Saturday 20 December 2014

Films: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

I reviewed Part 1 of The Hobbit in July this year, in which I said the following:

Although I recalled the general plot outline of The Hobbit well enough most of the details were fuzzy, so you needn't expect a nerdish analysis of how faithful the film is to the book.  The production is superb and the film of high quality throughout, which is no more than I expected from Peter Jackson. Martin Freeman is excellent in the title role of the comfortable, middle-aged hobbit reluctantly persuaded into go on a dangerous adventure with a wizard and a bunch of pugnacious dwarves. The film is a visual feast and has a great deal to enjoy. I liked the restraint shown in building up the suspense concerning the dragon Smaug, only shown partly, in brief glimpses.

Unlike LOTR, in which 1,000 pages of novel were crammed into nine hours of filming, The Hobbit is a simple tale of well under 300 pages yet is stretched over a similar running time. One of the consequences is that some of the scenes are too extended. By the end, I did get tired of the endless running battles with Orcs and Wargs, and feel that the film would have been better for some judicious editing to reduce its length. However, I am still looking forward to the next episode.

Rather to my surprise, I enjoyed the second film more than the first. I usually find that middle films of trilogies suffer through having no proper beginning or ending, but didn't find that a problem here. There is less emphasis on scene-setting, and I did not get the same impression of scenes being over-extended; the story rattles along at a good pace and with a fair amount of variety. The dragon, seen in all its glory, is a marvellous creation, fully living up to expectations. Martin Freeman consolidates his solid performance as the reluctant hero and there are also notable performances from Richard Armitage as Thorin and Evangeline Lilly as the elf Tauriel (a character who isn't in the book, but I'm certainly not complaining). Orlando Bloom reprises his LOTR role of Legolas the elf, and Ian McKellen makes an impressive Gandalf. The film finishes on a note of high drama as Smaug flies to Laketown, setting up the final episode.


Now that I've located a nearby IMAX that's convenient to drive to, I travelled to see the final episode in all its 3D glory. It continues immediately from where the second film ended, with Smaug's attack on Laketown, then spends most of the rest of the time on the Battle of the Five Armies, as the title suggests. It is not, however, all about fighting. There is a strong focus on the growing madness of Thorin, more also on the rather unlikely added romantic sub-plot featuring the elf Tauriel and the dwarf Kili (but again, no complaints; Tauriel is definitely the girl you want by your side should you happen to encounter any stray bands of orcs in your neighbourhood), and perhaps not enough of the humorous scenes involving the down-to-earth Bilbo Baggins. Cate Blanchett is magnificent – she was born to play Galadriel – and it was good to see Christopher Lee as Saruman.

Having said that, the battle is very dramatic and varied, with some intriguing monsters on show, although I had a problem in reconciling the serried ranks of drilled elvish warriors with the magical display of agility in combat by the principal elves – the two didn't seem to belong to the same culture. The 3D is really good in this film; it is subtle enough not to be obvious, without things leaping out of the screen at you, but adds a depth to the view which is definitely worthwhile.

One oddity caught my attention concerning pronunciation. For more than half a century I have assumed that Smaug was pronounced "smorg" and Sauron was "sore-ron", but in the film these are "smowg" and sow-ron" respectively.

To summarise the series, while purists will grumble that the film is merely "based on" the book and adds quite a few plot elements, it is close enough to what I remembered and adheres to the spirit of Tolkien's story. Definitely one which fantasy fans should not miss, unless you are allergic to Middle Earth. Now I must watch The Lord of the Rings again, for the first time since that series was released.

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