It's no secret that I am a fan of all things Tolkien. The world of Middle Earth is what I escape to in my head during frustrating subway moments, stressful nights at work, and awkward bar conversations. For better or worse, this vision has been heavily influenced by Peter Jackson for the last decade. While time has softened fandom's perception of Jackson's original trilogy, last year's prequel The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey drew a decidedly mixed response. Prequels are notoriously difficult to pull off with any degree of success (George Lucas could tell you that, if his mouth wasn't stuffed with Beluga caviar and the burnt bits of a California Condor omelette). In order to be effective, any prequel has to straddle a thin and shifting line between pleasing both dedicated and casual fans, and The Hobbit seemed to fail on both accounts (though I enjoyed it very much.)
So far, the response to The Desolation of Smaug has been somewhat more positive. To get right to it, it is a better film than its predecessor in every technical sense, though it is decidedly not the book-to-screen adaptation that most of us wanted. Many of the complaints about the first film have been addressed here. The main improvement is the pacing -- there was quite a bit of griping about all the walking-and-talking in the first film, and The Desolation of Smaug has quite a bit more action. A checklist of fantasy elements are thrown at us here -- there is archery, swordplay, dark forests, giant spiders, creepy caves, thrilling escapes, shapeshifters, magic, and, yes, a dragon. If this seems expected and obvious, I want to gently remind the reader that in 1937 audiences were not yet oversaturated with these things.
That doesn't excuse lazy filmmaking today, though, and Jackson & Co do their best to show that this is the fantasy universe, and all others are its descendents (the collective gasp of fans of Conan's adventures in the the Hyborean age is audible, but relax, I don't think Robert E. Howard would mind). Howard Shore's score once again lends a sense of epic scope to the story as well as setting the emotional climate in the film's quieter moments. Jackson keeps things moving at a brisker pace and seems almost apologetic about how irritated people were with the last film. Something that he continues to do here that he didn't do in Lord of the Rings is give the villains some personality. There is an interesting effect that I enjoyed where Bilbo puts on the ring and is able to understand what the spiders say to each other -- arguably either scarier or goofier than Shelob's appearance in Return of the King, depending on if you like more-or-less sentience in your monsters, but I think it's tonally appropriate for this story.
In fact, the issue of tone is itself another problem many have had with these films so far. Many have complained about the silliness in An Unexpected Journey, and those that were bothered by Radagast's ridiculous rabbit sled or the fact that the Goblin King seemed to have been based on Harvey Fierstein will appreciate that this is a more focused film. However, I feel that in reigning itself in it actually lost some of its charm this time around. The Hobbit was a book with lots of levity, and despite its mixed reviews I actually really appreciated the lightness of the first film.
The main performers are all on point here, and save the film in moments that might otherwise fall flat. I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said about the great Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf. This is one of the world's greatest actors playing one of fiction's greatest characters, and never before has any actor so successfully embodied the essence of someone from the page (okay, maybe Pam Ferris as The Trunchbull or Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch). Roald Dahl's villainesses notwithstanding, Sir Ian is perfection.
Richard Armitage may not look like a dwarf, but he certainly acts like one. As the stubborn, nasty, greedy, obsessed, honor-bound and determined Thorin Oakenshield, Armitage actually succeeds in making Thorin somewhat sexy (though not in the cheap obvious way of Kili) and I believe him as a leader that other dwarves would follow, despite a pitiful beard (wouldn't it be great if Thorin was actually a woman, and we just didn't realize it?)
The bulk of the heavy lifting comes from Martin Freeman. I praised his take on Bilbo in my review last year, and he continues to surprise and impress me. I maintain that Bilbo Baggins is a very difficult role to play well, and Freeman manages to make us love and cheer for him in a way that Elijah Wood never quite managed as Frodo. This Bilbo is a little less whiny than Tolkien's, but considering that in the end we'll have been listening to him for nine hours, I'm okay with the change.
I'm actually okay with most of the changes here. There are many. Purists will be infuriated. I actually think that Jackson's team (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), being such huge Tolkien fans themselves, have a very keen understanding of the professor's world and have always applied a deft touch to these screenplays, seeming to intuitively know when to intervene and when to leave things alone. In this film, as the previous five, many lines of dialogue, when appropriate, are lifted straight from the original source. Let's be honest and not call Tolkien a character builder. He was a world builder. Most of the alterations have been made for the sake of fleshing out the characters while leaving the spirit of the original story intact, and for the most part this succeeds.
The most obvious change is the addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, Lost), captain of the Mirkwood guard. To no one's surprise, most of the people griping about her presence are men. Obviously, this story is in desperate need of a strong female presence, and even more desperately in need of a likeable elf. Tauriel is both, and most importantly, her presence seems natural and not at all gratuitous. I enjoyed all of her moments on screen, particularly set off against Thranduil (the oddly sexy Lee Pace), king of Mirkwood and scumbag father of Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who still somehow manages to simultaneously both underact and overact, this time in full Kabuki makeup). Jackson's elves are more priggish and uptight than Tolkien's, and it's nice to actually enjoy one of them (for all those interested -- all three of you -- her name means something like "Daughter of the Forest").
The dwarves are more likeable than the elves. Though unfortunately still mostly stuck as comic relief and background characters, Jackson does a somewhat better job at humanizing (well, dwarfizing) them here. The standout is Balin (Ken Stott). As an older and more mature presence in Thorin's company, he is calmer and more reasonable than the rest, and one of the only people that Thorin seems to listen to. The ability to get to know Balin here helps put a face to the later tragedy of Moria, though I'm not sure if casual fans will realize that he was the one Gimli wanted the Fellowship to meet.
With all this being said, the success of the film for me was largely contingent on how well Weta Workshop did with the titular Smaug. There have been surprisingly few truly effective movie dragons, and this was the main thing I was nervous about heading into the theater -- particularly after some questionable special effects in the last film.
Thankfully, Smaug is fantastic. I think he is Weta's best work (arguably eclipsed by Gollum) and he doesn't look fake or ridiculous at all. Living internet meme Benedict Cumberbatch does a wonderful job at using his voice to capture Smaug's cunning, vanity, and malice, and I was genuinely nervous for Bilbo in their scenes together.
However, while Smaug may be the film's greatest technical achievement, his scenes may also be Jackson's biggest directorial misstep. Let me be clear -- I think Peter Jackson is a phenomenal director, and the only one that I would ever trust with Middle Earth and projects of this scope (sorry Guillermo del Toro, but no.) Unfortunately, I think he slightly bungled this sequence.
For me, there are three important and character-defining choices in Bilbo's story. The first is when he decides to leave the house in the first place -- trust me, I know how difficult that decision is in my own life, especially this time of year. The second, his decision to spare Gollum's life despite the fact that the ring is already working its negative influence over him -- this is indicative of a surprising strength of character. The third and final moment is dealing with his fear and his desire to turn back on his walk down to Smaug's lair -- to me this is Bilbo's most conscious of the three choices, the other two being somewhat reactive spur of the moment decisions, and this is the one that shows how much he has grown over the course of the journey. I feel like Jackson should have paused here to create a "moment", and instead chose to play it for more comedic effect, and I think it was a slight misstep.
Bilbo's actual encounter with Smaug, one of the best sequences in all of fantasy literature, was well done, but I'm less certain about what came next. Without spoiling anything, I will say that I understand the need to give both Smaug and the dwarves more stuff to actually do, and I like the idea of it, but not all of it was successful.
I'm walking away from this experience not entirely sure of how I felt about it. I love this story -- this is the story that made me love stories, and the reason I chose fiction as a career path. I love that it is being introduced to new audiences. But, once again, it is in no way The Hobbit as fans of Tolkien's books know and love it -- and that is okay, because there is much to love about Jackson's vision of Middle Earth. I think in order to appreciate and enjoy these films, it is absolutely necessary to let go of any attachment to The Hobbit as a book and instead think of these as Lord of the Rings prequels. There is a lot of invented and supplemental material here, and most of it is surprisingly effective -- with so much going on I don't mind the much-criticized decision to split this into a trilogy, albeit one that feels very different than the last one. Those of you that hated An Unexpected Journey may find an unexpected joy this time around. Those like myself that actually liked the lighter tone of that film might have more mixed responses here. I understand that it seems like I'm making a contradictory argument -- I'm defending the films as Lord of the Rings prequels rather than a screen adaption of The Hobbit itself, yet also saying that they are at their best when they do feel like the novel -- what can I say, fans of things are stupid and illogical. Regardless, this film is a technical masterpiece and a real triumph of cinema, and one that will be in constant rotation (and annoying the hell out of my future children) for the rest of my life. Rating: B