Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Hobbit, Pt. II – The Desolation of Tolkien?

Another highly anticipated sequel has arrived in theaters. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug bowed last weekend just in time to satiate our Middle Earth jones. In December 2001 I saw Peter Jackson’s first Tolkien installment, LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring, and was completely hooked. The man had done it right: epic action set pieces, no holds barred production values and not one performance unworthy of the material. I knew then Jackson and New Line had the holiday box office sewn up for the next two years. Has the Middle Earth master done it again with his Hobbit trilogy? The answer is absolutely “Yes,” but with some caveats that diminish the shine of this otherwise brilliant cinematic experience.
Picking up where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left off, Jackson’s follow-up is a rambling journey to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim a treasure stolen by the dragon, Smaug. An adventure that takes us through a trippy forest infested with giant spiders, the Woodland Realm of the Elves, and the seemingly Russian-themed Lake-town before arriving at a grand hall overflowing with gold. Along the way, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) with his dozen dwarves encounter the shape-shifter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a bargeman of dubious familial history called Bard (Luke Evans) and the suspicious if likable Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry). Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is busying himself trying to discover who the Necromancer (?) is that is working to bring back some ancient darkness. (Hm, wonder who that is?) Bilbo keeps his precious new ring secret and it certainly comes in handy on more than one occasion, but is shocked by the sudden scrutiny of the Eye of Sauron. Sound like a convoluted story line? It is, and frankly this film does drag in places.
This picture’s only shortcoming is its shapeless nature. The Lord of the Rings films all had recognizable beginnings, middles and endings while still holding their respective places within that trilogy. This year’s excursion to Middle Earth, while action-packed and occasionally gripping is a ponderous saga that starts and three hours later stops. Perhaps it started in the right place and ended where it was most convenient to the trilogy, but it all felt deficient somehow.
I doubt I was alone in wondering by LOTR: The Return of the King how Sauron was able to covertly return from the grave. Much of the new material in these films seems geared towards answering that question. This is fine, even necessary perhaps; however Jackson and fellow scribes Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have gone above and beyond in expanding a 150 page children’s book into three, three hour films. Not only do Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) make appearances, two characters not in the book, a new non-Tolkien character has been introduced as well. Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elven character, exists because as Ms. Boyens put it: “She’s our redhead. We created her for that reason. To bring that energy into the film, that feminine energy. We believe it’s completely within the spirit of Tolkien.” Is it? I didn’t know J.R.R. had a thing for redheads. Well, padding a lean plot and patching conceptual holes is one thing, but is creating a whole new character truly respectful to a writer’s vision? Not to this reviewer.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in no way a bad movie. Peter Jackson’s grand vision of Middle Earth continues in the tradition he founded in 2001. This movie has everything, brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed action, eye-popping visuals, strong performances, a hero king, a wise wizard and a brave hobbit. There’s even a romance blossoming between Fili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel, which seems to ruffle Legolas’s flaxen hair. I liked this movie, even if the non-story and filler material is a drag in every sense. I recommend this film not only to Tolkien fans like myself but to moviegoers in general, it is first rate cinema.

December 17th, 2014 The Hobbit: There and Back Again will be released and so will end this trilogy. Will it be the end of Middle Earth on the big screen? J.R.R. Tolkien left a great wealth of material in his literary legacy; however word has it his heirs have refused to sell any further film rights. I fear that, even if they stick to their convictions, this most distinguished of all fantasy franchises may yet be tapped again. After all, in Hollywood, where there’s a market, there’s a way, and probably some legal loophole to be exploited. If a young Boba Fett can be the subject of his own film franchise, why not a young Gandalf? Or Thorin? Or even Tauriel, the completely created warrior princess? The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug dragged, and the franchise has begun to smell of dead horse – as in “flogging a…” – which is sad. Peter Jackson and New Line need to quit while their Tolkien adaptations are still respectable, it is time to take this franchise into the west, and film history.