Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I will say this right upfront: the works of J.R.R. Tolkien are not my thing. I will respect the fact that Mr. Jackson's films of some of Tolkien's novels have struck a chord with people out there in Movieland, but I find the fascination puzzling nonetheless.

Having said that, I am all for anything which brings moviegoers in, seducing them into the pleasures of movie-going—whatever direction the medium is heading in.  The direction, for the present, seems to head toward what I like to call the "three-ring-circus" movie: these movies have indeed replaced the juggler, the lion-tamer, the bearded lady, and the midway.

The golden pile is almost as steep as stadium seating.
Last Christmas, my two houseguests (who were 18 and 23 or so) were free to pick the holiday movies we would go see. To my astonishment, they chose Django Unchained and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. They both loved Django,  and completely ignored The Hobbit; I mean, a 6 minute sequence of two MOUNTAINS fighting?  Come on.  I suspect that there are more similarities between the two films than was apparent at the time, but for me, Django was more interesting in that it took place in a recognizable world.

Which leads me back to my starting point. I don't get the Tolkien thing, as translated by Peter Jackson and his WETA pals. Simply saying that one group, the Dwarves, need to reclaim their golden hoard, which had been stolen from them, hidden inside an impregnable mountain, and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, does not suggest dramatic greatness. The reason for this is simple: we all know that in a story like this, the good guys will win. Not too many moviemakers will go, say, the Chinatown route, or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Psycho route, where your hero turns into somebody else and dies halfway through.

And this is what is at the heart of my own dissatisfaction with this sort of fantasy film. There is no dramatic content to it. I understand that it is ritual. I understand scale and pageantry. I like these things in movies. But nothing I saw in The Hobbit 2 was in any way relevant to the life I live. Perhaps modern viewers are OK with this, flocking to these admittedly visual experiences, which is what I find myself doing when the characters and story do not hold my attention: I look at the scenery.

The scenery is impressive. We visit a number of places over the course of the film, but I think Smaug's lair and the golden hoard inside the Lonely Mountain is the most interesting. In its Deco-with-Mayan styling, and relentlessly diagonal wash of golden treasure, it LOOKS like something ought to happen here, and it does. Up to a point.

For me, Hobbit 2 works best, when all the elements are working at the same level. The entrance of Bilbo in the interior of the Lonely Mountain is the most effective dramatic moment in the film.  We know that Bilbo is a much sterner fellow than the one we met at the beginning of the Hobbit story, but we also know that he is small, and weaponless; that the treasure is guarded by Smaug the dragon, and that the whole journey has centered on the need to find the Arkenstone (for whatever reason may be made clear later) thought to be within the pile of gold.

Martin Freeman could not have been a better choice to play this Bilbo Baggins character.  Many felt that the first Hobbit movie allowed for too much free reign for character-establishing foolishness and filler to make it hold our interest; an imbalance of too much character, not enough story. Perhaps Jackson was talking a longer view in that he knew that there would be less time to spend on scenes of actors inhabiting their characters in the second film.  Seen together, this might be the case.

In any event, Bilbo's entrance into the treasure area with Smaug's awakening, is very atmospheric and cinematic. It is the best example of everything working in the movie at the same level: story, performance, setting, tempo, and atmosphere.  But instead of simply eating Bilbo, like any talking dragon would do, turns out Smaug is a long-winded procrastinator, and the subsequent dialog goes on far too long, reducing what could have been a very promising sequence to overstay its welcome. This entire film is coated with bloat.

And the fans love it.

Some other quibbles. The Chinese is possibly the only theatre showing The Hobbit 2 in both IMAX® and "HFR." I did not see The Hobbit 1 at the Chinese last year, when they presented the movie in HFR also.  But the effect of shooting digital stereo images at 48 frames per second is that the image, though still film-like, seems more like it is shown on some sort of LED display, and gains a very noticeable video-like quality. Especially when there is fast movement. So now we have come full circle. The movies are mixed to sound good in our living rooms, and now, they look the same at the theatre as they do at home.  Total convergence.

I did not care for the sound mix for this movie either. Many lines of dialog (especially Smaug's) were simply unintelligible. I do not understand what it adds to a movie when dialog is so difficult to understand as it is here, but rather it shows a certain disregard for story and communication prevalent in this production.

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