Film - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

With Battle of the Five Armies out this week on DVD, Ren Zelen revisited the extended DVD release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in preparation, but was it worth Tolkien about or did it dragon a bit...

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Fran Walsh (screenplay), Philippa Boyens (screenplay)

Starring: Martin Freeman, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Aidan Turner, Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott etc… etc…

I should hold my hand up at the outset and admit – I am no Tolkien devotee. Literature academic though I am, I had merely a passing acquaintance with The Hobbit at school and watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy chiefly so I could avoid reading the novels (and don’t you tell me you’ve never used a movie adaptation that way yourselves). I can imagine the Tolkien fanatics are already choking apoplectically on their lembas, so I shall go further to assert that I did not rush out to see the second Hobbit movie The Desolation of Smaug on first release, in fact, I had not seen it until asked to review this ‘Extended’ DVD version released this week. Yes, I said, the ‘Extended’ version, and my first thought was, ‘Of course! Turning one book of The Hobbit into three films was not ‘extending’ it nearly enough’ and I can be confident that this is one point that the Tolkien disciples, MGM executives and I can agree on…sort of… if I wasn’t actually being sarcastic. With this new DVD release, as well as the 2 disks containing the movie, there are 3 further disks of ‘bonus material’ comprising 9 hours of behind the scenes footage: deleted scenes, rehearsals, green-screen work, set-building, examination of source material, make-up transformations, art-work, music, technical and CGI information and many interviews with the director, writers, crew, cast, their families, friends, guests, pets and any small furry animals that briefly ran through the frame. Work behind the scenes is examined with a meticulous attention to detail, such as the movies themselves display. You can’t complain that they haven’t, erm…’extended’ themselves to their fullest extent.

(I shall also stick my neck out further and say, since I’m in a persnickety mood – that, despite the distracting gorgeousness of Tolkien’s movie Elves, the usual English word to describe Elves is ‘Elfin’ not ‘Elven’ which was obsolete until revived by Tolkien to describe his fictitious race, and has since been appropriated by the D&D and other such fanciful crowds. I’m sure that Elvis – a.k.a. ‘the King’- is also gratified that Tolkien’s pointy-eared lovelies speak ‘Elvish’ – so they speak, if you like, ‘The King’s English’...Ahem... Now, call me a facetious pedant and be assured that I really, really, don’t care).

So, like it or not, what you shall be treated to here, is an ACTUAL OBJECTIVE VIEWPOINT regarding The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as a piece of movie-making and mass entertainment, so ‘fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night’. According to aficionados of the book, this movie tampers heinously with the original storyline anyway and to compound its sin, invents the delightful auburn-haired, ninja-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and her love triangle with Legolas (Orlando Bloom) who did not appear in the original Hobbit book, and the small-but-perfectly-formed dwarf charmer Kili (Aidan Turner). These inclusions had the Tolkienites spluttering in rage, which is always fun to behold. Jackson and his collaborators can plausibly claim that they’ve based The Desolation of Smaug on Tolkien’s work, but not exclusively on Tolkien’s original text. They have exhaustively plundered every footnote, appendix or parenthetical reference in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that might shed some light on the events of The Hobbit, leading to the interpolation of all sorts of characters and incidents and making it more like an improvisational riff on Tolkien’sHobbit than a faithful adaptation.

Despite the brilliant casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, I found the first Hobbit movie An Unexpected Journey dull and pedestrian, relying overly on weak, homely humour and picturesque shots of Middle-Earth life (of real and enhanced New Zealand, not Tolkien’s actual West Midlands). One problem with that first film was that it followed too closely in the footsteps of the Fellowship films, so it was difficult to share Bilbo’s awe at entering Rivendell, given that we’d already been there 11 years earlier. So, when the second movie arrived on my doorstep, I’d been dreading another three hours of chanting, wassailing dwarves patiently observed by a puzzled Bilbo Baggins.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug however, is a little less long and a lot less boring. In fact, it’s a much more satisfying film. It briskly dispenses with those early events - you can almost feel Peter Jackson’s relief at having new worlds in which to play. The forest domain of the Silvan Elves has a grim beauty edged with menace. The kingdom of Mirkwood gives the actor Lee Pace as the gimlet-eyed Thranduil, the chance to get deliriously swaggering in an elevated, elk-horned throne, spikey crown and lushly extravagant outfits – “Thranduil dresses to impress” as the somewhat more reticent, understated Pace affirms. Thranduil’s conversations with his son Legolas and his treatment of a prisoner orc, reveals more about what the Elves are about than any of the combat scenes. (An interesting relationship, as Pace is two years younger than Bloom. Conceiving a son before he himself was born is clearly why he’s an ‘Elven’ King – obviously ‘potentate’ material).

Lake-town and Erebor are contrasting but equally stunning showcases of production design. The former, grimy, foggy and Dickensian, stinking of fish oil and tar, has an unusually earthy tone for Middle-earth. Like Edoras in The Two Towers, it was largely built for real and bristles with detail. Luke Evans remains nicely Welsh as smuggler-hero Bard The Bowman. Kingdom-under-the-mountain, Erebor, on the other hand, is the kind of insane location that could only exist on a mega-computer - its centrepiece is a stash of wealth so huge it would send Richard Branson into a faint. As it is, it gives Richard Armitage as Thorin, king of the Dwarves, a chance to get thespian. Duplicitous, avaricious, scheming and heroic by turns, his facade of nobility begins to crumble, revealing baser motives beneath.

In this movie, Bilbo’s character develops subtlety, partly because he keeps putting on that naughty Ring to evade Orcs, spiders, Elves and Dragons, and it has stranger effect on him each time. In the final third of the movie Bilbo enters inside the lost Dwarf kingdom of Erebor and comes face to face with Smaug the Magnificent and Tyrannical. Smaug as we all know, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch as a blazing-eyed, smokey-voiced, spiky-headed “serpent of the north”. There have been many screen dragons but few with a personality (although you might have liked Sean Connery in Dragonheart). The greedy dragon has usurped Erebor with all of its Dwarf treasure. (His"desolation" refers to the countryside he has laid waste rather than to any Dragonish feelings of remorse or melancholy). Smaug is a well-executed creation - vain, arrogant and irascible as he uses his wyrm-tongue to draw Bilbo out. (I tried hard to block out any mental image of Watson being cross-examined by a testy, pipe-smoking Sherlock). The dragon’s insight and malice are more chilling than his physical impressiveness, particularly when he discerns the dwarves’ agenda and then, after their plan fails, vindictively threatens his revenge.

Overall, the second movie of the Hobbit trilogy does much to recompense for the dullness of the first. Orlando Bloom goes through a variety of head-spinning acrobatic feats which conclude with stabbing various monsters in the head or faultlessly shooting arrows into them. Evangeline Lilly gets to do some fun Lara Croftish baddie-slaughtering, and one critic memorably asserted that the film was “one arrow-in-the-head away from turning into The Raid”. The action sequences are fun, certainly, but they are not ‘active’ in the sense of advancing the story. The story is just waiting while a few more orcs get dispatched or Dwarves go white-water-barrelling in New Zealand. The soundtrack can also be intrusive, blatantly instructing us how to feel. Close to the outset the film splits into two – occasionally intercutting between the Dwarves’ adventures and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who’s gone off to poke his staff at Orcs in the ruins of Dol Guldur, as is his wont. His storyline never really engages because it mostly amounts to a wizard yelling at an amorphous, Rorschach ink-blot wafting around a gloomy castle. I wished it was more Gothic, but that’s just me. Having said that, it was all great Saturday morning matinee fun.

Last October, New Zealand changed labour laws and included special tax breaks for Hollywood studios MGM and New Line Cinema to ensure that the Hobbit films would be made in their country. Now, locals working on the films are hired as contractors not employees. (Unions had wanted actors and production workers to be hired as full-fledged employees on union contracts). New Zealand has received a huge boost to its tourism and film-making industries fromThe Lord of the Rings trilogy and long may it do so. I however, will visit New Zealand just to gaze at its landscape and vistas, not as a LOTR pilgrimage. For that I would I go back to visit the West Midlands where Tolkien came from and, co-incidentally, where I came from too.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2014 All rights reserved.

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