Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Dragon's Lair

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

In the taxonomy of movie monsters I keep in the back of my mind, the best dragons ever put on film are Vermithrax Pejorative from Dragonslayer, Maleficent at the end of Sleeping Beauty, and the dragon in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. There are others that I like quite a bit, including the Hungarian Horntail from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the lead beastie in Reign of Fire. We'll leave aside the notion that Godzilla is a dragon for the nonce. Most dragons these days trace their lineage to Vermithrax, who I think of as the Mother of Dragons even more than I think of Daenerys Targaryen in that role (Daenerys's dragons also trace their lineage to Vermithrax). Into this mix comes Smaug, the villain from The Hobbit who sits on a mountain of gold in his chambers beneath the Lonely Mountain. In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), the second installment of Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation, Smaug takes center stage as Moriarty to Bilbo's Holmes.

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

After a short prelude that details the first meeting of Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf the Grey, The Desolation of Smaug picks up right where the first film leaves off. Our merry company of adventurers is still on the run from the foul Azog the Defiler's orcs. They take shelter, briefly, in the home of Beorn, a skinchanger who can turn into a giant bear, before pressing on to the edge of Mirkwood. Gandalf urges the dwarfs and Bilbo to take the road through the forest, while he leaves them to investigate the sinister rumblings from the Necromancer at Dol Guldur. The path through Mirkwood is fraught with dangers, not least of which is the risk of becoming utterly lost. But there are dark things in the forest, too, and soon, the company is beset by a colony of giant spiders. Only Bilbo escapes and with the help of his magic ring, he frees his friends just in time for them to be captured by the elves of Mirkwood. The king of the Sylvan Realm, the elf lord Thranduil, harbors a grudge against the dwarfs, one that is reciprocated by Thorin. Thranduil leaves the dwarfs to rot in jail. Meanwhile, the elf maiden, Tauriel, strikes up a friendship with Kili, which raises the hackles of Legolas, who is is smitten with her. Bilbo, for his part, conceives of an escape, in which he puts his friends in barrels bound down the river for Laketown, resulting in a wild ride chased by the elves and by orcs alike. The company is smuggled to Laketown by Bard, who is viewed by the Master of Laketown as a troublemaker. Bard is the keeper of one of the black arrows that legend claims can kill the dragon, and he questions the wisdom of the dwarfs' quest. He knows the terrible wrath of the dragon. The Master, on the other hand, is wooed with the promise of riches flowing once again from the Lonely Mountain, and soon, our heroes are on the doorstep. Bilbo was hired as a burglar, and into the lair of the dragon he is sent, charged by Thorin to retrieve the Arkenstone, a blazing white gem that signifies Thorin's kingship. The dragon, for his part, has other ideas...

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Of the films Peter Jackson has made from J.R.R. Tolkien, this is the one that strays farthest from the source. It's also the one where accusations of "padding the length" ring truest, given that the material that the filmmakers have invented for themselves are nakedly the result of splitting The Hobbit into three films. Certainly, this film's two biggest action sequences--the barrel escape and the attempt to slay the dragon--seem longer than they need to be. I haven't minded Jackson's "more is more" approach to cinema in the past, but I think it does this film no favors. The best action scene in the film, in which dozens of giant spiders argue over the culinary disposition of the dwarfs, is the one in which the movie stays closest to the book. The improvisations the filmmakers perform on this scene are subtle and sensible. I particularly like how Bilbo is able to understand the spiders once he puts on the ring.

Evangeline Lilly in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The most controversial alteration to the text among Tolkien fans and scholars is the addition of the elf, Tauriel. Tauriel addresses a problem of representation. The book itself has no female characters in it, and accusations of it being a boys' adventure for a white male readership are true, even accounting for the time period in which it was written. Tauriel isn't the best of possible changes, though. Her storyline, in which she develops a romantic relationship with Kili, seems forced by the filmmakers, and results in action-movie elaborations on scenes that otherwise would be less frenetic--the barrel chase, for instance, and the infiltration of Laketown by Bolg and his orcs (which doesn't happen in the book). It also gives the filmmakers an excuse to bring Legolas into the story. For the most part, I think it's ill advised. At the risk of reviewing the film I would have made rather than the one that has been provided for me, I might have approached the story's gender disparity by genderswapping certain existing characters. The prime candidate for such a thing would be Thranduil, who is already played with a brittle queenie-ness by Lee Pace. Elf societies have already been shown to support matriarchies, so why not, eh? One further note on this score: there are lots of complaints about both the whiteness of this story and its subtle racism (not necessarily the same thing), so I was surprised to see as many non-white faces in the crowd scenes in Laketown as I did. The awareness of the filmmakers that these issues exist is laudable, I suppose, even if their solutions are less than satisfactory.

Martin Freeman, Ken Stott, Richard Armitage in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The other large alteration to the text is the dwarfs' attempt to slay the dragon. This is perhaps more forgivable because as a stand-alone film, this requires some sort of climax. This sequence involves luring Smaug into the forges beneath the mountain in order to drown him in molten gold. It also involves another of Jackson's frenetic action sequences and like most of his action sequences, this is storyboarded and animaticked within an inch of its life. These kinds of sequences remind me a bit of Rube Goldberg, with his unlikely contraptions.

Laketown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The action sequences in this film also remind me of videogames, an effect heightened by 3-D and the 48 frames per second film speed at the showing I attended. The 48 fps creates an airless hyper-realism that casts even "real" things into the valley of the uncanny, let alone this film's various digital environments. This is especially true of the scenes where Gandalf invades Dol Guldur to take the measure of The Necromancer. The design of these scenes is impeccable and given the grain and atmosphere of a lower resolution (to say nothing of film itself, which is a fond memory now), these scenes should have been loaded with menace and atmosphere. As it is, they seem like another environment through which to move an avatar. The process amplifies its artificiality. Also, like a lot of color designs in big budget effects movies, the "look" of this film occasionally seems like it was conceived by Thomas Kinkade. This effect is also amplified by the 48 fps process.

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

In spite of my griping, there are plenty of things in The Desolation of Smaug that I liked a lot. I loved the scene where Bilbo pokes his head above the autumnal canopy of Mirkwood. I think Luke Evans is a splendid Bard of Laketown. Just about all of the Laketown characters are pitch-perfect, though Stephen Fry occasionally devours the scenery as the Master of Laketown. The spiders. Although The previous trilogy set the bar high for giant spiders with Shelob, this film is in the same league, if only because there are LOTS of spiders here, and because they talk. These films are an arachnophobe's worst nightmare. The scenes between Bilbo and Smaug are pitch-perfect, too, when they stick to the text. Martin Freeman really comes into his own as Bilbo in this film, while Smaug's voice, provided by Benedict Cumberbatch,  is a deep velvety thunder. My partner, who is smitten with Cumberbatch's voice, calls this the "sexy dragon movie." I'm not quite that taken with it, but Cumberbatch is good in the part. Smaug is more Bond villain than movie monster, convinced of his invincibility and infinitely conceited. The fact that he talks raises him above many famed movie monsters. He has a personality. I wouldn't have thought it possible for a CGI dragon to sneer and make it count, but damned if Smaug doesn't manage it. The voice helps. Cumberbatch also voices The Necromancer, but his voice is so highly processes for that role that it doesn't really impart the sheer delight in villainy one gleans from listening to Smaug.Visually, Smaug is distinctive enough. He's another of the children of Vermithrax, but he's different enough that you could pick him out of a line-up. He's certainly a monster who should be seen on the largest screen available.

Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Ultimately, this is of a piece with Jackson's other Middle Earth films. Each of them is a mixed bag to one degree or another, which is frustrating beyond belief. What's good about them is really good. What's good about them demonstrates that behind the obnoxious fanboy sensibility that Jackson occasionally cultivates is a formidable cinematic intelligence. Jackson is capable of masterpieces--you can see it even in a convoluted mess like this one--but he only rarely approaches those rarefied heights on anything other than an inconsistent basis. What's bad about these films? Well, you can follow my reasoning here, I'm sure. The Desolation of Smaug stands out as the most infuriatingly inconsistent film in an inconsistent franchise.

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Chris Hewson said...

The biggest problem I have with the LOTR movies, and these Hobbit ones is by far the whitey whiteish whitebread whiteness of them all.

I also think it was a BIG mistake to not end this movie with Smaug's final battle and death, because he'll likely only be in the next film for about ten minutes before getting killed, since he's heading straight for Laketown, with intent for absolute annihilation, so there's no way I can see how the filmmakers will weasel their way out and keep him in movie three for another hour.

One thing that was much better than in the book was Bard. If memory serves me correctly, he's first introduced in the very chapter where he spoilers Smaug.

Jose Cruz said...

Even being someone who hasn't ready any of the books (but at least knowing that THE HOBBIT wasn't a trilogy), I thought it was pretty evident that a good chunk of the movie was padding. It did not have the linear, forward momentum that a stand-alone adventure would possess. The romantic angle stuck out especially bad. That had contrived Hollywood rewrite... well, written all over it.

Still, it was good enough fun. I really liked the scenes with Smaug (but again, a little too drawn out). They reminded me of the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum from the previous film. That's when the HOBBIT movies have been at their best, playing word games and having the characters bounce off each other.