Thursday, December 26, 2013

Movie Reviews-The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
directed by Peter Jackson
I finally decided to see this movie. I was initially apprehensive of the invented female character butt-kicking elf-warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and her involvement in battle. However while watching the previews, I saw an ad for 300: Rise of An Empire, which is a sequel to 300. This film stars Eva Green as a well, butt-kicking ship captain, Artemisia. What some may not realize though is that Artemisia actually was a real life Greek Queen, who did indeed command troops and fight in battle, most notably at the Battle of Salamis.

Queen Artemisia supported the Persians and was responsible for the death of many Greeks. The Greek war leaders hated her, viewing her not only as a traitor, which was bad enough, but as something almost unnatural. A woman fighting and leading men in battle was considered sinful. The Greeks had a special interest in capturing Artemisia alive. This wouldn't have ended well for her. I don't know how the film will depict this but history tells us Artemisia survived the Persian defeat at Salamis. Most Greek sources agree that despite her treason she was a skilled commander. She was the only female leader among the Persians. I mention this just to remind myself that life can be stranger than fiction. We (I) shouldn't automatically dismiss fantasy interpretations of female warriors, rare though they may be in real life. I'll have more on Tauriel in a minute.

Moving along.
The fundamental problem with the Hobbit movies is that Peter Jackson decided or had it decided it for him, to make three near three hour movies from a book that is just under 300 pages, depending upon your edition. To quote Bilbo Baggins, this is like butter that is scraped over too much bread. There just isn't enough source material there. So Jackson and company made up storylines and characters. Some filling in of details is ok. The book The Hobbit is exclusively concerned with the adventures of Bilbo, the Dwarves and Gandalf. Nothing happens except through Bilbo's eyes. We occasionally get some exposition from Thorin or Gandalf or authorial insight. In the movie, Jackson decided this wouldn't work and so we see every little thing that was only implied in the book or was spoken of off-handedly in the LOTR appendices. It's when Jackson starts getting too enthralled with his additions that he runs into his second major problem, which is related to the first.

His tone's all wrong. It's the wrong tone. Now while I certainly don't suggest that anyone stab Peter Jackson in the face with a soldering iron, the fact remains that this is really more LOTR- The Prequel, than The Hobbit-a standalone children's book. Forbidden love in the LOTR? We have that here too. Hobbit poisoned with Morgul weapon? We see that again. The film contains tons of violent scenes which never occurred in the original book. It's not aimed at kids. Until the book's end, when there is a slightly jarring nod to the fact that yes, good people really can die, The Hobbit retains a cheery, whimsical tone. This spirit is completely lacking from THDOS. This movie is very deliberately a prequel to LOTR, sometimes annoyingly so.

THDOS is an adaptation though some purists might call it a butchering. So the interpreter has the right and duty to alter the source material for reasons of commerce and media and his own caprice. The Hobbit, as a book, lacks women characters. I don't automatically see that as a flaw but many people do. THDOS, as a movie, pulls in women and girl characters from the LOTR and makes others up. This might be okay if the writers and director didn't seem to think, as many modern filmmakers do, that a woman must be "kicking a$$" in order to connect with moviegoers. I'm not sure that's the case. If we're saying that the only way a woman can be valued is to do exactly what a man would be doing, isn't that internalized sexism? YMMV of course.
Nevertheless Tauriel wasn't as bad as I had feared. She didn't ruin the movie. She's just a symptom of Jackson's compulsion to pad running times and basically create fan fiction from The Hobbit.She's an invented character that doesn't work. Jackson severely alters canon characters in worse ways. Beorn, your not so friendly neighborhood lycanthrope is turned from a gruff, brusque, solitary mountain man who nonetheless is capable of laughter and humor into an ugly scarred paranoid PTSD survivor. The book's introduction of Beorn to the dwarves is humorous. The movie's is violent. Thranduil, the elf king, is a cynical liar. There's little whimsy or sense of seeing a bigger world, which is critical to the book.
And yet, I can't quite fall into the Megyn Kelly trap of sneering and snarling that the source material can and must be only the way I imagined it. If there are some women Hobbit fans who might enjoy seeing a woman character who actually has something to do besides look frightened and hide in the caves with the children while the men battle the orcs, who am I to gainsay them? Similarly, the filmed human population of Laketown actually includes some humans of African and apparent other non-European descent. They have no speaking roles IIRC but nevertheless there they were. That's certainly not canonical but then again Laketown (Esgaroth) is a trading town where people from near and far do business.

Anyway.
When last we left our intrepid heroes they were within sight of the Lonely Mountain, and thus their lost realm of Erebor. Thorin (Richard Armitage) can finally start practicing his various acceptance speeches for his inauguration as king. Unfortunately the orcs have also caught up with the dwarves, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Gandalf leads them to Beorn's stables and locks them in. Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), in bear form, is not exactly happy to see them but the next morning in human form he's a bit less dangerous. He loans them horses and ponies to take them through Mirkwood. The orcs, being cowards, do not attack while Beorn is around. When they get to the forest entrance the party sends the horses back to Beorn as he is a vegan animal rights activist who would look unkindly on dwarves getting his friends hurt or killed in Mirkwood. That's when Gandalf, having been in secret mind-meld conversation with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gets the request, really more order (this isn't right as old and powerful as Galadriel is, she's NOT the head of the White Council and can't really give orders to Gandalf but whatever) to look into what's going on at Dol Guldur where some young punk wizard named The Necromancer has set up shop. No one has heard of him before and both Gandalf and Galadriel have a bad feeling about him. So Gandalf tells his buddies see you on the other side. He's got to leave. He warns them to stay on the path.

Of course the dwarves and Bilbo don't stay on the path. They get attacked by giant spiders. Bilbo saves them, using his magic ring, but just as they are about to be on their merry way they get ambushed by wood elves, including Prince Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his guard captain/semi-love interest Tauriel. Elves aren't overly fond of dwarves, or vice versa, as Thorin is keen to point out. So the entire party is arrested and taken to prison. Thorin refuses to kiss King Thranduil's (Lee Pace) skinny behind, confirm his treasure hunt or offer Thranduil any treasure. That's just how Thorin gets down. Meanwhile Kili (Aidan Turner) is trying to convince Tauriel that the rumors about dwarf men aren't true, if you know what I mean. 
Bilbo arrives to rescue everyone before Kili can finish running his game but such is life. This kicks off the second half. We learn that Bard the Bargeman Bowman (Luke Evans) has some unresolved feelings about his dad failing to kill Smaug, that the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) doesn't recognize the smell of hobbits but knows dwarves all too well, and that Gandalf isn't the most powerful wizard of the Maiar. To sum up, if you liked the first movie, I think you will like this one as well. If you didn't like the first movie, there's not a lot here that is done better...EXCEPT for the pacing. It's 161 minutes and still too doggone long for me but it did move a little more quickly than the first film. The special effects were well done. I liked Cumberbatch as Smaug. If you haven't read the book I suggest that you do.

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