The Hobbit….Take 2 or 2.0
Another year, and another Hobbit movie has come to remind us why we love Middle Earth so damn much. Which is great, because this is one hell of a fun ride and The Two Towers it is not. I am at times torn over what to think of the film. And while ultimately I will need to see the third installment to decide my final opinion of this film, that doesn’t mean that I’m about to let this one sit by the wayside and not review it until the third one comes out next year. For me there’s a lot to love, a little to wonder about, and just a smidge that makes me sit back and go, “really?” So on with the show.
See this movie….on a giant screen…IMAX if you can. As with the other 4 movies, the shots are breathtaking, the scenery gorgeous, and Peter Jackson’s attention to detail unreal. I’ve always enjoyed how he doesn’t just show you New Zealand in all its glory masquerading as Middle Earth. He shows it in such a way that you could really believe that you were watching this take place in some otherworldly realm. The surroundings are such a part of the story and fit so well that at times it’s very hard to believe that CG didn’t create the wondrous landscapes displayed before us. The setting is as much a part of the stories as the actors and it is something that deserves to be watched on the biggest screen possible.
The actors very much continue to inhabit their characters rather that just perform them on screen, but as with the first one, with a cast so large there are those that get shortchanged, more so for the dwarves in this one that the last one (which is saying something). Little more than half of them seem to speak more than one sentence, and the bulk of the dwarf screen time appears to be split between Thorin, Kili, Balin, and Dwalin, with just a sprinkling of Fili and Bofur. Oin gets a bit of a promotion in that he actually gets something to do this time around, but as it was I’d had to look up which one he was once I got home because I don’t recall his name being mentioned at any time. The others are relegated to once again having single lines, background group speaking, and generally crazy hairstyles in a vain attempt to keep them memorable as they do little more than fill a space in the company. It’s a difficult conundrum when dealing with thirteen dwarfs who even in the book only had a couple standout members, though Peter Jackson does try to remedy this somewhat with some changes to the story (more on that bit later). Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen continue their awesome streak, and Richard Armitage gives great depth to Thorin Oakenshield as we see his character go from semi-brooding dick to caring leader to greedy asshole. It’s great seeing Orlando Bloom crop up as Legolas once more (who at this point if I see him in a movie in normal clothes it just seems wrong), and the inclusion of Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, Thranduil’s Captain of the Guard, makes for some fun fight scenes and some….interesting twists (again, more on that bit later).
Then there’s Benedict Cumberbatch. Holy fuck. The more I see this guy the more I fucking love him. Giving voice to both Smaug and The Necromancer, he brings those characters frighteningly to life just as Andy Serkis did with Gollum. He’s actually managed to gain entry into that rare group of actors for which if they’re in a movie, even if it looks terrible, I will watch it at least once because I’m willing to bet that even if the movie sucks balls said actor will not, making it worth a watch. He’s a talent to behold, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. But “what of the story?” you may ask, well…
Overall, I think this movie succeeds in one area that felt a bit neglected in the first movie…Fun. We get some during the scenes at Bag End and a hint at Rivendell, but the rest of it was pretty dour. In this installment we have fun little moments throughout the movie, mostly thanks to Bilbo, but the best in my opinion is courtesy of Bombur and a barrel. This is also one of the rare instances where most of the dwarves (not all, but most) get to contribute with a gag at some point but it feels natural, not like a rotating dial of “your turn to be funny,” which is great. Despite the movie’s fast pace, and the dire circumstances they often find themselves in, it helps keep the movie a fun adventure and gives Freeman a chance to use the stunned look of resignation and bemusement he perfected on The Office.
And speaking of that fast pace, for a movie clocking in at 2 hrs. 41 min. it goes quickly. At no point did I feel the need to sneak a glance at my watch to see how much time was left. While much was added to the story that wasn’t anywhere in the book, there were still places where things were streamlined in favor of expanding other areas. The name of the game here appears to be to keep the film moving at a heart-pounding pace, which in the first movie felt a bit uneven at times.
I’d say the first third or so of this movie takes what happened in the book and boils it down to the most important points before moving on, and this is mostly for the best. They’re only at Beorn’s home for a single night and speak only a little bit with him at breakfast. I suspect we’ll see more of this in the extended cut just as we did of Rivendell in the first film, but for now this is it. In the book, this scene went on for several pages as the dwarves introduced themselves in pairs and Gandalf told their tale to Beorn. Then they rested for several days and were off. Doing this in the film would rob it of the sense of urgency that they’ve built by having Azog and the Goblins right on their tail from the get-go. It’s a pacing decision I agree with, as I do mostly with the shortening of their time in Mirkwood. The forest is dark, evil, and oppressive, and it wears on their spirits the longer they’re in it with them finding various pitfalls before finally leaving the path in the book. And while it would have been funny to watch them struggle to carry around an enchanted sleeping Bombur, I can see why this was cut. Here, we go straight into the spiders capturing them, but unfortunately this has been trimmed as well. I was so looking forward to watching Bilbo dance around singing and teasing the spiders while stealthily wearing the ring and poking them with Sting (which gets its name here). Instead, Bilbo wears the ring for a second, understands what the spiders are saying (a nice touch I must admit), then throws a stick off to the side to distract the spiders so he can go free everyone. It seems very much a lost opportunity to keep some fun in the story, not to mention show some growth in Bilbo, and what we get instead is Bilbo briefly going on a murderous rampage (way more on that later).
We then go from one extreme to another, as from here on out instead of slimmed-down content from the book we get expanded/added content either hinted at or not in the book at all. This isn’t to say I don’t like it. The addition of Tauriel as an ass-kicking elf chick isn’t as bad as I worried it would be (more on that later). There’s a superb action sequence that follows the company’s escape from Thranduil’s domain with the heroes in the barrels, goblins running on the banks trying to kill them, and elves in close pursuit killing anything ugly and grunty. I especially loved a point in which Legolas goes running across the dwarves’ heads like stepping-stones, though the dwarves don’t seem all that thrilled by the pseudo-rescue. The sequence has a perfect mix of action and hilarity rolled into one.
We also get a much-expanded story in Lake Town. Whereas in the book they’re in and out pretty quick, getting supplies and being hailed by everyone because hey, the King Under the Mountain is back, in the movie we see a much more sinister underside. It’s also at this point that we see a very noticeable change in Thorin. While he was very indignant in dealing with Thranduil, the closer he gets to the mountain the more the weight of responsibility takes its toll. The success of the mission becomes all-important, and he’s willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to take back the throne that should be his. We even get a much more stark change once we’re inside the mountain and Smaug’s treasure horde begins to infect his mind.
As with “Riddles in the Dark” in the previous film, the scene between Smaug and Bilbo is amazing. It’s incredibly difficult bringing a CG dragon to life in such a way that you don’t question what you’re seeing. Cumberbatch gives Smaug life with all the sexy, sultry, sinister tones his voice can muster, and it’s quite a show. He also was all dotted up for the performance so the facial expressions we see on Smaug’s scaly snout are his, and by god they’re glorious. It was easy to forget that the dragon wasn’t real, because the performance was just that fucking good. And while bringing this to life is indeed a rare skill, so too is being able to act opposite nothing. Once again, we see why it was so brilliant of Jackson to cast Freeman. As with Andy Serkis’s Gollum, he holds his own against the dragon while also conveying just how fucking terrified he is to be face to face with something that could, well, melt his face off. It’s brilliant work, and it just makes me yearn for the third season of Sherlock that much more. The scene ends by segueing directly into a final action/chase scene involving the dwarven halls and the company as they attempt to take out the giant fucking dragon. There are multiple groups going all different directions, and I’m pretty sure I heard “Yakity-Sax” playing in the background, though admittedly that could have just been in my own head. After Smaug is pissed off one too many times he takes flight making for Lake Town then….I shit you not….cut to black. See you next year!
I’m actually really happy with how this ended because it went the Empire Strikes Back route of everything being dark and looking at its worst rather than the end of The Two Towers where we knew bad shit was coming in the next one, but Sam and Frodo were too busy reaffirming their bro-mance to leave that ending feeling anything but hopeful. It’s a great end to a great middle segment of a trilogy, and it left me wanting the final installment NOW.
TOLKIEN GEEK OUT ALERT!!!!…..part 2
As I mentioned before, I’m kinda torn on this film. With the addition of Tauriel and the elements surrounding her story Peter Jackson departs significantly from the book, even breaking the company up in two for the sake of that story. However, the book is very linear at this point and (aside from Thorin) none of the dwarves do much other than follow what he does once they reach Lake Town. If you’re going to take on a giant fucking dragon, it makes sense to have more than a couple guys: The problem is those guys aren’t much more than space fillers at this point (and, frankly, throughout the rest of the book). Setting aside the holy text of Tolkien, it seems what Jackson has done is make a more compelling story (that justifies three movies) where all the characters are actually doing something. These changes also bring up some important themes.
In case I didn’t mention it before, Thranduil is a dick of epic proportions. We see this on display in his first dealings with Tauriel, where he not-so-subtlely reminds her that even if Legolas did take a fancy to her it wouldn’t matter because she’s a Silvan elf and therefore not worthy of him….despite her being captain of the guard and a general badass. Going into all the different divisions of elves would take way too long, but here’s a very condensed explanation of Silvan (Tauriel) vs. Sindar (Thranduil, Legolas): Silvan elves either didn’t journey west when they woke up, or started to and then stopped once they saw the size of the Misty Mountains and said, “Fuck that, I think I’ll stick with the forest.” Thus, they never hung out with the Valar (gods) and never learned from them. As such, they’re less noble and wise, but still very good at heart. Sindar elves went west but didn’t quite make it to Valinor (land of the Gods), choosing to stop at the sea. However, they did learn a great deal from a couple Maiar (demi-gods) that hung out in the area. The Silvan elf realms were ruled by the Sindar or Eldar (the ones who actually went to Valinor). So basically Thranduil is an elitist snob with an inferiority complex because he never got to go hang out with the Valar, but he thinks he’s still better than all those silly Silvan elves he rules over. Legolas mentions that Thranduil favors Tauriel, but clearly not enough. I get the sneaking suspicion that perhaps he raised her, but who knows. Though that would certainly explain how a Silvan elf knew how to do the kind of healing she pulled off to save Kili. Not saying it’s impossible for her to have known on her own, it’s just highly unlikely. I did, however, like the touch with her ears. They are larger and more pointed and pronounced than all the other elves we’ve seen thus far. It’s certainly a good distinguishing characteristic and goes very well with Evangeline Lily’s features.
It seems that by including this, as well as Thorin’s change in behavior the closer he comes to being a king, and the plight of Bard’s own murky legacy, Jackson decided to shine a big ol’ light on the idea of social class and station that seems to be everywhere you look in Tolkien’s work. We even saw a bit of this in the first movie when Bilbo was reluctant to go in part because he was “a Baggins of Bag End.” There are many points at which characters seem to be defined by what they were born into, rather than by who they are or what they’re capable of doing. It’s a tricky thing to look at because no matter who you are, where you come from contributes to who you become in some way. But in some cases, there is a heavy burden of responsibility that can’t be ignored. True, Bilbo goes off on his adventure and survives to become a better person for it, though he is somewhat socially ostracized for his crazy, improper behavior. Of course, it helps that he comes back with a trunk full of gold. But when we look at someone like Thorin, there’s no way for him to ignore or move beyond the responsibility he feels for taking care of his people and making a better life for them. It seems to me that, by creating Tauriel, Jackson’s also created a character that’s capable of moving beyond the predestined life she’s supposed to lead – or try, anyway.
Then there’s Bilbo and the Ring….I get that it’s the One Ring and therefore very evil and bad. However, Bilbo had the ring for DECADES, and while he was certainly careful with his secret ring it did not begin to seriously affect him until towards the end, and he still managed to give it up and leave it to Frodo. This is an important point, because what we’re seeing in these movies is Bilbo becoming just a bit too evil (thanks to the ring) at times. It’s true that he wasn’t initially forthcoming about the ring when he got it, but in the book after saving the dwarves from the spiders he did tell them about his little trinket. It’s true that Gandalf was never told about it, but he was always suspicious from the get-go and certainly seemed to be aware of it by the end of the book, though they never spoke of it. Bilbo’s reluctance to mention it in the beginning was the only sign the ring was affecting him at all. In the movie we see this, but then there’s a brief moment where he drops the ring, then hurries after it and finds what appears to be a baby spider (though still quite huge) standing over it. Bilbo then proceeds to go into a murderous rage killing the baby (spider yes, but baby all the same) to get back the ring. He comes to his senses and is clearly horrified by his behavior, but he still hangs onto the ring. The encounter with the spiders is meant to be a point at which Bilbo really comes into his own and stops letting fear paralyze him. Once he frees the dwarves they’re too weak to fight on their own, so he dances and sings while tapping their asses with Sting. It’s a great moment, and one that seems to have been omitted because we apparently saw all the courageous growth we’re getting from Bilbo in the first movie and we need to see that the ring is evil….Evil, I say!!! I understand that this is supposed to show the evil of the One Ring and the power it has to corrupt people, but it’s happening far too quickly for the sake of connecting it to the original movie trilogy. If Bilbo had really been affected this quickly, he would have been hiding out in a cave like Gollum within a decade.
Earlier, we also see Bilbo lying on his side stroking the ring while everyone else was asleep at Beorn’s, which is exactly what Frodo was doing towards the END of the last trilogy when the ring was really digging its hooks in because it didn’t want to die. It’s distressing, not only because it’s another unnecessary call-back but because it shows Bilbo far too corrupted far too early. I also didn’t like the little cut to the Eye when he’s talking with Smaug. True, Sauron and the ring are connected, and Sauron was aware that the ring still existed, but he thought it was lost for the time being. He was concentrating on collecting the other rings of power while looking for his One Ring. If he had sensed its power, not that far north of where he was rebuilding his forces, he would have been on the party like a pack of dogs on a three-legged cat. It just feels like Jackson’s trying way too hard to connect the two stories, and logic problems are cropping up as a result.
Which brings me to my final complaint: Stop trying to connect the two trilogies! Just as with the first film, there are numerous callbacks to the first trilogy – which I think are meant to be a nod and wink to fans of the series, but they only come off as “gotta tie the two together or they might not get it.” It starts off innocently enough, with Peter Jackson walking across the scene in the opening shot munching on a carrot just like he did in Fellowship, and we get a nice back-and-forth between Gloin and Legolas about Gloin’s wife and son Gimli, as well as Legolas pirouetting on the dwarves’ heads to remind us how light and acrobatic he was in the trilogy. But otherwise it’s just plain annoying.
When we’re introduced to the Master of Lake Town, a completely diabolical Stephen Fry, he’s getting some rather unpleasant updates from a Wormtongue-like confidant that makes you wonder if this could be Grima’s father (or grandfather or whatever). This character was really unnecessary; it seems like he’s only there to serve as a nod to The Two Towers. We also have Thorin behaving suspiciously like Boromir in Fellowship, only instead of the ring causing him to be bipolar it’s the weight of his destiny. Granted, there’s a reason for it, but it seems a bit too close.
Then there’s Legolas. His presence is a nod since he wasn’t in the book, but it’s one that I actually like and agree with since as far as I’m concerned there’s no way you could go to Thranduil’s pad and not have his son around anywhere. It would have drawn much more attention had he not been there, but this doesn’t change the fact that he is a connecting point.
And then there’s the Necromancer. It’s no secret to anyone outside the movie that he’s Sauron, but having him go all “fiery eye surrounded by blackness” while bitch-slapping Gandalf serves as a reminder that this is the Big Bad from the last trilogy, not to mention that Gandalf is fighting on a stone bridge, as when he fought the Balrog, another fiery beast with surrounding darkness.
And this leads me into the biggest problem of all….the ring and Sauron. It seems abundantly clear that Jackson wants you to be aware of all that’s going on in Middle Earth, but through the lens of it being all Sauron’s doing. Not to say that most of the bad shit going on at this time wasn’t Sauron – it was, that’s why Gandalf and the White Council went down to kick his ass out of Dol Guldur (something I assume we’ll see in the final film). But this story is called “THE HOBBIT.” Of course other things were happening, but the focus is supposed to be on Bilbo, and the journey he makes, and the people he makes it with and meets along the way. I’m fine with the idea of seeing these other related events take place. Watching Gandalf and Radagast work was interesting, and I was looking forward to seeing some of this when I heard that Jackson would be adding stuff from the book’s appendices. But the focus should not be the One Ring and Sauron and how it all ties into the Lord of the Rings trilogy: it should be Bilbo. You know, THE HOBBIT.
End of geek tirade
As I’ve mentioned a couple times by now, I’m torn about this film. I very much enjoyed it and thought that the story changes were generally in service of and improved the story (heresy, I know). I have an idea how some of these elements are going to eventually play out, and depending on how it’s done will ultimately decide if the changes were for the best or for the opportunity to give chicks something to fawn over while watching the movie – there is the subtle hint of a possible love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel, and Kili – and if that turns out to be the case, I’m going to be very pissed and disappointed that all of these changes were made for the sake of some bullshit that seems rampant in every trendy, sappy, teen series getting turned into movies nowadays, especially if Tauriel ends up with Legolas at the end because while she really felt something for Kili, he died and she was on the rebound (I’m putting you on notice, Peter Jackson!). I was annoyed when I found out there’d be a love story aspect to Tauriel’s story arc at all, because it seems that in Hollywood no matter how bad-ass an ass-kicking chick is, she still just wants a guy to love – which I’ve always found stunningly misogynistic, not to mention insulting. Not to say that it can’t be done well, I just can’t remember the last time it was (The Fifth Element, maybe?). Still, this movie gives me hope; these elements are subtle and not beating you over the head for the sake of gaining a demographic. And after all, this was made in New Zealand, not Hollywood.
So for now, I’ll say this movie rocks, and you should go see it. You’ll kick yourself if you don’t get the big theater experience. With any luck, the third one will keep the good stuff going. Then, who knows, maybe Hell will freeze over and Jackson will get the rights to the Silmarillion. Now, those are some stories I’d love to see…