Film Review: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Stephen Hunter
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro
From the book “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien
Produced by Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner and Fran Walsh
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Dan Hennah
Editor: Jabez Olssen
Music by Howard Shore
Costumes by Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey and Richard Taylor
No suspense here: Peter Jackson’s classically brilliant “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is a masterwork of fantasy and mythology, a visually stunning and breathtaking film, and a suspenseful, intense, exciting, gripping and adventurous epic that brings J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic “Hobbit” tale forcefully and masterfully into its darker, deeper and intensifying second act. The film expands on the introductory tale of the first “Hobbit” film, carries the great story forward in strong, confident and exhilarating fashion–like a good second act should do–and, in the grand tradition of the best of trilogies, superbly prepares filmgoers for the concluding third act, set to be released in 2014. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is a visually memorable treat for the senses, an instant classic, and a film that should not only appeal to fantasy and mythology fans, but to anyone who loves excellent film, and that includes people of all ages, types, backgrounds—-and genre preferences.
All of this is no surprise. For those keeping score at home, it’s now five-for-five for Jackson and cast and crew with their adaptations of Tolkien’s works—that includes the first three brilliant “Lord of the Rings” films and the first “Hobbit” film, “The Hobbit: An Expected Journey” (2012). It’s likely a good educated guess that next year’s third “Hobbit” will complete the more-than-a-decade task with another excellent film, and a concluding six-for-six score in the quality count. Jackson and cast and crew have accomplished not just great filmmaking—operating at full-blast at all levels of filmic ability—but they get it when it comes to adapting Tolkien and presenting quality, in-depth, intelligent and entertaining fantasy and mythology films that can appeal to a widespread international audience. And that’s not just opinion—the first five Tolkien-adaptaion films have succeeded on the grand scale that they have succeeded on precisely because they are great films that are intended to transcend insular, inside-only, small-community—but positive and fun and worthy—subcultures and social groups that take their fantasy and mythology films seriously—and there’s nothing wrong with that at all; in fact, it’s honorable.
And transcending that world to open up these great books and films to wider audiences—many folks who normally wouldn’t cast a second look at fantasy and mythology and some who even dislike the genres and some who are just outside that realm in general but still interested in giving them a sporting chance—is an achievement on many levels—the areas of film, literature, pop culture, social culture, gaming, fantasy, mythology, science fiction, horror, conventions, and other related areas. Yes, the books appealed to wider audiences, also, but taking the books and adapting them in such a great fashion that they do appeal to wider audiences is just simply a great lesson in taking a very-genre-specific tale and making it accessible, open, enjoyable and entertaining for the masses.
All of that is important in understanding the continued appeal of Jackson’s films.
This second “Hobbit” film simply succeeds on all fronts, and when films succeed on all fronts, they are excellent enough for all to enjoy—and respect. Jackson directs (as well as co-produces and co-writes) the film with such a fluid, constant-movement, sweeping and continually strong, confident manner, the film is literally entertaining and gripping from the opening scene—a classic who-can-trust-who spy and intrigue tavern scenario that puts the film’s action in context—to the equally-gripping closing scene, which, again, expertly sets up the coming third and final act. Jackson has little desire for slow, stodgy, ineptly-staged and stoically-blocked scenes—there is constant, flowing movement, not only in the story, but in the character’s blocking and action, and in literal camera movement. In scenes that a lesser director would have simply filmed straight on, with a non-moving camera except for standard cuts and reaction shots, Jackson, working hand-in-hand and expertly with director of photography Andrew Lesnie (the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Jackson’s “King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones”) once again, has the camera sweeping above, around, in, out, inside, backwards, forwards and every which way you can. That camera movement, however, is decidedly and fortunately not of the clichéd, over-used and horrible “shaky camera” style of lesser filmmakers. The camera is instead fluid, smooth, whooshing around and about to take you into the story, into the set, into the characters’ minds, and into the movement of the story and the scene.
Expertly complementing the fluid camera work and assured direction is the real twelfth man unsung hero and most-valulable-player-candidate off the bench for this film—the overall production, set and visual design of the film. This has always been an incredibly strong factor for Jackson and crew’s Tolkien films, of course, and naturally, but in this second “Hobbit” film, the quality of the specific sets, visual effects and overall production design seems to have been improved and perfected to an even higher level. The set, production and visual design—they have to be mentioned together every time because they are separate filmic elements, but they must all work and coincide and merge together in every scene to work at the same consistently high level—are so eloquent, stylish, immaculate, polished and straight-out breathtaking this go-around, the set, production and visual designs seem to become another character of the story and film. And that’s not overstating or going overboard on the issue. In wildly imaginative and fantastical fantasy and mythology tales like Tolkien’s stories, the overall designs of the sets, production in general and the visual aspects must be at a higher level, consistently, continuously and continuity-wise—otherwise, the required increased level of suspension of disbelief required for the enjoyment of such films will be broken down. Of course, that did not occur in the “Rings” trilogy and that does not occur in the “Hobbit” films—the overall visual impact of the films do indeed take you far, far away from our Earth world to the vast, dark, bright, intriguing, scary, lavish, odd, different, and, yes, fantastical and mythological wondrous regions, communities and areas of the imaginative Middle Earth world.
Spooky, scary forests loom ahead with gnarled tree branches sweeping down into your face; over-grown brush and bushes and trees form pathways and trails that lead to unknown, mysterious areas; rocks and cliffs and ledges and stairways twist this way and that way along beautiful, towering mountains and trees; skies are gray and black and foreboding, signaling the coming doom that everyone keeps warning about (war and death are coming, everyone seems to say, and that foreboding just adds to the suspense); little villages are full of canals and waterways and stairways and pathways and tiny, comforting houses and cottages, seeming at-once inviting and intriguing with their closeness and comfort; rivers and fields expand far into the distance, suggesting worlds both beautiful and daunting (thanks to the beautiful, unspoiled New Zealand countryside, where much of the non-computerized aspects of the film were shot); and great halls of power and government and doom are expansive, elaborate and tragically beautiful in their tarnished elements of once-great dominance and empirical rule.
Each set, each set design, lavishly compliments the respective scene to tell a story of its own. What lurks in this forest? Where does this scary path lead? Who once ruled in this grand hall? What lies here, in one beautiful scene, beneath these piles of gleaming, sparkling gold coins, riches and treasures? Who ruled here before the land was ravaged and torn apart? For a story and a film to succeed, the sets, production design and visual effects have to tell their own story and they have to be a strong part of the story, and here, that is what Jackson and Lesnie and crew accomplish at such a high level.
On the visual effects side, there are rousing, exciting action-adventure scenes that are just incredibly staged, blocked and choreographed—intricate, difficult, detailed chases, fight scenes and battles that require literally hundreds of hard-working souls at various digital, computer, animation and illustration workshops and shops to complete. In this second “Hobbit,” there are—all exciting, all well-done—hand-to-hand fights, large-scale group battles, a great, thoroughly exciting fight along a river with the main-character dwarves rolling down rapids in huge barrels (Cliched, you say? So what—it works there, and that’s all that matters!), spectral and higher-plain wizard battles between Gandalf the Grey (expertly portrayed again by the great Ian McKellen) and a being just starting to become a factor in the tale; and close-up interactions of frightening creatures of all types—not just the dwarves, but elves, large spiders (Cliched, you say again? So what—it works here, also!), and numerous other ugly, scary monsters. Yes, this was present and accounted-for in the “Rings” trilogy and the “Hobbit” film, but it’s worth noting here, also, for their welcomed return and consistency.
So it is a credit to Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh (also a co-producer and co-writer) in that they continually, impressively gather the very best production designers, set designers, visual effects supervisors and crew, illustrators and artisans on these films. That is no easy task, considering the constant demand for these filmmakers’ talents, their busy schedules, and the amount of time required to work on the Tolkien films. But, everyone involved here is smart, creative, talented and insightful and they know—literally know, according to interviews they have given—how dedicated Jackson and Walsh are, and they know the high level of detail, quality and caring that are given to create these films. So they come back, six times for six films for more than a decade. If that doesn’t suggest a confidence in the level of quality of these films, then nothing does. Credit must be given to production designer Dan Hennah, senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon, visual effects studio Weta Digital, the special props, armor, weapons, creature designs and make-up from Weta Workshop, and costumers Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey and Richard Taylor. Howard Shore returns with another John Williams-esque grand orchestral musical score.
Along with the brilliant direction, production design and visual effects, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” tells a good story and has main characters that you actually care about—the wise, all-knowing, comforting and paternal Gandalf, and those lovable hobbits, dwarves and elves. That you are drawn to the main characters and care about their plight, and that there is a complex, multi-layered story to move the action along—these elements simply add to the filmgoers’ engagement in, again, worlds that are not always agreeable to many filmgoers.
The second “Hobbit” continues the story of Bilbo Baggins (a still-engaging and lovable Martin Freeman, although this go-around he concedes the center stage to others more often), the hobbit of the title, and 13 brave, courageous dwarves and Gandalf as they continue their labored quest to regain their rightful and legal homeland—the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor and the Lonely Mountain, lands once proudly ruled by the dwarves, but since overtaken by darker, evil forces. In this installment, the 15 characters—it should be noted again that all of them are likeable and approachable and each is smartly given their own individual skills, quirks, personalities and talents—travel across various treacherous lands, encountering various treacherous creatures and enemies, until they indeed reach their destination, the Mountain, which has been overtaken by a brutal, strong, speaking, ruthless and relentless firebreathing dragon, Smaug (scarily voiced and portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch). The digital work required to bring this monstrous monster alive took intense time and detail, and many people, and the result is one of the more intricately and terrifying screen portrayals of a dragon in film. You have to give Cumberbatch credit for this difficult CGI portrayal and for his recent film track record—“12 Years a Slave,” “August-Osage County,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “The Fifth Estate” and “War Horse.” Not bad, Benedict, not bad indeed. That expansive talent is present in his scenes as Smaug.
Smaug has laid waste to much of the dwarves’ land, and that waste is the desolation referred to in the title of the film. The dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf must figure out some way to defeat the dragon and save their land—not just for their own purposes, but for also the greater good of larger issues facing Middle Earth, which gives the story a deeper and more intelligent context and additional storytelling layers and sub-plots. The tale is not just about the 15 main characters saving their land and battling a dragon—in lesser films, that would simply be all there is to the film—but the beauty of Tolkien, Jackson, Walsh and the other screenwriters and producers as storytellers is that they recognize the varied layers of characters, issues and stories in Middle Earth, and how they all connect to tell a larger, more layered grand story. It’s not just some dwarves, a Hobbit and a wizard working to restore a kingdom—it’s a larger battle against evil, darkness and doom-and-gloom for all. Tolkien’s tales are also stories about bravery, courage, resilience, the ability to pick one’s self up from setbacks and continue the good fight, and the fight for all that is right and good and positive in the world.
The 15 main characters are joined in this film by welcome regular Legolas, the spry, acrobatic and charming Elf played again by the smooth and tough Orlando Bloom; beautiful and tough Elf warrior Tauriel, played physically and eloquently by Evangeline Lilly, who provides the welcome feminine beauty to offset the majority testosterone factor; the human character Bard (Luke Evans), a canal worker who reluctantly ends up helping the 15; and Stephen Fry as the slovenly, untrustworthy Master of Lake-Town, a village the 15 visit in their journey.
But the stand-out in the excellent cast in this second “Hobbit” film is Richard Armitage as the harried, destiny-ravaged, brooding and heroic leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. As the 15 near the dwarves’ ancestral homeland, the broadening importance of their quest, their lives and their importance in the overall grand scheme of things weighs down on Thorin, and he realizes that this quest is not only difficult, tiring and dangerous, but essential to the survival of the greater good. Like a good Aragorn, Jean Valjean, James Bond, Han Solo, Captain James T. Kirk, Gandalf the Grey or Frodo Baggins, Thorin bears the weight of being a leader, a friend, a warrior and, at times, a father figure to his comrades in arms. Armitage ably, smartly conveys the various emotions such a heroic figure must shoulder, and the simple looks in his eyes in various scenes, as well as his physical presence and strong leadership qualities elevate Thorin as a major character in this film, as he must be, and Armitage ends up slyly stealing this film, even from such quality actors as McKellen, Freeman and Cumberbatch. The film and story here belong to Thorin—and filmgoers should be, have to be, invested enough in his character to care about the plight of these courageous dwarves, hobbits, elves and wizards against the forces of evil closing in on them and their endangered, embattled Middle Earth world. Armitage works hard to achieve that goal, and he succeeds.
Filmgoers of all types and ages should enjoy “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” and amid the wonder of the production itself, it is never too late or too much or too often to take to heart the enduring lessons that continue to matter in these Tolkien films, and other similar good-versus-evil-based films: That no matter how difficult, tiring, arduous, burdensome and horrendous the fight may be, no matter what the situation, a person—or dwarve, hobbit, elf or wizard—must pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and move forward, onward and upward to live and fight another day. Sometimes, the fate of the world may depend on that fight.