Monday, January 13, 2014

Thoughts on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Howdy all! I'm here to do the obvious, which I will state anyway because it's my blog and I can type whatever I darned well please, give my opinions on the latest Tolkien movie, The Desolation of Smaug.
Just to briefly encapsulate my thoughts on the prior movie, An Unexpected Journey, I loved it so dearly that after I saw it I had no choice but to get a copy on DVD ASAP, all the while humming Misty Mountains at work while getting strange looks from my coworkers. While it was long, I felt enthralled and enjoyed myself from beginning to end. As much as I like the LOTR movies earlier, I just couldn't immerse myself the same way that I could with Unexpected Journey. It went out of its way to make the world blossom, taking its time to discuss culture, history, everything that made the books shine. Jackson actually makes a noticeable attempt to make the dwarves seem like individuals, whereas in the original book... well, let's face it, only Thorin and Balin had any real identity. Here Jackson strives to make each character distinct and I felt myself discovering small features about some of the dwarves who before were just names on a checklist.

Jackson makes some changes that were actually badly needed. While the original story was clearly for children with some deeper elements, there were always a few parts that bothered me that Jackson fixes. For example, the part with the trolls: In the book Bilbo gets his furry feet caught, and the dwarves wonder what's taking him so bloody long and blunder one by one, unarmed and without any contingency plans, right into the dreaded potato sack ambush. Cripes, that was embarrassing. In the movie though, Kili and Fili see that stuff is going poorly, go get the rest of their gang and bust in with swords flashing, axes slashing, and hammers bashing. Words were unable to express the joy I felt when they were actually darned well prepared for conflict and could hold their own when pressed. Joy! I know that many people felt that the movie was dreadfully long, and I can understand how if you aren't a big fan you'll have problems. I can't help myself though, I loved the crap out of it. I love world building and Journey did that wonderfully.
Okay, so much for brief, but whatever. Onto the next movie!

If Unexpected Journey was a slow start that steadily gained momentum like a steam engine, then Desolation of Smaug is like a roller coaster with someone ignoring safety precautions on speed parameters. I can't think of any part that not only was saturated with atmosphere but also had enough action to choke a greedy python. Right from the start we get some things that Jackson changes that actually improve the overall story and make much more sense. When reading The Hobbit I never really asked why Gandalf was bopping around with a squad of dwarves when he had no real personal stake in it, or even how he hooked up with them in the first place. Or why they reeeally needed a burglar. Journey deduces a very clever motivation, that being that Gandalf suspects that an evil power is rising and that a dragon like Smaug would be a pretty unfair advantage if war were to erupt. Thus he gives aid to Thorin, the rightful heir to Erebor to defeat Smaug while also helping to stabilize the dwarf politics. This actually very reasonably reflects Gandalf's style of getting things done: Getting people motivated, moving people around to where they need to be, and setting very well thought out goals.

We first see how Gandalf gets the whole ball rolling, which was pretty slick, and then we jump to the company trying to dodge massive orcs, slavering wargs, and the were-bear Bjorn. I was SO happy that they included Bjorn in this incarnation, although I'm still not sure if I agree with some of the changes they made to him. Ah well. Anyway, after dealing with him it's off to Mirkwood, one of the things I found coolest in the book. Truth be told it's a lot shorter than I thought it'd be given how big the forest is, but boy do they give you the impression of how darned spooky it is. The place is gloomy, deceptive, and confusing. Y'know, just like the DMV.
But when the spiders show up... Good grief! Peter Jackson has a most unnerving talent for making large insects and arachnids attacking people in dark places terrifying. It seems he still hasn't lost his touch from the gorge scene in his remake of King Kong. If you have arachnophobia, I recommend plugging your ears and covering your eyes. And not having sadistic friends with unusually hairy hands nearby.

Jackson does a magnificent job of keeping the narrative flowing smoothly and efficiently while keeping your attention super-glued to the screen. This is why I myself have very little problem with him making changes from the book, as it is often necessary to make changes and it works here wonderfully. When it looks like all is lost the elves actually swoop in to turn the spiders into arrow holders and the dwarves into Forced Guests. This is where we meet our elven amazon Tauriel, who absolutely kicks arse. *Happy sigh* It is cool seeing Tauriel and Legolas fight together, two lovely elven ladies beating up orcs! ;)
Before continuing here, I must confess I developed great affection for Kili and Fili. A pair of bros who are battle capable, young and enthusiastic. I absolutely loved when the Elves were frisking Fili and finding enough sharp pointy things to outfit a troop of paranoid boy scouts. I suspect part of Tauriel's character was to appeal to the female warrior demographic, and I shan't blame it in the least. At no point does she seem weak, incompetent or dumb. This lady could kick my tail without much trouble, which is awesome.

Personally I find the relationship between Tauriel and Kili to be quite cute and while I'm far from being an expert on the subject of love, I find it to be more believable than most I see. Anyway, back to the action. The scene where they escape from the elves and the orcs down the river is unbelievably fun and enjoyable. You've got orcs shooting nasty arrows and swinging blades, the dwarves grabbing weapons and punching, the elves jumping from barrel to barrel while launching arrows, everything you could wish to see from an action scene!

Going to Lake Town and bopping around inside was a surprising treat in just how well done it was. I could feel the cold radiating from the screen as I watched the shallow snow drifts, chilly water and fur-clad townspeople. I really didn't expect to be so taken in with the place! Bard isn't the captain of the watch here, but is still sufficiently hard core that I feel even the elf archers have to think twice. Bard really comes across as a shrewd, intelligent, crafty and capable dude just trying to keep his family fed and found myself really warming up to him. The Master and his toady are really good at seeming like greedy, uncaring and callous creeps just out for themselves. Insert democrat joke here.
Jackson continues to show his prowess in this film by making the simple acts of going into Bard's house seem energetic and fun. Now that's top of the line movie making!

Meanwhile Gandalf is tending to other matters, venturing forth into the dreaded fortress of Dol Goldur. Man, just say that out loud and tell me it doesn't sound spooky. Gandalf really shows how brave and capable he is by walking by himself into a place I'd hesitate venturing into with a platoon behind me. The confrontation he has with Necromancer being revealed as Sauron is delightfully epic, as it darned well should be, and I am SO happy Jackson decided to show us what was going on there. In the books the goings on there are only mentioned in passing and have little bearing on the rest of the story, despite how important it is. This is giving the in depth look at the source material and bringing the world to life that I love.

Anyway, the bulk of the company finally heads towards Lonely Mountain, ready to finally throw down. Kili, Fili, Bofur and Nori stay behind, on account of Kili coming down with a nasty case of Being Poisoned by Orc Arrow-itis. Nasty condition, what? Although this gives a pretty awesome plot of Azog's second in command, Bolg, who looks more intimidating that a 800 pound rabid boar, trying to finish off the dwarves still in Lake Town. Tauriel and Legolas swoop in and deliver some darned good action as they trade slashes with orcs. Did I mention there's good action in this movie? Tauriel then breaks a few tropes by being the one to rescue the guy she likes while needing little to no assistance and being in complete control of her situation. Dangit, why is it that I never have pretty women with bows rescuing me? Some guys get all the luck.

Meanwhile, after what I felt was an unnecessary delay for "The last light of Durin's Day," we get a change that makes a good bit of sense. What do they need Bilbo, the burglar for? In the original book it was basically to sneak into the mountain, swipe some swag, get his tail back and... well, that's about it. Just grab something, anything, shiny and report back. Here it is to find the Arkenstone, which is needed for Thorin to be recognized by the other dwarf kingdoms as the King Under the Mountain. This... makes a lot of sense. Perfect sense actually. Nice work writers!
Ah, but finally to the true climax: meeting the dreaded Smaug. I'm ecstatic to say that he meets any and all expectations I had. Holy crap, this giant lizard is more intimidating than asking a gorgeous lady out on a first date! Okay, maybe for me, but you get the idea. My gosh they deliver on making Smaug every bit as huge, monstrous and devastating as you could ever hope. I personally felt that the action with Smaug went on a bit too long, but it was by no means boring. I know a few people groaned at how it ended on a cliff-hanger, but I didn't mind that much myself. It was a GOOD cliff-hanger, can't deny that!
This is a nitpick, but through out the entire movie after the dwarves get captured I kept wondering when Thorin was going to get Orcrist back. I had an eye on that darned thing from beginning to end because I know Thorin gets to use it later. Unless that gets changed too. I hope not. Orcrist in this incarnation looks unbelievably bad-arse. The big forward weighted blade and the tang set into the bone handle, holy crap yeah... Gotta give props for all the weapons having a feel to them, reflecting the races that made them. Love it!

Overall, I bloody love Desolation of Smaug, and can't bloody wait for the next and last piece to come out. Considering how the last will have Smaug slain, The Battle of Five Armies and defeating Sauron at Dol Goldur, we're in for even bigger and better action, which is kind of a scary cool thought. I apologize that this review is a bit schizophrenic and poorly constructed, but it's late and I'm tired.

I hope that this has been an informative and entertaining review and that you all enjoyed it! Oh, and there are spoilers. Better late than never! ;)

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