan out of the fire for the franchise final episode come next December;