The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug the Dragon.

To start off, I am not a Lord of the Rings fan. I haven’t read any of Tolkien’s works and only have seen the Peter Jackson’s film trilogy once. I am, however, a Sherlock fan and originally elected not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in silent protest of it delaying the third season of Sherlock for an entire year. A friend invited me to a free screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug two days before its premiere, so I quickly caught up with the previous installment and read up on the film’s production online to prepare for its sequel. So this is going to be a review of the first film too. Let’s crack on…

My biggest problem with An Unexpected Journey is it launched its story retrospectively from Lord of the Ringsstarting with an older Bilbo Baggins telling the story to Frodo Baggins just before the events of The Fellowship of the RingThe Hobbit is not a prequel, it was written first before Lord of the Rings. It’s the true “part one” and yet it’s being framed as if it was a prequel to a great trilogy. This effectively echoes throughout the two Hobbit films as I am constantly being reminded about what’s to come. It’s distracting and by association makes The Hobbit seem less important.

Whether it’s Peter Jackson’s completist approach to expand the story or a corporate decision from the financiers to cash in on the success of the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is too long.  Often the story takes big steps backwards before being able to move forwards. It took forty minutes in the first film to start the journey and for someone who is not coming in sheer excited fandom, the slow pace is a lot of work on the audience’s part.

This is the typical pattern of one story movement in The Hobbit series thus far: 1) An imminent crisis or problem faces our heroes  2) Backstory is given in context to our heroes to the crisis. 3) The group tries to persevere and just as they fail or are about to give up, Bilbo does something that solves the problem  4) The group rejoice about the pure spirit of Hobbits and how impressive it is, cue flute music 5) A new problem comes along. Repeat.

Throughout both films, I had an internal monologue that kept screaming, “Let’s go! Hurry up!”, as if I was watching someone play a video game at snail’s pace. Die-hard LOTR fans will say that I am wrong about this but it’s why those DVD extended editions exist. Even though we’ll never know, Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea of directing the The Hobbit as two films sounds better. But this is just something I’ll have to accept. That’s the extent of my issues because when The Desolation of Smaug is good, it is very good.

Martin Freeman is a great Bilbo Baggins. The role requires exactly what Freeman plays best: acting quizzical from being one mental step ahead of everybody but always feels socially awkward about pointing out the obvious. Freeman’s reactions are entertaining and overall I find Bilbo a much more engaging protagonist than Frodo; he gets things done.

Smaug the dragon is frightening. Benedict Cumberbatch injects an immense sense of threat and power into Smaug’s voice, combined with its gigantic size, creates a memorable movie villain for the ages. It was bone-chilling watching the dragon slither around in the dark, with the imminent feeling he can squash Bilbo at any moment. Hands down, the Smaug scene is the best scene in all five films so far.

The beautiful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is a welcome addition to the series. Despite of being Jackson’s creation, she is a well-rounded strong female character that adds a love story. Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas is neither her or there for me. He isn’t an interesting character and seems to exist for his fighting abilities. Both elf characters are unnecessary filler material, but make entertaining filler no less. The dwarves are more fleshed out in this installment, which is an improvement because there was nothing to distinct them apart from each other in the first film.

Another minor quibble I had was the decision of using CGI in the action scenes. The orcs are computer-generated and the action sequences look digitally layered and video game-like. They’re well designed and are well-paced action scenes. But the LOTR trilogy previously established a real world look with its use of  New Zealand landscapes and creature make-up, and I wonder why Peter Jackson decided to go with more CGI as it doesn’t match with the previous films.

Peter Jackson’s deep love for the material is felt throughout both films and this perhaps is the film’s most winning quality. After all, Jackson’s completist approach isn’t self-indulgent or obnoxious, but out of a genuine love, awe and wonder for Middle Earth and its mythology. It’s infectious and is probably the primary reason I was able to sit through the long running time.

Overall, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug more than An Unexpected Journey. There is less setup to be done, hence the story moves along much faster. And for that reason alone, I think I will enjoy There and Back Again even more when things begin to wrap up.

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The World’s End by Edgar Wright

The World’s End by Edgar Wright

Five friends who reunite in an attempt to top their epic pub crawl from 20 years earlier unwittingly become humankind’s only hope for survival.

The Cornetto trilogy is a trilogy in name only. As far as I can see, the chief link between Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz and The World’s End is Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright and the fact that they are all stories about friendships between men. There’s nothing in The World’s End‘s story or theme that forces any finality or closure.

The core story between the five friends dealing with being forty was compelling and heartfelt. It’s nice seeing Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan play bigger roles in a commercial film and a fresh turn seeing Nick Frost playing the most competent character. The story with Simon Pegg’s Gary King is genuinely the darkest and saddest territory these films have ever ventured.

When the genre stuff kicks in, it was quite the surprise. The first time around I couldn’t tell how exactly the core story about the five friends fit with the sci-fi genre elements that cut in the middle. The film simply operates too much on a thematic level. For example, the fact that the twelve bars they visit are all thematically named after points in the story seemed more on the nose than ironical. The humor itself is less blatant than in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz; it’s more akin to laughing at the thematic irony of the situation rather than laughing at funny zingers. It is all very clever stuff, but it may take multiple viewings to really digest its heavy ideas along with its spectacle. I had to watch it again before writing this review.

Now admittedly, out of all the three films, I knew least about the films that The World’s End is referencing. Audiences familiar with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter films will probably have a different experience than me. But at the end of day, science fiction or not, watching five men on a pub crawl just isn’t as cinematic as a zombie outbreak or a midday gun battle.

The fight choreography, although they are drunk bar fights, have a nice martial arts rhythm to them. It seemingly is an aesthetic Wright has brought from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. They were visually theatrical and matched the film’s ironic tone.

I take issue with the epilogue as the story ended on a rather cold morbid note that seemed mean to its characters. If only The World’s End was the second installment in the Cornetto trilogy, it would have relieved itself from following up on the more comical light-hearted expectations from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, I probably would have liked it more as the darker second installment of the trilogy. That said, it’s dense and the film probably will grow on me with subsequent viewings.