Thursday, December 12, 2013

This 'Hobbit' opts for action

Desolation of Smaug improves on Unexpected Journey, especially when it comes to adventure.
First, a confession: I am not a devotee of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I'd be lying if said that I cared deeply about the fate of Bilbo Baggins, who in the latest movie from director Peter Jackson must confront a fire-breathing dragon known as Smaug.

Yes, I know. Smaug sounds like a particularly virulent form of air pollution, which leads me to my second point. I'm constantly tripping over the names that grow like weeds in Tolkien's mythologically oriented stories: Knowing that Gandalf -- the wizard played by Ian McKellen -- wants to put Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on the throne of Erebor could be fuel enough to light the fires of interest in some, but leaves me in search of a truly compelling rooting interest.

Fans of the novel -- which has been divided into three movies by Jackson -- already know that the climactic battle with Smaug will take place deep inside Lonely Mountain, where Smaug guards the treasure that once belonged to an exiled dwarf population.

The same fans probably won't care that this epic confrontation -- we know it's epic because Jackson amplifies the sound to booming levels -- tends toward unreasonable lengthiness. They will, I'm sure, experience the thrills that are meant to be derived from a dark spectacle of a movie built around an evil dragon that talks -- voice by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Smaug may have been given the movie's best dialogue, but the spoken word isn't really the point here.

Desolation of Smaug boasts more action than Jackson's first installment, An Unexpected Journey. Early reviews rightly have pointed out that Jackson picks up the pace, although he still allows the movie to linger for two hours and 40 minutes. And, yes, some of the battles tend to rage on longer than is necessary.

Did I mention that Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is expected to play a crucial role in reclaiming the dwarf homeland, and that he's accompanied on his journey by 12 dwarfs?

Before Gandalf heads off on his own, he finds shelter for his companions at the home of Beorn (Mikael Persbrand), a man who can become a bear through a process known as skin-changing. I leave it to more erudite pop cultural scholars to determine whether the shape-shifting Beorn influenced the writers of True Blood, which also features characters who can transform themselves into animals.

I'm told that those who demand unwavering fealty to Tolkien's novel may find reason for lamentation. Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a character from the Lord of the Rings, joins this edition. A female character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) also has been added to a mix that definitely favors those who are hirsute and hardy.

Mostly, though, the cast consists of stalwart dwarfs, repulsive Orcs and representatives of other Tolkienesque species. The assorted adventures include a nifty battle with giant spiders. When the dwarves escape from a forest, they're propelled down a roiling river in barrels, perhaps the movie's action high point.

I saw this edition in 3-D projected at the normal rate of 24 frames per second, not at the hyper-vivid 48 frames-per-second that marked the first installment. For me, this made for an improved and much-less-distracting viewing experience. And Jackson and his special effects team certainly know how to employ CGI for maximum impact.

The peripherals -- Howard Shore's score, the haunted landscapes of Jackson's native New Zealand and the elaborately constructed sets -- are all up to snuff.

Jackson, by the way, ends the movie with a terrific cliff-hanger. We'll have to wait until December of 2014 for the conclusion of a story that serves as prequel to The Lord of the Rings saga. I won't be counting the days, but Jackson's fans, who undoubtedly will turn this edition into a box-office bonanza, probably will leave the theater in an expectant mood.

Maybe between now and next December I'll become more Hobbit proficient. Has anyone got a copy of Elvish for Travelers they can loan me?

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Good review Robert. While it's a bit better than the first, it's not by that much. Maybe just by a hair or two.