Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Last year I attempted to describe the depth of my fandom for The Lord of the Rings films during my review of An Unexpected Journey. I bring this up now because I really care about films set in Peter Jackson's LOTR universe. If you see my "List" section above, you'll see that the original trilogy are some of my all-time favorite films. While I definitely enjoyed the first film as my review indicated, I felt that it would certainly improve in the subsequent installments of the trilogy. With the marketing campaign for The Desolation of Smaug focusing heavily on the titular dragon and the promise of a more action-packed experience, I had pretty high expectations for this movie going into the screening.

Having narrowly escaped Azog the Defiler (the pale orc from the last film) and still on their way to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, Bilbo Baggins and company are forced to brave the treacherous paths of Mirkwood. Gandalf, being drawn to the seemingly abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, promises to meet up with the company at the gates of Erebor, though he warns them not to enter the mountain without him. Frustrated at this apparent abandonment, Bilbo and the dwarves are overcome by the forest's enchantments, leading them in circles and right into a frightening encounter with several massive arachnids. They narrowly escape the spidery hoard only to be taken captive by the king of Mirkwood, even as an army of orcs surround the fortress intent on finishing the vengeful job Azog began...

It might seem like I'm giving away a large portion of the plot, but honestly this only encapsulates the first twenty minutes of the nearly three hour long film. This is truly an action-packed spectacle that deepens mysteries introduced from the first film while introducing even more intriguing sub-plots and intricacies. Peter Jackson seems to have saved the best material for these final two installments, as The Desolation of Smaug is a marked improvement over An Unexpected Journey (which I still enjoyed quite a bit). As I suspected last time, each story is setting up an elaborate domino pattern that will either pay out in next year's conclusion or in the Lord of the Rings films we know and love.

As I hinted at in my marginal plot summary, there is a scene in this film with dozens of massive spiders. For those with arachnophobia (like my wife, Lara), it may be a little unpleasant. She said it was like her nightmares were coming to life, which is certainly a compliment to the realistic visual effects by Weta. The effects across the board have been upgraded in this film and all of the beasts depicted here (we'll get to the big one later) are very convincing. Having said that, at times the 3D in this film does detract from the seamless integration of the effects. Though this isn't a problem unique to this film, for smoother quality I still think it's best to see it in a traditional 2D format if possible.

The scale of this film is much larger than last time, even approaching the scope of the Lord of the Rings films at certain points. That said, this Hobbit trilogy (so far) just isn't quite as epic or as strong as those films. The only thing that disappoints me going into these movies is the constant comparison to the incomparable greatness of the Lord of the Rings. It's a shadow that seems endless, so the fact that it doesn't quite match up is more of a testament to the mastery of the prior trilogy than the weaknesses of the Hobbit. Truly, its almost an unfair comparison since The Hobbit isn't the same thing as The Lord of the Rings, so I can allow myself to judge it for what it is. This one is definitely more of a serious film than last year's An Unexpected Journey, which is surely an improvement for most LOTR fans.

No matter what some people might say about this film, there is one thing that everyone should be able to agree on - Smaug. The titular dragon had so much build-up and so little exposure that expectations were through the roof for his inevitable appearance in this film. As Bilbo states in the trailer, Smaug is "stupendous". Voiced (and motioned) by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug might be the coolest character in the entire Tolkien universe. Certainly in this incarnation, he's unequivocally the greatest dragon ever put to film. Cumberbatch's voice is absolutely perfect for the beast, and his facial expressions are captured alarmingly well. He's sinister, devilishly clever, and terrifying in his enormity. I've read that he embodies the evil tendencies of every race in Middle Earth, and it's totally true. If there is one reason to see this film, it's Smaug.

Overall, this is quite an achievement. There isn't a moment in this film where I wasn't enjoying what I was seeing, and the ending is truly spectacular (though it might frustrate some viewers with its abruptness). The stage is set for next year's There and Back Again, and after seeing this movie I cannot wait! I wholeheartedly recommend this film to anyone who even slightly enjoyed the last one, and if I can swing it, I'll definitely be seeing this again in theaters. It's tempting to give this movie four stars, but I'll settle for an extraordinarily strong three and a half stars.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

*Leave a comment and let me know what you thought of the latest film in The Hobbit trilogy!