Monday, December 2, 2013

The Journey Builds, But Is Not Resolved, In The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The Good: Decent acting, Special effects, Moments of character
The Bad: Very much a transition movie
The Basics: Suffering from all the expected problems of a middle act, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is entertaining, but holds up less well on its own.

In the history of film and plays there have been few things more difficult to pull off successfully than a middle act. Middle acts within a work have the responsibility of moving the plot along and bringing characters to a situation that will require the final act to resolve. The benefit of the middle act is that it can usually move unencumbered by character establishment. As a result, middle acts can be great for character development, but on the plot front there is little in the way of resolution and some people dislike middle acts because – in order for the plot and character development to actually occur, the sense of conflict usually reaches its peak in the middle act. That usually makes middle acts darker and more moody than the initial and final acts.

In terms of trilogies, the middle film usually bears a responsibility that is tough for viewers to reconcile. Many times, they lack the initial spark of the first film in the series and the viewer does not get the elation of resolution that the final film brings. In my mind, the most successful middle act films have been limited to The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) and The Dark Knight (reviewed here!). Unfortunately for fans of Peter Jackson’s interpretations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings (reviewed here!), The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is not going to break that tradition.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug picks up where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (reviewed here!) left off as the prequel story of Bilbo Baggins’s journey with the dwarves that made him an outsider among the Hobbits of the Shire. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is, foremost, not a tight film; the movie meanders with side stories that flesh out the various characters and the setting of Middle Earth. But, given how characters like Legolas pop up in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug without feeling absolutely essential to the main storyline and how Smaug would have been sufficiently villainous without the extensive backstory Peter Jackson includes in the film (courtesy of other volumes Tolkien wrote), the film feels more like an exploration of a fantastic setting rather than a tight character journey that is pushed by the strength of Bilbo Baggins, the menace of Smaug or the failings of Thorin Oakenshield (though all those are factors in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug).

Following the attack on the Dwarves and Bilbo, the assemblage regroups by fleeing into the residence of a skinchanger (a man who can turn into a giant bear), who hates the orcs more than he hates the dwarves. With Gandalf heading out on his own, the Dwarves and Bilbo enter Mirkwood Forest. There, they encounter giant spiders and Bilbo is instrumental in saving the dwarves from their webs and bites. The elves of Mirkwood surround the Dwarves and capture them. Bilbo helps the Dwarves escape the elves and gets them closer to the Lonely Mountain, where Thorin intends to reclaim the Dwarven homeland. After the barrel ride downstream, the fellowship arrives at the human village of Lake-town. There, the humans warm to the Dwarves as they have been menaced by Smaug once they are exposed and their shifty leader sees an opportunity to usurp the threat.

Thorin calls upon Bilbo to make good on the contract he has with him and Bilbo is sent into the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo enters Smaug’s lair and there he encounters the dragon, setting into motion the events that push Middle Earth toward a war.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug does a decent job of foreshadowing the fatal flaw of Thorin Oakenshield. While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey painted Thorin as the obvious hero of the prequel Trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug starts to insinuate that Thorin is not an honorable Dwarf and that his motives for getting into the Lonely Mountain and reclaiming the dwarven kingdom is not based on a noble intent.

The film also does a good job of making Bilbo Baggins seem more morally ambiguous than some of the other Middle Earth films – especially the prior film. Baggins was hired as a thief and while he does several heroic things in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, he illustrates an aptitude for escape and light-fingered thievery. In fact, in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug Bilbo Baggins’s actions actually bring surprising destruction at the breath of Smaug. If Thorin’s anger and greed are foreshadowed, it is Bilbo who goes a long way to instigate the incidents that bring those defects to the surface.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is entertaining and it illustrates well the range of both Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage. While fans may geek out over the return to the franchise of Orlando Bloom whose career seems to have it its high with The Lord Of The Rings (reviewed here!) and the addition of Evangeline Lilly from Lost (reviewed here!), the real story for The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug comes from Freeman and Armitage. Richard Armitage does a good job of taking a pretty monolithic character of Thorin Oakenshield and adding layers to him. While many of those layers come from written lines, it is Armitage’s performance, his bearing that sells the underlying emotions of the character. Armitage emotes with a fire in his eyes that actually resonates and sells some of the lines that do not quite resonate.

Martin Freeman might well be one of the best comic actors of our time. In The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, he pushes the range of what he can do. He’s been sidekick in Sherlock and an able supporting comedic presence in films like this year’s The World’s End (reviewed here!). As Bilbo Baggins he manages to present a more serious character who is still fun to watch and engaging. In other words, despite moments of goofy body language, Freeman holds his own as a serious and viable character who is fearless in the face of the virtual dragon. Freeman plays Bilbo with a straight face and a sense of moral ambiguity that fits the character perfectly, all without hinting at being the same actor who played any of the other roles he has! Freeman is a perfect chameleon actor in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug and that sells the reality of the film wonderfully. One never feels like they are watching Martin Freeman; like Ian McKellen (who is all Gandalf all the time he is on screen), Freeman completely embodies his character in the real and virtual sets of Middle Earth.

But, ultimately, even at nearly three hours (one struggles to guess what Peter Jackson will put back into the film for the inevitable Extended Edition), The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug feels like it is just getting started when it reaches its climax. Like most middle act films, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug leaves one wanting more and feeling like they are dependent upon the final act to make a true judgment on how much they enjoyed this film on its own.

For other works with Lee Pace, please check out my reviews of:
Breaking Dawn, Part II
When In Rome
Pushing Daisies - Season 1


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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