Now that I realize Peter Jacksons long Hobbit movies arent meant to be true to J.R.R. Tolkiens short novel, I see them for what they are: his version of George Lucas Star Wars prequels.
Like Lucas, Jackson can boast of two first-rate achievements: One early feature (Heavenly Creatures) and a magnificent trilogy (The Lord of the Rings). Like Lucas, he cant leave his masterwork alone. So he has created three action-crammed, sometimes bloated, often entertaining prequels that are artistically mixed but guarantee success at the box office.
The Desolation of Smaug takes a step forward from An Unexpected Journey. Jackson and his writing team spend a little more time on characterization, building up conflicted human warrior Bard (somber Luke Evans) and introducing a ninja elf Tolkien never put in the story: resourceful Tauriel (charismatic Evangeline Lilly).
The film still looks darker than need be, partly because Jackson insists on shooting in 3-D (which steals a little light) and doesnt use that technique especially well. Yet many special effects have improved, and the team responsible for Smaug outdoes itself.
That dragon represents the best and worst things about the film. Hes terrifying yet slightly droll, speaking in the altered voice of Benedict Cumberbatch (who uses another altered voice as the future Sauron). He slithers and soars convincingly; the ground shakes when he plants his mammoth feet, and you can almost feel waves of heat when he roars.
At the same time, hes utterly incompetent. He can unleash a full-bore firebomb directly over a dwarf without charring him. Little barefooted Bilbo (Martin Freeman) can outrun Smaug, who takes 50-foot strides. He cant get his jaws around a dwarf who is sitting on his nose.
Once you realize Jackson has no intention of killing any of the positive characters, theres no jeopardy: We watch them dart in and out of fake danger, simply waiting for them to escape. That may change in the third installment because some likable folks die in the novel, but I wonder.
Ian McKellen, wizened and withered as an old apple tree, still makes Gandalf compelling. If you like a wide-eyed, wondering Bilbo, Freeman remains ideal, though he shows none of the wiliness of the novels hero. (Thats the scripts fault.)
Jackson does well by supporting characters: Elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) balances between selfish isolationism and moments of bad conscience, and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) descends a bit further into madness in pursuit of his royal rights as leader of the dwarves. His son Kili (Aidan Turner) acquires a personality by dint of romantic interest in Tauriel.
Sometimes Jackson cant stop from going over the top. The books Beorn, a shapeshifter who protects his forest from interlopers by assuming the form of a bear, warily gives the dwarves aid. The one in the film has to try to slaughter them before changing his mind.
Yet, Jackson seems to have realized that the story whether his, Tolkiens or a hybrid of the two depends less on massed battles than on meaningful behavior. If he carries that idea through to the finale, as Lucas ultimately did in his prequels, next years There and Back Again could be the most memorable of the bunch.
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