Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: 'Smaug' is Bilbo 2.0

Director Peter Jackson's singular vision of Middle-earth is full of spectacle in The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment of The Hobbit, and Howard Shore's score is as beautiful as ever. Jackson makes strong directorial choices that cover up a weak script, consistently entertaining his audience for nearly three hours.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company continue their journey to Erebor, a kingdom inside the Lonely Mountain, and prepare to confront an enormous dragon named Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) once they get there. Along the way, Bilbo and the dwarves encounter evil forests, giant spiders and persistent Orcs determined to kill Thorin (Richard Armitage), the leader of Bilbo's company. Meanwhile, Bilbo's wizard friend, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), learns a witch king called the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch), is rising again. Gandalf investigates while Bilbo and the others try to reclaim Erebor from Smaug.

The best scene in the film is an elaborate battle involving Orcs, dwarves in barrels, elves and a river. The scene is one of the greatest action sequences in the Middle-earth saga, despite a few shots bobbing in and out of the river that look like they were filmed on GoPro cameras. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) even skateboards down some stairs on a dead Orc, an homage to the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, where he rides a shield down a flight of stairs.

The showdown between Gandalf and the Necromancer is stunning as well, and light and dark magic dominate the screen until it is essentially black and white. A hallucination sequence in the forest of Mirkwood is visually arresting, but the most impressive image is Smaug, brought to life by flawless computer generation. The film deserves an Oscar nomination for best visual effects.

The emotional core of the film is a love triangle that writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Jackson create between Legolas, a second elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner) — a dwarf in Bilbo's company. These relationships keep the viewer invested in the characters.

Thorin, Balin (Ken Stott) and Bombur (Stephen Hunter) are more fleshed out than they were in the previous film, making the dwarves distinct characters. Freeman is the perfect Bilbo, his subtle mannerisms and comedic timing making Bilbo more endearing. And even without being seen Cumberbatch voices Smaug with excellence.

The weakness of the film is its anticlimactic ending. It sets up the third film perfectly — but does so at the expense of this installment. The result is a film largely present to bridge the trilogy and develop characters. This chapter, with a lot of buildup and few payoffs, has hardly any plot of its own but is an important part of a bigger story.

Mark Mukherjee is a senior at King High.

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