Thursday, January 9, 2014

"The Desolation of Smaug" Is an Action-packed Improvement on the First "Hobbit" Film

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The first Hobbit film annoyed me a bit.  I ended up liking it for the most part, but it left me less than enthused about this new trilogy of films from The Lord of Rings director Peter Jackson.  It was mainly because it was even a trilogy to begin with... Since all of the footage was shot at once, I had very little hope that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug would be any different from the slow, frustrating first film.  Apparently a dragon and fan service can make a huge difference.  Smaug, the titular dragon, was worth the wait, and the appearance of Legolas (who does not show up in the book) is a welcome call-back to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  In fact, this film fits right in with that superior set of films.

The lengthening of the book into three films doesn't affect Smaug as much as it did in An Unexpected Journey because the introductions are finished.  My biggest complaint about the first film was the introduction of the dwarves.  There was singing, eating, general goofiness, and they even did the dishes.  I know all of that is in the book, but if there was a moment that could have been pared down, it was that one.  Thankfully, the songs and intros are done with, and the quest to reclaim the mountain home of the dwarves from the terrible dragon Smaug can take the spotlight.

Smaug is an imposing presence in the film.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice-work (he also did some of the physical stuff, as well, though I’m not sure how that translated to the screen…) is perfectly sinister as the dragon.  The visual effects are the most impressive aspect of the dragon.  You truly feel the scale of the beast as he threatens Bilbo and rampages through the mountain.  His appearance definitely kicked the franchise into gear.

The journey in Smaug brings the main characters into contact with some other new and familiar faces, too; some more welcome than others.  Beorn the Skinchanger was interesting (though his time felt a bit short).  Legolas's return felt like a gimmick to please fans of the previous trilogy, but it worked for me because the character brings some great action to the proceedings.  And Bard of Laketown offered some compelling complications to the story.  

Other characters are only so-so.  Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a new elf that is largely used to inject a love triangle with Legolas and one of the dwarves (I forget which one because of all the silly names, but it's the one that looks most like a human).  The character is not so bad, but the love story felt unnatural.  I understand the desire to add some romance to a very plain quest plot, but all of the other complications (the threatening emergence of Sauron, for one) are enough.  The beefing up of the Master of Laketown and his Grima Wormtongue-esque assistant was an unneeded conflict as well, but it does give Bard some more stuff to do, I suppose.  Maybe developments in the final installment of the trilogy will change my mind, but for right now, these two conflicts seemed to be nothing more than padding for the plot.

Aside from those two minor gripes, I loved this movie.  The visuals and the action won me over.  Devotees of the book might be upset, but the barrel escape (a rather boring moment in the book) is amazingly complex and fun in the film.  A sequence during the confrontation with Smaug was added, as well, but made the film much more exciting.  

There are two aspects concerning the visuals that I did not get to see: the high frame rate and 3D.  Honestly, I really want to see the frame rate just to see what it's like, but I was glad to miss out on the 3D.  A few scenes might have been cool to see, but for the most part, I think it would have been too dizzying to be enjoyable.  Director Peter Jackson likes to spin the camera around, which might have made me nauseous in 3D.  And the frantic action sequences would have been tough to follow had they been in 3D.

In short, The Desolation of Smaug is fine in standard format, just like the Lord of the Rings films.  Beautiful visuals, complex action, and a mythical quest are more than enough for this enjoyable film.  Plus, it leaves you desperately wanting to see the next installment.  Let's hope things just keep getting better.

The Desolation of Smaug gets a:

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