Sunday, December 15, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Review - Travis' Expert Tolkein Nerd Take

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Richard Armitage, and Aidan Turner
Synopsis: Picking up right after the events of the first movie, Bilbo and the Dwarves make their way to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim Thorin's throne. 

Consider yourself warned, some spoilers are ahead. Read at your own risk.

Let me introduce myself; my name is Travis, and I’m a Tolkien nerd. With nearly 40 books about/written by/relating to-Tolkien on my bookshelf, I’m that guy who at one point opted to find and learn the differences between Quenya and Sindarin, the two primary Elvish languages created by Tolkien in his Middle Earth. Every year, I read something Tolkien-related, whether it’s my dozenth time through the trilogy or a quick jaunt through the Children of Húrin, so I’ve spent some time geeking out to this man’s creation.

With that being said, my anticipation for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was a killer, rising to near fanboy giddiness a mere hours before. While many people didn’t quite like the first installment, mostly due to the addition of non-Hobbit texts, I absolutely loved it. See, at the end of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien added a number of appendices to help fill out the story so people didn’t have to go back and read a number of other texts. Included is a timeline of major events, including the time Gandalf entirely disappears in The Hobbit. Because that’s what Gandalf does. In the middle of another epic leg of the dwarves’ quest to the Lonely Mountain, Gandalf disappears, and we never know what happens. Peter Jackson still held the rights to use the appendices, so he took it upon himself to mix in some of the missing story lines for The Hobbit. The plus sides? One, more action is included as Gandalf met with the White Council and did some major Sauron butt-kicking in Dol Guldur. And two, Peter Jackson could turn two movies into three.

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. The feeling of the movie was outstanding. Ringing in just shy of three hours, I didn’t even feel the need to look at my watch. Jackson keeps everyone entertained with an incredible escape via wine barrels, an eye-catching display of Legolas’ physical ability, and some creeptastic moments in Mirkwood. Smaug the dragon looked so powerful and so real. He was just as witty as in the book and just as evil.

Some of the best scenes foreshadowed Jackson’s previous endeavor, a touching moment in Mirkwood Forest where Bilbo brutally and ungraciously murders an infant spider simply because it was too close to his precious ring. While this was a departure from the book, I felt it adequately conveyed the power the ring holds over its bearer. In the book we never truly know who the necromancer is, however we find out via the appendices and the trilogy that it’s Sauron. Jackson could actually put that moment into this film, and it came across brilliantly as a visually-stunning fight scene between Gandalf and the flaming eye himself. It truly captures the epic-ness of what’s going on in the world.

However, here is where the problem lies. The Hobbit, the book, is not epic. It is a story told by Bilbo the hobbit as he is swept away on an adventure with a bunch of dwarves. They do a lot of talking, walking, singing, and eating. Occasionally there’s a sticky situation they have to remove themselves from, but not like Jackson made them to be. If you reimagine the movie without the band of orcs constantly chasing the group, then

you have a better feel of the book. In fact, I feel Jackson wanted so much more action that he cut out some great set-up scenes that are central and important to the mythology. The scene for Beorn in the movie was a fraction, a shadow, of what the book displayed. All we discover is that Beorn doesn’t like dwarves, but houses them, feeds them, and gives them horses to make it to Mirkwood. That’s it. And speaking of Mirkwood, while we got a wonderfully creepy glimpse of the spiders, Jackson really failed to show Bilbo’s cunningness, not simply physically, but linguistically and psychologically as well. He’s not merely able to outmaneuver the spiders, but also outtalk and outthink them.

Anyone can search for Tauriel in The Hobbit and find enough people who are angry and venting about the inclusion of a female elf in a major role. I didn’t necessarily mind her character, but felt it was trite. Jackson mentioned that the book is very male-centric, which it is, and it was necessary to include a female. I’m fine with this, but Jackson made her nothing more than a catalyst for a love interest. Tolkien included Eowyn in the trilogy not as a love interest, but as a force of feminine nature all herself. In fact, all love scenes are reserved for the appendices, where we discover about Arwen and Aragorn. So sure, there needs to be a female character who isn’t the beautifully frightening Galadriel, but why reduce her to a love interest who can shoot an arrow and heal?

See, the issue here is far more than Jackson’s inclusion of a ridiculous number of orcs- chasing-dwarves scenes or elf maidens good at fighting or an awkward love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel, and Kili. The issue is that Jackson could have included all of these in a way that didn’t change the story, but he didn’t. In fact, Jackson changed a considerable chunk of the story solely to get to the point where Tauriel and Kili have some time together to bond. I don’t want to detail out every little thing that Jackson changed for this to occur, but it ends up splitting the group into pieces. That wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t being chased all of the time. The elves wouldn’t have left Mirkwood if they weren’t being chased. In Jackson’s effort to make The Hobbit a more engaging story that feels like the trilogy, he removed the original feeling and heart of the book to make it more palatable for people who haven’t read it.

Despite my criticisms, the movie was total eye candy. Though there were some totally unnecessary CG mishaps (I’m looking at you, GoPro shots in the rapids), it was a feast to watch. It was equal parts adventure and fun, with engaging performances by the entire troupe. The movie definitely scratches that “I want to see more of Middle Earth” itch. Concessions in the transference of books to movies are a necessity, but this time I feel Peter Jackson went a bit too far. 

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