Friday, December 13, 2013

'The Hobbit' review: 'The Desolation of My Senses'

Evangeline Lilly hits the target in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug."
Maybe it was the late hour, since I chose to attend a midnight showing of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smoag."

Or maybe it was the audience - mostly Mount Holyoke College coeds who laughed at seemingly inappropriate moments, like nearly every close-up of Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Oh, is that a spoiler? At this point, does it matter? If you've been paying any attention at all - or, heaven forbid - are old-fashioned and actually read the J.R.R. Tolkien books, nothing about these movies should surprise you. It's not the plot that you go to see, after all - it's how director Peter Jackson pulls off his telling of the story.

But "The Desolation of Smaug" fails to live up to the standards of its predecessors. That's no crime, for sure. But it is a shame because we have come to expect so much from the denizens of Middle Earth.

The good news - Gandalf the Gray is back. Ian McKellen again works magic as the wizard. The problem is, he's pretty much alone in this category. We've already seen him smirk, heard him mutter dark warnings under his breath and watched him wield his staff in battle in the previous films. He's good, no doubt about it. But the character cannot carry the movie any more than Gandalf can win the fast-approaching war in "Smaug" alone.

In fact, no one steps up to match the wizard in establishing themselves as a memorable character. This is particularly true for the troupe of dwarves. The fat one might as well be the one with the white beard, who might as well be the one with the Wolverine hair ... and so on. And didn't we see Bard the Bowman in "The Princess Bride"?

The notable exception is Evangeline Lilly as the female elf Tauriel. She shines on the screen, taking the female as action hero to new heights for a Tolkien-based movie.

And what of the character in the title - Smaug the dragon? It could be the best CGI character that we've seen in the series. Or for that matter, in any movie. Once you see him in action, though, Smaug is a lousy dragon. Given his legendary prowess and history of destruction, he should make short work of Bilbo and the dwarves (short work - get it?). Instead, they inexplicably run circles around him, always just a singed hair ahead of his fiery breath. You get the feeling that Smaug would have trouble dispatching a single Nazgul in combat.

The other problem with Smaug repeats itself elsewhere in the film - overly long scenes. The movie, which clocks in at 2:41, already feels like the extended director's cut expanded extra special limited edition anniversary version. Did they leave even an inch of footage on the cutting-room floor? The same holds true for the barrel rides through the rapids. The dragon is big and bad - we get it. The escape from elf jail is death-defying - we get it. So let's move along. Both scenes make the pod race in "The Phantom Menace" look like a 10-yard dash.

George Lucas. That's what this movie feels like sometimes. It's like Lucas, having sold off (after selling out) Star Wars, was able to sneak onto the set of The Hobbit and weave his own labored story telling into the script. The orcs in this film come off more like Star Wars storm troopers - once challenged in the least, they can barely get out of their own way.

"The Desolation of Smaug" is not a bad movie. It's entertaining. It has the small moments (meeting Gimli's father, for instance) that connect with fans and the other films. Meeting Smaug, though, is like meeting someone who should be larger than life, but turns out to be too close to normal to be special.

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