A Barrel of Laughs and a Mountain of Plot: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.
Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Adapting the first third of Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit is quite the challenge, but Peter Jackson and Co. did a fairly good job of it, getting into the spirit of adventure while bringing iconic scenes like the introduction of the dwarves and Gollum’s riddle-game to life onscreen. But the real challenges lie in expanding the story into two more films, both with a running time of about three hours long.

On that mark, The Desolation of Smaug does alright. Not fantastic, not super-amazing—just alright.

Following their escape from the Misty Mountains, Bilbo and the dwarves have to press onward toward Erebor despite the pack of Orcs now on their tail. While Gandalf is forced to leave in order to scout out the dark plans of the Necromancer and the army he’s amassing, the Company’s journey takes them through the twisted forest of Mirkwood, faced with ravenous spiders and unsympathetic Elves. But their path draws toward Lake-town and the Lonely Mountain, where a showdown with Smaug is to be expected.

Compared to the first film, Desolation of Smaug is much more action-oriented. Right from the beginning, we’ve got outrunning the Orcs, fighting Mirkwood spiders, outrunning the Woodland Elves in a very creative chase sequence involving barrels and whitewater rafting, and the final sequence with Smaug the dragon (whose dialogue with Bilbo is almost as delightful as it is in the book, especially with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the two roles). On the other hand, this also means that there’s less time to reflect on things. The story just presses onward, with new characters and developments thrown in all the time.

Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.
Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

One such development is an addition by the filmmakers: a romantic subplot, namely between the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and the Elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). I can appreciate why it’s included, as Tauriel does provide a sympathetic portrayal of Elves beyond the raw acrobatic feats of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), as well as a kind of Romeo and Juliet storyline about bridging together rival factions (namely, Elves and Dwarves). But for me, every time the film focused on Tauriel, I was always conscious of the romantic subplot. I don’t mind her character being in the film, but I wish that a female character with heroic qualities could just once have a storyline that didn’t automatically involve romance or a love triangle.

On that same note, I felt like this story needed to focus more on Bilbo, whose characterization as an unexpected hero is becoming a lot stronger as the adventure continues. I would have also liked to see more of Gandalf gathering his allies for the never-before-seen siege on Dol Guldur, lair of the Necromancer (both of which are suitably creepy in the film).

Other performances work out just fine. Stephen Fry provides a colorful interpretation of the Master of Lake-Town while Benedict Cumberbatch is very menacing as the voice of Smaug. The CG animation that went into Smaug is nothing short of impressive. You get a sense of just how massive and powerful this dragon is, and I love the animation for his fire-breathing attacks, too.

If you’re looking for some good action sequences, then the second Hobbit movie has it in spades. But it still feels like a very heavy middle-of-the-trilogy film, throwing in a lot of subplots and last-minute surprises before ending on a very abrupt cliffhanger. It’s decent enough in the context of the overall story, but it doesn’t have quite the same effect as The Two Towers did in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is available through Warner Bros. and playing in theaters at the time of this writing.

Bibliography: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Directed by Peter Jackson. Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. Based on the novel of J.R.R. Tolkien. Perf. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans. New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wingnut Films (studio). Warner Bros. Pictures. US release date: December 13, 2013.

A Surprise Straight Out Of Bag End: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit (poster)
Copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

I have been a fan of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien ever since my dad read the book to me as a bedtime story.  I love Bilbo Baggins and the company of dwarves and their colorful journey through danger and fortune in Middle-earth.

So when I heard that The Hobbit was being adapted to film, I was excited.  When I heard about it being released in 3-D at a rate of 48 frames per second, and divided up into an entire trilogy, I was less optimistic.  Reading a few early reviews only worsened my outlook.

I can now say how glad I am to have been so wrong.

Bilbo Baggins and Company
Bilbo (Martin Freeman) at the start of his journey.  Copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3-D at 48 fps.  While the frame rate is at first unsettling, it wasn’t hard to get into it.  In fact, I felt more involved with the film because of it.  Yes, sometimes it doesn’t integrate well with more elaborate CGI, but I like how fluid the actors and scenery becomes.  I felt far more immersed that way than with the 3-D effects.  They’re still distracting to say the least, and I really wish Hollywood would stop trying to release films in 3-D.  It’s possible to make box office profits without that kind of gimmick.

Martin Freeman is brilliant as Bilbo Baggins; he’s every bit as respectable, flustered, and crafty as the character from the book, and no more need be said.  The thirteen dwarves are all fairly standard, though Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is reimagined as a warrior like Aragorn, only grimmer and more vengeful.  Ian McKellen is still wonderful as Gandalf, though it’s nice to see him being outdone as an eccentric by Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), even if Radagast’s scenes come a little out of left field with little impact on the plot.  Andy Serkis deserves credit for being a treat as Gollum, particularly since we get to see the famous riddle-game brought to life with Martin Freeman’s help. For me, that scene was the highlight of the entire film.

Going into this movie, I knew that it wasn’t going to be a strict adaptation of The Hobbit as I remember it from my childhood.  It wasn’t, and yet there was a spirit of the original story that showed itself in the film.  Yes, most of the epic action scenes and character interpretations would better fit The Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit, but Bilbo has been brought to life on the silver screen and that’s really what counts.  For every new Orc-battle and cutaway to the Necromancer subplot (referenced in the Lord of the Rings Appendices), it’s still a grand adventure and it’s hard not to cheer for Bilbo and the dwarves as they get through every hardship.  To see a young hobbit on this journey and hear the dwarves sing “Far over the misty mountains cold,” it gives me faith in Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s work, and hope for the next installment.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is available through Warner Bros. Pictures.

Bibliography: The Hobbit (2012 film).  Directed by Peter Jackson.  Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson.  Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo Del Toro.  Based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Perf. Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis.  New Line Cinema; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; WingNut Films.  Warner Bros. Pictures.  US release date: December 14, 2012.

Middle-Earth Melodies: “House of Heroes” and “Third Immortal” by Battlelore

Battlelore is a Finnish metal band that has three things going for it: an awesome name, a deep passion for the works of Tolkien, and a pretty sweet sound.

Now, a lot of the group’s early material is centered on Lord of the Rings, but for this review, I wanted to go with something more recent that, while not directly tied to Tolkien, carries the same spirit of his work.  So here are the first tracks and top singles from their last two albums, “House of Heroes” and “Third Immortal.”

“House Of Heroes” (Evernight, 2007)

Album cover for Evernight. Copyright © 2007 by Napalm Records.

Both the song and the music video have great beginning, as haunting notes rise up from a guitar while visually we get the montage of a hooded man with a rod of Asclepius, easily defeating his enemies in a snow-covered battlefield.  Forty seconds later, the song stops and launches right into the heavy-pounding style that all metal fans will instantly click into.

There’s also a fantastic contrast between female vocal Kaisa Jouhki (apparently of Indonesian descent despite being in a Finnish band) and male vocal Tomi Mykkänen.  Kaisa provides a deep soaring voice to Tomi’s bestial growling.  In this case, having just Kaisa sing would make this song more pop than metal while listening to just Tomi would be nothing more than noise.  Together, they come off as a strong counterbalance of harmony and chaos that fits the theme of the song.

“Third Immortal” (The Last Alliance, 2008)

Album cover for The Last Alliance. Copyright © 2008 by Napalm Records.

“Am I immortal?  Must I obey?”

This question echoes throughout the chorus of this high-note, heavy percussion song.  Again, we get a similar image from “House of Heroes”–that of a lone man wandering the woods with his weapon in hand.  Only here he’s less of a wizard and more of a Ranger, which makes me think that this song might in fact be a kind of tribute to Aragorn or at least one of the Dúnedain.  The idea of long-lived men choosing not to cower but to go out and fight with their mighty gifts is one that certainly runs throughout Tolkien’s works, which seems appropriate considering he himself took his work from Norse epics and heroic poems.

And like in “House of Heroes,” we get that same gothic metal duet between Kaisa and Tomi, especially at 2:25 as their voices play off each other.  But suddenly at 3:56, we get a welcome surprise as Tomi stops his incessant growls of “Third Immortal!” and actually sings clearly in a true duet with Kaisa.  This marks a major shift in both the song’s melody and the music video, showing us the Third Immortal as he chooses to take up arms and go to war.

Final Verdict: Growls, Grace, And Grandeur

My first impression of Battlelore was that it was a lot like Within Temptation (at least as far as “Mother Earth” went).  However, just as there’s a clear difference between the Finnish and the Dutch, so also is there a difference between these two groups.  Battlelore is passionate and powerful, touching on both the light and the dark in epic sagas with its high and low melodies twisting together to form a single dramatic punch to the air.

Bibliography: Battlelore.  “House of Heroes.”  Evernight.  CD.  Napalm Records, 2007.

Battlelore.  “Third Immortal.”  The Last Alliance.  CD.  Napalm Records, 2009.

Heroes, Villains, And Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures: Jeff Smith’s Bone

Illustrations copyright © 2004 Jeff Smith. BONE is a registered trademark of Jeff Smith.

When I was on vacation last month, I went to my favorite city, San Francisco.  And while I was there, I visited the Cartoon Art Museum, where they had all sorts of comic strips and cartoonists on display.  And among them was some work by the award-winning artist Jeff Smith, best known for his self-published comic series, Bone.

So how to describe this graphic novel series?  Well, take the epic writing style of J.R.R. Tolkien with the playful imagination of Walt Disney and you have something like this story.

It follows the trail of a funny little white creature called Fone Bone, who’s trying to stick close to his cousins, Smiley and Phoney, as they attempt just about every get-rich-quick scheme they can think of.  Complicating this is his encounter with a beautiful young farm girl named Thorn, her gruff but kindly grandmother, and a Great Red Dragon.  Further complicating his travels are the vicious rat creatures led by Kingdok and the Hooded One, and an ancient conflict between mortals, rat creatures, and dragons–upon which hangs the fate of the entire world.

I have to admit that I first found out about this series while reading a few strips of it from the Disney Adventures magazine when I was a kid.  But it wasn’t until later that I realized just how epic a work this story was, that there was more than the possible romance between Bone and Thorn or the Great Cow Race that Grandma Rose and the Bones get into.  It really goes back and forth with humor and adventure, playing up the short-sighted or urbane nature of the Bones against the epic medieval attitudes of their various allies and adversaries.

This is a delightful read for all ages, with its Tolkienesque drama, dogged optimism, and never-ending humor.

Bibliography: Smith, Jeff.  Bone.  Self-published series.  Published by Image Comics, Issues No. 21 – 27.  1991 – 2004.

Do-It-Yourself World-Building: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion

Copyright © 1999 by Christopher Reuel Tolkien. All Rights Reserved.

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the greatest and most revered authors of the twentieth century.  He is best known for producing such enduring stories as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which have come to define the modern genre of “high fantasy.”  As a skilled philologist and an avid lover of ancient Anglo-Saxon culture, Tolkien ensured that his readers received a very-detailed and colorful world for his stories to take place in.

In that sense, The Silmarillion is less of a story within Middle-earth than a compendium of notes and tales about the fictional realm itself.

While it is something of a hard read, this book is engaging for anyone who can’t get enough of the depth of Tolkien’s work.  This is a man who wrote out a Creation myth for his own universe, which is an epic unto itself.  Quite a lot happens within the First and Second Ages–long before the days of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins–that would seem like complete stories on their own, yet they all serve to set up the ongoing struggle between Good and Evil.  The Silmarillion could easily be seen as a “prequel” to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Of all the stories within this tome, I have to say that one of the best–and my personal favorite–is “The Tale of Beren and Luthien,” which chronicles the first romantic union between Elves and Men.  Not only is their story a poignant and compelling look into the nature of love, death, and redemption, but it also serves as an ancient predecessor to the romance of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings.

So if you are a fan of Tolkien’s work or just want to set up your own fictional world, then take a look into The Silmarillion.

Bibliography: Tolkien, J.R.R.  The Silmarillion.  London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.