Friday, January 17, 2014

'A Distillation of Smug' or, The Hobbit reviewed part two

Yes, I went to the second Hobbit movie. I think it’s a better movie than the first, but overall I don’t think this will stick in my memory for long.

I’ve struggled with the Hobbit movies so far as an adaptation. I’m usually tolerant of adaptations, and I definitely subscribe to the argument that you can’t film a book – but it’s not for want of trying to read a movie like a book if you’re a fan of the original text. After twenty minutes I finally told myself to stop looking for where I’d put my theoretical cuts on a book-fan edit and just went with the movie; which is just as well by this installment’s end, which very definitely goes its own way as well, but not altogether successfully.

I do have an issue with the additions Jackson, Walsh and Boyens have set upon the original story line. Which isn’t to say I dislike them all – the character of Tauriel is welcome in my book, and even her love triangle between Legolas and Kili is ‘okay’; no, the problem is that with this amour comes that beloved trope of modern scriptwriters, the ‘character arc’. When every major character has to grow within a story, even with a three-movie arrangement as here, the seams will be tested as more characters are included. And it’s not just characters – some key installments form the novel are given short shrift here, too – Beorn’s back story is now reliant on the stitched-on dreaded Azog subplot, which itself is now tied to the greatly expanded and mostly made-up Necromancer B-plot. From where I sit now it seems likely to me that Beorn will be little more than a ‘surprise’ cameo in the third movie’s Battle, while Laketown’s inhabitants deserved more than to be mute observers in a battle of wills between Luke Pace’s not-Aragorn Bard (the likenesses aren’t as close as some feared, but I do suspect the writers were at pains to make a distinction anyway) and Stephen Fry’s set-gnawing Master – a role which is written OTT anyway, but still – who are these people and why should we worry that they are in peril at the end of the movie? Or is that what stranding Kili, Fili, Oin and Bofur (each given welcome character expansion, I do admit) there is for? For a community who have as much of a claim to the Lonely Mountain and a prophecy surrounding it, I think we could have been better served than the shenanigans inside Erebor and its giant golden dwarf statue.

Everything is so tied together in The Desolation of Smaug that the narrative has a lot of boxes to tick. Whereas Tolkein simply had to get Bilbo and the Dwarves through Mirkwood and Laketown without Gandalf and while building the Company’s trust in their Thief as Thorin’s treasure-sickness grows, in the movie we’ve the Necromancer story, tragic pasts for Bard and Beorn, a character arc for Tauriel and Legolas (and likely Thranduil, who while distant and veal in the book gets lumbered with facial scarring and class issues as well on the screen). In all, this part of the story should be building up the plot, not creating a more complicated story with more mouths to feed – I was relieved when I heard the Hobbit was to be a trilogy, thinking it would enable the story to breathe, particularly with the added B-story; unfortunately I still think it’s choking, and unlike The Lord of the Rings I’m not feeling as disposed to redressing the balance with extended editions.

The rest, I’m happy to say, is an improvement. The casting is still great; with Pace, Evans and Lilly all offering nuanced performances to new or almost-new characters – even Mikael Persbrand’s Beorn is an interesting interpretation, although he is somewhat one-note with the scene he’s given. The CGI is largely good where it counts – Smaug is indeed magnificent, although there are some ropey composite shots here and there; overall the design work is superb, although as before I could have happily sacrificed time in Laketown for actual detail on its significance. I decided to see DOS in 2D this time, and don’t regret it – I think nothing’s been lost, and while the high frame rate still makes sets look more like sets and action look more like video than film, watching the film without the added gimmickry was a more pleasing experience. It’s not an uncommon criticism or snark online that the Hobbit trilogy has done for Tolkien movies what George Lucas’ prequel trilogies did for Star Wars, offering an overly-fussy, somewhat gaudy and not-entirely satisfactory return to a much-loved original. Two movies through the trilogy now I’m actually feeling the same way as I did after Attack of the Clones, a little underwhelmed, hopeful for the last installment, but half-expecting it to fail to deliver. It’s a shame, but I’m not sorry I’ve seen this after all.

Plus, it's given me a few ideas about what I want to do next model-wise...

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