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Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Continuing with my reposting of previous Hobbit film reviews...

Last year I said of An Unexpected Journey that it was two movies: an adaptation of J. R.R. Tolkien’s book and a prequel to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This instalment is definitely more of the latter than the former – in fact, there are times when it’s clear that Jackson wants to skip passed the elements of Tolkien’s story and get to his own ideas ASAP.



Beorn for example, is practically a Big Lipped Alligator Moment, so random and superfluous is his presence. Exorcised completely is Gandalf’s trickery in getting all the dwarfs inside the safety of the house – instead, the film jumps straight to Mirkwood and the next big action sequence.

There are fights in Mirkwood, fights in Laketown, fights in the Lonely Mountain. By the time the climax with Smaug came, I was too exhausted by all the action to really process any of it. What’s missing is that sense of intimacy, which might sound like an oxymoron in an “epic” film, but then I don’t really think that The Hobbit was ever meant to be an epic anyway – at its core it’s essentially a children’s fairytale. That doesn’t mean it has to be childish or immature, but I’m not sure that making everything as big and grand and massive as possible was really what this material called for.

Plus, I’ve never been a big fan of CGI battles. The sequence down the river was beautifully choreographed, but there’s always a disconnect between you and the characters when you can tell everything's been choreographed. By the time the elves start too-fluidly leaping from tree to tree and firing perfect shots at larger-than-life orcs – well, you know it’s not actually happening and there’s no real danger involved.

And ironically it’s always the small moments that have the most resonance: Bilbo climbing to the canopy of Mirkwood and disturbing a cloud of blue butterflies, Thorin and the other dwarfs’ reverent reaction to being back inside Erebor, Bard’s interactions with his family – there should have been more of these little character moments to off-set all the endless action.

***

Then there’s Tauriel. And like all pre-emptive fandom wank, it turns out that the fuss and panic she generated doesn’t amount to much anyway.


I generally believe in Evangeline Lilly’s statement that there needs to be a feminine presence in films like these, but I’m also not one who demands female representation when the story doesn’t call for it (for instance, I thought Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins was a bit superfluous and Kate in the BBC's Robin Hood was an utter disaster). So the important thing to recognise about Tauriel is that she is integral to the story, at least the one that the film crafts for her. Thematically she represents the unity and empathy that has to exist between the races if they’re ever to stand a chance against Sauron, and from a narrative standpoint it’s her presence that drives several key plot-points, namely the galvanisation of the Elves and Kili’s recovery in Laketown (both of which I’m sure will have further significance in the final film).

Important events occur as a direct result of her agency. That’s the crucial aspect of her character, and by doing so she can be compared nicely with Black Widow from The Avengers, another female character who was initially dismissed as “just the token chick” by commentators who showed a complete disregard for how her presence and actions drove key narrative points.

Is there a love triangle? Not really, at least not one that Tauriel is interested in being in. Having read Evangeline’s interview in which she stipulated that her condition in taking the part was not to be embroiled in a love triangle, only for the studio to veto her after a year’s worth of filming, I’m going to assume that it was Legolas’s crush on Tauriel that was the late addition, for that seems much more tacked on than the Tauriel/Kili interactions.

And despite the innuendoes and misty-eyes between her and Kili, there’s still room to assume that their interest in each other is one of fascination and comradeship rather than attraction. It’s like the screenplay has tried to recapture Gimli’s adoration for Galadriel along with a dash of the Aragorn/Arwen romanticism, leading to a rapport that feels understated and surprisingly sweet. And I think that if it had been any other dwarf Tauriel had these interactions with (like say, the one with the starfish-shaped facial hair) instead of the hot Aidan Turner one, people would not be so quick to assume that this is a tacked-on love story instead of a narrative precursor to the Legolas/Gimli friendship.

In short, Tauriel’s key purpose in the film is to speak against the isolationist policies that Thranduil espouses, reminding Legolas (and the audience) that communities which cut themselves off from the world are both irresponsible and dangerous. Best of all, it’s not wholly born out of her concern for Kili, but also her basic common sense: long before she meets the dwarfs she’s challenging Thranduil’s decisions and telling him that if they’re to get rid of the spiders they have to attack them at their source and not simply push them back beyond their borders. Rest assured, most of her screen-time is spent ass-kicking.

***
 
But my personal high-point would have to be Bard the Bowman and Laketown. This was always my favourite part of the story, and everything was spot-on in regards to how I’d imagined it all in my head. Luke Evans may have been a tad too young for the role, not to mention a dead ringer for Orlando Bloom (I get the feeling that they wanted to cast another heart-throb), but they went ahead with making him as dirty and grizzled as possible, so I guess it evened out.


Laketown was wonderful, perhaps my favourite set-piece of any Middle-Earth location. The “underbelly” of canals, the spy-network, the lop-sided rooftops, the crossings and walkways and boats and floes of ice in the water – it was all beautifully rendered, and it struck me while watching that Peter Jackson is often much better at capturing grim and low-brow atmospheres than the beauty and loftiness of the Elvish kingdoms. It had a rather Slavic feel in regards to the carvings and architecture that was on display, and I noticed more than a few non-white faces in the crowd when Thorin and Bard had their confrontation in front of the Master’s house (sure it wasn’t much, but the acknowledgement of Laketown as a trading district was definitely there).

***

Thanks to Memetic Mutation I was unable to take Lee Pace as Thranduil even remotely seriously (thanks, internet) and the inclusion of Beorn and Radagast seemed somewhat irrelevant. Smaug was great and Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice so distorted that I thankfully wasn’t able to recognise it as him, though – as I said before – by the time the film got to Erebor I was already feeling somewhat burnt out by all the preceding excitement. The fact is that there is so much going on that Bilbo himself is rather lost in the shuffle, and it’s jarring to look back and think that he was supposed to be the protagonist.

I just can't take him seriously at this stage.

As for everything else – it was fine, I guess. It all felt more Jackson than Tolkien, especially with the access padding that resulted in a rather unnecessary Gandalf subplot and endless scenes of Legolas and Tauriel fighting orcs in Laketown. The way in which the film closes (which is the first time there’s ever been a cliff-hanger to one of these films without any sense of closure) leaves me rather bewildered as to what exactly the third film will encompass: presumably lots of destruction and not much else. The story, for all intents and purposes, is over – all that remains is resolution. And like I said way back when the trilogy was announced, I really have no idea why three films were necessary to achieve that.

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