The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

January 2, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

The journey continues for Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves and this one is a little more action packed than its predecessor. However, just like in a lot of hammock films, it’s pretty much all set up and absolutely no resolution. It still makes for an entertaining film if you’re already a fan of Tolkein’s classics and Peter Jackson’s adaptations. But it leaves a lot to be desired.

This one begins a bit before the first film’s events where Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen, who is starting to look sort of tired of playing this role) first meets Thorin Oakenshield (reprised by Richard Armitage). I don’t think we really needed this scene, but what medieval fantasy film would be complete without the “drunk pub” sequence? We need to see thirsty men dance and drink to believe we are in middle earth.

There are some new characters we are introduced to, such as Tauriel (played by Evangeline Lilly, looking a bit…lost), and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) who can change into a large bear, but looks even creepier in his human form. The dwarves are still on a quest to recapture their gold from the Lonely Mountain which is still being held captive by Smaug, the dragon (voiced curiously by Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way they are attacked by large spiders, followed by Azog and the Orcs again. One thing you really come away with in this series is that no one really likes dwarves, and no one really pays much attention to hobbits. But that doesn’t stop these stout hearted men even if they are sleight of height. Some of the antics are fun, such as a rip roaring rapid adventure that looks like it’d be a fun Disney ride. But some of the film slows down once the dwarves are captured by the Elves, who are just so smug and perfect you want to stick an arrow in their backside sometimes. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is featured here, but his screen time isn’t as majestic as it was in “Lord of the Rings”.

The series itself isn’t as strong as “Lord of the Rings” and that’s obviously because the source material was one small novel and not an entire trilogy of books. Jackson borrows from other sources to beef up the material, but there are some very drawn out scenes that you can tell is just plain filler. The other problem is that a lot of the characters are just not that interesting. The characters don’t have much depth, and Bilbo takes a back seat to the dwarves which is a narrative mistake.

The dragon effects for Smaug are good, and the film starts to find its footing once the dwarves reach the Lonely Mountain. But  here’s the thing about that: just when you think this is going to have some climactic ending…it fades to the credits.

Now, the second film in any planned trilogy is going to naturally suffer from this. Even “Catching Fire” had this problem, though I found that a lot more involving. The only one that’s ever really felt satisfying as a stand alone film is “The Empire Strikes Back”, even though that didn’t really have an ending either. It was saved by having one of the best twists in its climax, though, and it stands as one of the best sequels ever made.

“The Desolation of Smaug” isn’t catchy title, and its matter of fact blandness sort of becomes the symbol of why this film is not very memorable. You’d pretty much only watch it if you were going to watch the entire trilogy of “The Hobbit”. It does leave you craving for the final film, “There and Back Again”; but I think Jackson could have done a better job trying to give this its own identity as well.

My rating: :?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 26, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Much like the individual films of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it’s hard to review something you know is simply part of a bigger story. Like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1”, you’re only seeing a portion of the whole story. Most trilogies are forged simply because they’re just stringing together sequels (like the “Alien” and “Back to the Future” franchises), whereas these films almost cannot be viewed on their own without seeing all 3 of the films. There is no ending in “The Fellowship of the Ring”; there’s no resolution at the end. Same, obviously, with “Deathly Hallows Pt. 1”. Well, we have the same problem with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, which seems more like an unexpected trilogy since “The Hobbit”, unlike “The Lord of the Rings”, was only one book.

I wasn’t enthused about this being stretched into a trilogy. Peter Jackson has gained an apt reputation of being rather self-indulgent with the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, and here it just seemed like he was milking it even more.

But after seeing “An Unexpected Journey”, I think I may have been a little harsh on him to begin with. Besides some pace problems in the beginning, and a lack of a clear reason why Bilbo Baggins (played marvelously by Martin Freeman) wants to go on a dangerous journey, the film is certainly reminiscent of the energy and fun that permeated “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I suppose these could be called prequels; but this is already a better start than a certain other prequel trilogy which I won’t name.

Here, though, Jackson doesn’t have to practically start all over with his palette of characters. We are familiar with Bilbo, but only as an aged and retired hobbit; there is no Merry, no Pip, and hardly much of Frodo. But we are re-introduced to Gandalf; and, at a later point, Smeagol. So it’s a bit of a reunion but not exactly a “gang’s all here” film. Instead, we have a new gang. All dwarves. The backstory is that a dragon named Smaug wiped out much of the dwarves’ kingdom, and the leader, Thorin (well played by Richard Armitage), is aiming to take back their kingdom. Smaug has settled in what’s called the Lonely Mountain, which is where the dwarves’ home is. Bilbo is enlisted by Gandalf who believes he has a higher purpose than just rotting away in Bag End, and thinks he may be able to help the dwarves because he’s so light on his feet and easy to miss when coming into contact with the enemy. And speaking of the enemy, a pack of Orcs are after the dwarves after their leader’s arm was sliced off during a battle by Thorin, after Thorin witnesses his grandfather slain by the war chief.

Once the dwarves and Bilbo have joined forces, the film’s pace quickens, and we’re taken on another lush journey through Middle Earth, and we even get to see Rivendel again. The special effects are very well done, and although there is some shoddy 3-D effects and the high frame rate can be a bit nauseating, the creatures look great and the magic looks splendid. I also liked the dwarves, and felt a bit of pity for them as they’re forced to be forever nomads. They’re not as easily accessible as the hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings”; but they have their own unique charm. The performances by the principal dwarf characters, along with the other main characters, are all strong.

I was trying to think throughout the film what it’s about compared to “The Lord of the Rings”, which is about the journey of friendship and maturing in life. It seems as though “The Hobbit” is about discovery, and trust. The dwarves and Bilbo aren’t going to be best friends. They’re too far apart as people, and there are too many of them to become intimate. Bilbo is more independent than Frodo, and a bit more selfish. With this theme, however, I believe Jackson has enough material to span two more films.

The running time is a bit laborious; but at least the ending comes when you expect it to, and the film doesn’t run on too long in that regard. Besides that, I am a fan of fantasy films in general, and I always appreciate them being done well such as they are in this case. For this, I actually had a great time revisiting this world, and I see why Jackson has spent so much time and effort on this project. You can see he loves it, too, and that this is a labor of love rather than a love of cash. He allows his characters to talk to each other, to have fun with each other, and entertain each other as much as they entertain us. The soundtrack, again, is wonderful to listen to. This is a film that lives and breathes through the Middle Earth, and if you want to take the trip, you won’t be disappointed with it. I would say, however, if you weren’t a fan of “The Lord of the Rings”, don’t make the mistake of thinking this will change your mind. You may as well stay away from it.

There is a thought out there that says this trilogy is making us “pay” for the success of “The Lord of the Rings”. That may be true; but if you’re willing to pay the price, it’s well worth it.

My rating: :-)

Brave

June 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

The original title for this movie was “The Bear and the Bow”. Separating a bit from usual Pixar form, this story would revolve around a female–a princess, to be exact. Much more in the vein of the Disney canon rather than the Pixar formula, this project was also helmed by Pixar’s first female director, Brenda Chapman. Chapman left production while the film was still being made over “creative differences”, and it was taken over by Mark Andrews, this being his first full length feature film with Pixar. The idea for the film is much in the vein of the traditional fairytale. This does have a bit of a Pixar twist, but not it’s as devastating as “Up”‘s and not as deeply involving as “Toy Story”. While the film isn’t all about fun, like “Monster’s Inc.”, it does have some kiddie elements and doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

The film’s heroine is Merida (voiced joyfully by Kelly Macdonald), who just wants to be one of the boys. Actually, she just doesn’t want to be a lady. She’s an archer and is quite skilled at the bow. Her mother (voiced by Emma Thompson with a somewhat questionable Scottish accent) doesn’t like that Merida is so unladylike. She doesn’t like that she goes off into the forest, climbing, shooting, riding. She believes Merida should be proper, and will soon be given a suitor by one of the other clans. Her father (entertainingly voiced by Billy Connolly) doesn’t really have much of a say in anything. He seems to like that Merida is boyish, but also wants to keep his wife happy. While Merida is a little girl, her father suffers a debilitating leg injury while fending off a bear after it tries to attack Merida. This bear will play a larger role later in the film.

Meanwhile, after Merida’s all grown up, she is forced to take the hand of one of the clans’ sons that competes in Merida’s favorite sport–archery. She decides to fend for her own hand, much to the chagrin of her mother, who doesn’t want to allow it. But it’s too late, and Merida and her mother have a large fight that leads Merida to follow some enigmatic wisps of the willow into a forest, all the way to a mysterious witch. Merida wants to change her fate–but for some reason thinks that the way to do that is to change her mother’s fate. I still don’t follow that logic; but the result is quite interesting.

The change in Merida’s mother’s fate causes the two to bond with each other in an effort to make everything go back to normal; meanwhile, Merida’s father still has to entertain the clans while she supposedly deliberates over which suitor she chooses. The adventure in the film focuses on Merida and her mother, and their quest to undo what Merida has done.

The film really becomes more of a coming of age story and a very affectionate tale of mother/daughter relationships. It actually makes the other stuff seem a little forced in comparison. For instance, the cute but underused little brothers Merida has. They’re a joy to watch, but they’re hardly used. Same with the witch, and her strange crow that seems to be able to speak. But instead of having them as the resident villains, they disappear without a trace soon after being introduced. The lack of a central villain is a bit of a risk considering the formula this film follows. However, I thought they were able to pull off the story with having Merida herself being to blame for her mother’s misfortune, and it being up to her to save her. The payoff is a bit too easy, but the film has its share of amusing pratfalls and screwballery that keeps you entertained.

Overall it is a nice little tale, and the ending is moving. But there seems to be two different directions this movie wants to go and never quite gets to either, and I think that can be blamed a bit on the changing of the guard midway through production. Sometimes you can tell when a project changes hands (like in “Hancock”). I even think the title change is rather curious. This film isn’t so much about bravery (in that, Merida isn’t a coward in the beginning and brave by the end), but it is about a bear, and it does involve a bow. Maybe “The Bear and the Bow” just doesn’t resonate as a film title. It’d have to be some kind of Little Golden Book classic to retain a title like that.

For a Pixar film, it’s a tad disappointing. We don’t have the typical lush characters and multiple storylines, and some of the plot elements are just all too familiar. However, I did like the main characters enough, and I loved the look of the film, and the music was wonderful. The 3-D left something to be desired; but it still gave a greater scope of the landscapes of the Scottish highlands than I would imagine you could pull off in 2-D.

The film works enough to recommend and be passable. Maybe if this stayed in Brenda Chapman’s hands all along, however, we could have had another Pixar classic on our hands.

My rating: :-)