Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug: More Middle-Earth magic

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense fantasy action violence and frightening images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.13.13

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way.

Yes, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas makes a vibrant return during this second chapter in director Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, under circumstances that will raise the eyebrows of J.R.R. Tolkien purists. No matter; It’s hard to complain when Jackson and co-scripters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro integrate this fan-favorite character with such verve.

As Thorin (Richard Armitage, right) explains what Bilbo (Martin Freeman, left) is to do,
once he gets inside the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, the little hobbit finally, truly realizes
the danger involved. How in the world will he be able to find a single magical gem, amid
a veritable mountain of treasure, without disturbing the ferocious dragon rumored to
sleep beneath all that gold?
We’ve not seen swash so well buckled since the 1987 adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

On the other hand, there’s nary a glimmer of the brooding, owl-eyed Gollum, not even a whispered “My precious” in the soundtrack. The gnarly, nasty little goblin is sorely missed, but — again — it’s hard to complain when his place has been taken by the largest, most impressive fire-breathing dragon ever brought to the big screen. (That would be Smaug.)

Jackson’s Tolkien films never do things in a small way, and that continues to be true here. You’ll once again be amazed by the size and scope of these many settings, whether the forest community of the Wood-elves, or the immense underground Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, deep within Lonely Mountain.

Production designer Dan Hennah continues to have a field day with details large and small, aided and abetted by visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri and the army of talented artists at Weta Digital. The finished work is seamless; it’s truly impossible to determine where physical set design leaves off, and the computer-enhanced magic takes over.

We truly live in an age of cinematic wonder, to see a book this vividly, imaginatively rich brought so successfully to the big screen.

Acting verisimilitude also plays a major role, of course, and Martin Freeman remains the pluperfect hobbit: His Bilbo Baggins experiences (endures?) one of the best character arcs in fantasy fiction. No longer frightened by his own shadow, Bilbo has found his courage but also carries an increasingly dangerous secret: the powerful golden ring that grants its wearer invisibility, while inexorably sucking the soul from that same owner.

Freeman’s Bilbo spends much of this story at war with himself: all too aware of the psychic damage he’s enduring, and yet forced — by increasingly dangerous circumstances — to don the ring again, and again, and again.

Alternatively, Freeman is equally precise with comic timing, as with Bilbo’s fiddly hands and suddenly stricken expression, having engineered a perfect getaway plan for his dwarf friends, when he realizes that he has no means of escape. Despite the scene’s tension, we can’t help but laugh. That’s clever writing, deft direction and subtle acting.

The back-story, then, for those who didn’t catch this train when it left the gate a year ago:

The peaceful and unassuming Bilbo has been assigned a task by the powerful (good) wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen): to help a gaggle of 13 dwarves, led by the regal-born Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), reclaim their ancestral home of Erebor, lost years ago to Forces Of Evil. The first film dealt with defining this quest, establishing Bilbo’s pecking order among these feisty and cantankerous dwarves, and eluding the murderous bands of nasty orcs and wolf-like wargs determined to kill our heroes.

Along the way, Bilbo had his mission blessed by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), a high priestess elf of Rivendell; he also encountered the crafty, murderous Gollum, and tricked the so-called “ring of power” away from him.

As this second film begins, Bilbo, Gandalf and their dwarf allies are bowed and beaten, but not broken; Lonely Mountain looms ahead. But the orcs are close behind, and the fastest path will take our heroes into the depths of Mirkwood — that really should be spelled “Murkwood” — a forest sickened by black magic and infested with some rather large and horrific eight-legged web-spinners. Lots of them.

This is not a film for arachnophobes. And I’ve no doubt that this sequence owes its disturbing creepiness quotient to del Toro, famed for his own ooky-spooky movies such as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage and Mimic.

Great quests in fantasy fiction never unfold neatly, of course; Bilbo and his friends encounter all sorts of, ah, distractions, starting with some decidedly unfriendly wood elves, led by their arrogant and imperious ruler, Thranduil (Lee Pace, perhaps remembered from TV’s Pushing Daisies). Thranduil also happens to be Legolas’ father, and the younger elf clearly is more sympathetic to the wisdom of respecting all of Middle Earth’s denizens, whether elf, human or dwarf.

This sentiment is shared by the equally progressive Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf warrior who is captain of Thranduil’s Silvan Guard. Circumstances allow her to grow fond of Kili (Aidan Turner), far more charming than most of his dwarf brethren; this dynamic will influence events to come.

Additional characters include the ferocious “skin changer” Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), and a seemingly humble barge owner named Bard (Luke Evans), who runs a sort of resistance-style underground against the pompous Master (Stephen Fry) of their community of Lake-town.

Hovering over all else, particularly in Bilbo’s mind, is the knowledge that Erebor’s destruction came at the clawed talons and fire-laden breath of Smaug, the massive dragon rumored to slumber deep within Lonely Mountain. Obtaining Thorin’s birthright will involve stealing a gem from beneath Smaug’s nose, assuming the dragon still exists.

Knowing as we do that Benedict Cumberbatch has lent his voice to Smaug, we realize full well that the little hobbit will indeed run afoul of this dread dragon. And that, too, is an awesome encounter, both terrifying and darkly amusing, because Tolkien made Smaug a truly sensational emissary of evil. This is a highly intelligent and quite loquacious dragon, cheerfully willing to taunt its next victim before crushing, immolating or devouring him. Or her.

Granted, there’s a certain haphazard quality to all these adventures, as if our poor heroes have been placed on the chessboard merely to tumble from one ghastly predicament to the next. But this has been the format of “great quests” ever since Homer exposed Odysseus to one grim peril after another, during his 10-year journey home to Ithaca. We thrill at these escapades not merely for their own sake — and Jackson and editor Jabez Olssen certainly knows their way around a tautly choreographed melee — but also to see how our protagonists endure, change and (hopefully) mature.

Tolkien fans who recall Orlando Bloom’s acrobatics during the climactic battles in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King will be pleased to learn that Jackson and stunt coordinator Glenn Boswell have upped their game here, with several furious battles between Legolas and Tauriel on one side, and scores of orcs on the other. One must be impressed by the multitude of inventive death-by-arrow fates suffered by the latter, not to mention the nimble footwork required by a battle that rages within, atop and along the banks of a raging river.

Indeed, my only complaint is that, in some ways, this is the film’s showiest battle; later skirmishes, even those involving Smaug, aren’t nearly as exciting.

McKellen continues to infuse Gandalf with a captivating blend of intelligence, mystery and unexpected recklessness. It’s important to view Gandalf, despite his obvious wisdom, as somebody who doesn’t necessarily inspire trust; McKellen nails that duality.

Armitage is properly commanding as the weary Thorin, who despairs over the increasing futility of their quest, and wonders if he’ll ever regain his kingdom. Turner is dashing as the suave Kili, while Pace is the height of callous indifference as the xenophobic Thranduil.

Fry’s casting is something of a mistake: a stunt that pulls us out of the story, because the famed Renaissance actor/author really just plays an oafish, cartoonish version of himself.

Lilly’s presence as the bad-ass Tauriel has been somewhat controversial, since this fabricated character doesn’t exist in Tolkien’s books. Jackson and his fellow scribes have been careful, until this point, to confine their adaptive hands to material published in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the voluminous notes of Middle Earth activities that Tolkien left behind.

Tauriel is none of these, it’s true, but Lilly — immortalized as Kate, on TV’s Lost — integrates this elf warrior quite organically into the story. She certainly fits in — one imagines that Galadriel might have been this rash and headstrong, a few centuries younger — and it’s not difficult to imagine Tauriel’s activities here taking place “between chapters,” so to speak, in Tolkien’s book.

Howard Shore delivers another richly symphonic and impressively complex score, faithfully adding fresh themes for each of the series’ expanding roster of characters. Some of these leitmotifs have become iconic, as with Bilbo’s chirpy hobbit anthem, or the far more sinister theme heard each time the dire ring of power makes its presence known.

Ultimately, this middle installment of The Hobbit offers fans precisely what they expect and adore from Jackson and his collaborators. And this chapter is about 10 minutes leaner than its 169-minute predecessor, which is a good thing; better still, we don’t have to suffer through any dwarf songs.

I also recommend spending the extra scratch for a 3-D showing, on as large a screen as possible, in order to fully savor Andrew Lesnie’s sumptuous cinematography. And some amusing, in-your-face battle moments.

It’ll be hard to wait another full year for the finale...

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