Friday, December 13, 2013

Into the Fire: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG


Peter Jackson returns yet again to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastical Middle Earth with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three films devoted to the comparatively slim novel that precedes The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Some find that reason enough to dislike the film, but why get hung up on what it isn’t and miss the chance to luxuriate in what it is? To dismiss the expansion of Tolkien’s smaller story is to miss the rich detail Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro find. This is filmmaking as worldbuilding, a creation of a space that’s fun to visit with new characters and sights around every corner. When we wander into the home of a giant man who is also sometimes a bear, there is a sense of discovery and history. It feels somehow right that such a person would exist in this world, and as he sadly admits to being the last of his species, there’s a real sense of loss. We could follow him out into his own film and probably find something interesting. We won’t, but the sense of a fully realized world is impressive and goes a long way to selling the movie’s colorful adventure plotting.

When last we saw our Hobbit friend Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), he was with the once and future dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves on a journey to enter the Lonely Mountain and reclaim their home and their gold from Smaug, a powerful dragon. They’re continuing their quest here, getting into one scrape after another, each only a danger for as long as the plot requires (and sometimes longer) until the next danger pops up. Here there be giant spiders, packs of angry orcs, aloof wood-elves, and, of course, one large fire-breathing dragon. He stretches across the entire screen that only captures his full wingspan in wide shots. (The beast is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, words rumbling out with booming augmented bass.) Expert spectacle, the film is filled with elaborate action sequences overflowing with visual gags. In one early scene, an elf shoots two orcs with one arrow. Later, a barrel pops up out of roaring rapids and rolls over baddies on the shore, Rube Goldberg serendipity aiding our heroes.

Also helping (and sometimes threatening) our heroes are two elves – one, Orlando Bloom, a familiar face from The Lord of the Rings, the other, Evangeline Lilly, added to give the film a gentle wispy subplot about a dwarf who has a crush on her and maybe, just maybe, vice versa. Together they happen to form a reason to have a few more action sequences. One, a tight, claustrophobic nighttime fight in a tiny house, is a nice break from the sweeping New Zealand vistas and cavernous caves. Speaking of subplots, there’s much to do about a dilapidated lake town where the dwarves find help from a human (Luke Evans) who, it’s quickly apparent, has made a habit of defying the orders of the town’s grumpy, selfish ruler (Stephen Fry). Between the elves and the lake town, the quickly sketched politics and history of this fantasy world is a pleasure. Each new location we step into feels fully formed before we got there, and has the surety that it will continue long after we leave.

There’s always something. Compared to The Lord of the Rings end-of-Middle-Earth stakes, this Hobbit, much like the last Hobbit, is lighter fare, bouncier and zippier. But the mythic resonance of these displaced dwarves and archetypical character types – the strong one, the silly one, and smitten one, the brave one – give the whole picture a fine kick. Freeman’s Bilbo is especially sympathetic, in over his head, but trying so very hard to stay brave and get braver. Our heroes are so very likable, we want to see them succeed. And the sights Jackson shows us are so wonderful and varied, it’s clear Middle Earth is a place worth fighting for. At one point Bilbo sits atop a tree, hundreds of butterflies taking wing around him as he looks across a sun-dappled skyline, a shimmering lake in the distance and, further on, a misty mountain. I’d go there and back again any day.

Rarely diverting its attention from the one-thing-after-another journey of the dwarves, Jackson occasionally drifts away with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). I’m not sure what sidetrack he’s wandering down, but that he at one point appears to be fighting a big black cloud tells you everything you need to know about just how seriously to take this. That is to say, enough to feel it, but not so much you can't smile at sillier touches, sometimes both at once. It’s a grand sweeping adventure built out of mythic components, a sense of its own history, and ripe B-movie fantasy. I had to smile when the king of the wood elves (Lee Pace) shows up wearing a crown made out of branches. It just makes sense. Best approached by responding to the surface pulpy fantasy and letting the big emotion underneath grow and bubble, The Desolation of Smaug is all about creating a world, giving space to get lost in it, and allowing plenty of time to do so.

This is epic, light-hearted fantasy as bustling adventure. Jackson’s a sharp enough visual filmmaker to give us movie pleasures of the highest order. A big highlight is that dragon Scrooge McDuck-ing it up in a pile of gold, slowly revealed in his enormity through coy editing. But even simple visual moments, like a shot that finds a worried little girl in the foreground, unaware of the orcs prowling the rooftops behind her, silhouetted in the background, is a great punch of imagery, simple and true. This may be a film that paints in broad strokes, but the surface details are colored in beautifully. It actually delivers the blockbuster exhilaration, the immense pleasures of expansive spectacle, so many films promise, but so few deliver. Jackson, like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron, knows how to build gigantic special effects and cohesive worlds into something that carries real weight and lots of fun.

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