December’s Short Take: Hobbit Edition

Review of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

     The first installment of Peter Jackson’s prequel saga doesn’t hold a candle to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but is nevertheless an enjoyable and emotionally involving adventure, with just enough callbacks to said trilogy to prompt smiles instead of snarks. Martin Freeman makes a sheepishly endearing young Bilbo Baggins, and Ian McKellen hasn’t lost a step as Gandalf the Grey, a wizard of both grave wisdom and a jolly heart. Richard Armitage is barely recognizable and best in show as the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield, new to this big-screen Middle Earth, and one whose stubborn pride might be the ruin of everyone. Who’s everyone? There are thirteen other dwarves on this journey, all of them trekking to reclaim their homeland Erebor, and only a few of them leaving much of an impression. Besides Thorin, the elder Balin and funny-hatted Bofur are the only dwarves with a scene to call their own. We’re re-introduced to Elrond and Galadrial when Thorin’s company happen upon the elven kingdom Rivendell for answers, a segue that gives the viewer their first true sense of the trials ahead, as well as revealing the true identity of a dark sorcerer so far only known as the Necromancer. Indeed, there’s no shortage of omens foretelling the eventual spread of Orcs and the subsequent rise of Sauron. Clumsy attempts at comedy and an over-reliance on CGI (Peter Jackson seems to have abandoned most use of makeup, miniatures, and prosthetics), while certainly distracting, aren’t as ruinous as they sound. The highlight of the film has to be Bilbo’s fateful encounter with the cave-dwelling Gollum, a tit-for-tat of gamesmanship that ends with Bilbo’s theft of the One Ring. But what prevents this ostensible “Episode I”  from disappointing in the vein of George Lucas’ Episode I is Jackson’s aptitude for emotion. Whether it’s due to Howard Shore’s rousing score or due to actors who can actually act, tears and all, “The Hobbit” knows where the heart is.

Grade: B+

Review of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

     In the second installment, Peter Jackson trades heart for abundant action, as Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the rest find themselves in stickier and stickier situations, both figurative and literal, on their way to Erebor. As the Necromancer gains strength, and his army, led by Thorin’s rival Azog (the Pale Orc, for the lamens), encroach further and further on the land, the elves begin to take a more active role, with a young Legolas and his female peer Tauriel getting in on the Orc-killing fun. One such moment is an action sequence of thrilling beauty, wherein Bilbo and the dwarves thrash in wine barrels down a river as those elven archers help them fend off Azog’s army. Despite a more singular enemy this time around, there are too few scenes featuring the Necromancer or Azog to glean much from them beyond a simplistic “evil” nature, and this imbalance of structure manifests elsewhere in the form of, believe it or not, too much action. Any character arcs are either lost in the whiz-slice shuffle or reduced to the most archetypal of development, although Tauriel’s sweet, under-cooked romance with Killi, the only good-looking dwarf among Thorin’s merry band, somehow avoids this criticism. As far as Bilbo’s concerned, it’s fortunate his transformation from meek hermit to courageous companion was given deft treatment in the previous film. But what of the titular Smaug, whose confrontation with Bilbo the entire plot more or less hinges on? The dragon is a triumph of both visual effects and motion-capture performance, with Benedict Cumberbatch giving memorable voice to the creature’s fierce temper and ensuring a proper denouement. From that dragon’s seething relish of gold and the treasured Arkenstone, to the greedy rule of the annoying if thematically relevant Mayor of Laketown, it’s apparent Jackson has finally chosen a theme for his saga: the corrupting influence of power.

Grade: B

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