Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit, Part II: Light My Fire

There might be spoilers ahead. I'm not sure; I haven't written it yet. I'm probably one of those reviewers that you should read after you've seen the movie. (And then you can say to yourself, 'this dude is full of it.')

Peter Jackson just cannot help himself. He is going to work a lengthy, physics-defying, CG-fueled carnival ride into his movies. Probably more than one. He's going to do it whether it serves the story or not. And at this point, there is nothing you or I can do to stop it. As it happens, these sequences are usually fairly entertaining as spectacle, but because they have no relationship to the laws of motion or to gravity as we know it, they tend to leave the viewer with a somewhat empty, unsatisfied feeling afterward. For better or worse, as a maker of blockbuster fantasy-action movies, this has become his style, his signature. So I just have to get over it: this is him, this is what he likes, and he made a gazillion dollars doing what he does; the chances that my complaints about it will be heard or heeded are exactly zero.

Last year I wrote a mostly positive review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Looking back, however, my review glosses over the film's shortcomings and emphasizes its strengths -- in short, it is a fan's review. Whatever, I guess: I make no apologies for being a Tolkien fanboy of the highest order, and I will always have a soft spot for PJ for having the vision and fortitude and audacity to make The Lord of the Rings. Many have said it before, but it bears repeating: it's easy to forget how big a risk that first trilogy was. So I approach his movies with gratitude.

All of this is prelude to discussing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I enjoyed the second installment of the Hobbit trilogy as an entertaining cinematic diversion. It's better than An Unexpected Journey: it opens briskly and sets a steady, uptempo pace that does not get bogged down with two opening sequences and endless exposition like the first film did. I left the theater well-pleased; I had a great time with the friends who joined me to see it. So that's a recommendation: it's a fun holiday movie for the gang.

But I suppose I should say more...

Once again, Jackson & Company teased out some interesting interpretations of the source material, and conjured a new character that fits pretty well into the narrative. But also once again, Jackson seems to believe that you can't have too much of a good thing. Insert witticisms about barrel-riding and ax-juggling and elf-assassins and molten-river-of-gold-boogie-boarding here. 

Jackson seems to have a lot of trouble translating Tolkien's antagonistic minor characters onto screen without turning them into villainous caricatures. In Return of the King, the noble but tragically flawed Denethor became a cartoonish bad guy. In Desolation of Smaug, Thranduil vamps his way through his scenes: he does not evoke an ancient and wise king who will join forces with the dwarves to put down the goblin army, nor hold Gollum captive, nor send his only son to represent the woodland realm later in the epic. He says, "a hundred years is nothing to an elf," but his arch, sullen countenance expresses anything but patience. I think Jackson would do well to study the antagonists in some of Hayao Miyazaki's films to discover subtlety for characters such as these. 

Another thing that bothers me is Jackson's camera work: he seems to be enamored of closeups shot with a wide angle lens, which leaves his subjects oddly misshapen and the screen cluttered. This might be right for orcs and goblins, but it just doesn't fit for Bilbo. It's too chaotic, and doesn't visually express the plain, sensible wisdom of Hobbit-folk.

When I first saw the trailer for Desolation, I was dumbstruck: the dragon looked bad. I thought, wtf, he looks no better than Draco, and Dragonheart is now seventeen years old. How could that happen? Hell, after that glimpse, I felt they might have given Vermithrax the nod in favor of what they came up with. Happily, my fears were unfounded. On screen, Smaug is fantastic; the cunning, terrible menace of the character absolutely dominates the last quarter of the film. And the decision to have the dwarves make a stand to reclaim their kingdom in an extended fight with the dragon was a smart one. It is the execution where this falls flat: once again, heavy reliance upon physics-free CG leaves the sequence light on dramatic heft.

In FotR, one of the reasons that the confrontation with the Balrog succeeds is that it is situated in a film that has plenty of set-pieces that do not rely solely on special effects. Here in Desolation, Gandalf's showdown with the Necromancer has no such grounding context; it's just another CG fireworks display, which significantly diminishes its impact. It's just more noise in a spectacle already turned up to 11.

After five movies, The Fellowship of the Ring remains PJ's strongest foray into Middle Earth. In FotR, I really felt transported -- New Zealand's primal beauty played a major part in establishing an otherworldly yet realistic setting. The subsequent films have slowly morphed Middle Earth into an almost wholly CG creation that might have been filmed anywhere. More's the pity.

What did you think?


Michael Lucero said...

I do agree with you on your general criticisms of Peter Jackson and his over the top style, especially your criticism of the fight with the dragon and its unfavorable comparison with the Balrog scene. I think you're right on the money there. However, to be fair, I think that style is very common to Hollywood directors in general and not at all particular to him. It's not by any means universal, but it is pretty widespread. And as Prof. Olsen has noted, he's shown a lot of sensitivity to the story and character dynamics that I doubt many other Hollywood directors would do, not even some of the more well-respected and understated ones. In fact, the latter may be even worse, as they'd certainly be more concerned with putting their own "independent" stamp on it (meaning no disrespect for indie filmmakers whatsoever) than with trying to be very faithful to the books. This is not to dismiss your criticisms, since I do agree with them, but rather to say, You're right, it could have been better. But it could have very easily been a lot worse.

Though I agree with your criticisms of evil characters in general, I'd say it's unfair to call Thranduil a wise king. He may be kind and wise at times in the book, but he is also very greedy, distrustful, and vengeful. He's wise enough to see past these personal motivations when there's a bigger picture that needs addressing, but that doesn't mean he isn't guided by them otherwise. Personally, I was mostly pleased with the Elvenking. Other than the scar thing; not because I disliked it but because I was confused as to what was actually happening. Was this a magical memory of a past scar that's since healed, or was he permanently scarred and just using a glamour to cover it up?

I do also agree with your criticisms about close-ups. The main area where it bothered me was with Smaug. I appreciate all the detail we got of his face, and I guess I'd probably complain if we didn't get these close-ups, but I would have preferred to have a wider view of his body.

Knight of Nothing said...

One of my (many) favorite conversations in LotR is this simple exchange between Elrond and Gimli:

"Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens."
"Maybe, but let him not vow to walk in the dark who has not seen the nightfall."
"Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart."
"Or break it."

I realize that Elrond is not Thranduil, but I think the conversation alludes to great fonts of wisdom possessed by two species that are fundamentally at odds with one another (one of which has a much longer, deeper, and more tragic perspective).

In the written version of The Hobbit, we get the dwarves' perspective of Thranduil. But as readers of all of Tolkien's works, we know that there is much more to the elves than what is portrayed in between the covers of The Hobbit. And obviously Jackson is trying to fit his Hobbit films more squarely into the broader Tolkien milieu.

All of this is to say, I think Thranduil deserved better treatment than what he got in the film. For me, PJ has trouble portraying the kind of nuance that is illustrated in the above, which is unfortunate. I think that if he had been willing to cut a few minutes of barrel-riding, and trim down Legolas's endless orc-slaying (which is even less essential than the barrel-riding, as his scenes have zero stakes and tension -- we know he survives), and replaced those things with more character development, the films would have had more dramatic and emotional resonance.

I know what you mean that the "more is more" philosophy is common enough in Hollywood, and I'd add that it tends to make lots and lots of money. But when I think about what separates a good movie from a great movie, it isn't the scope or number of action sequences. It is governed by the degree to which we identify with and care about the success of protagonists, and how we view the odds that work against them.

One of the things I felt the first film did really well was to develop the relationship between Bilbo and Thorin in a believable way. Unfortunately, I think that development was neglected in the second installment in favor of wild CG hijinx.