Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Fantasy Garden: It Comes With a Dragon ('The Desolation of Smaug')

            Let's just forget the whole quaint notion that the "Hobbit" trilogy director Peter Jackson, the film's producers and all other contributing factors, human and financial, came up with this time has much of anything to do with a work of sophisticated children's fiction by JRR Tolkien called "The Hobbit."
            What they came up with was an idea for a second trilogy of movies that would exploit the factors that made a success of the threesome they began a decade ago based on Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" -- in particular the fantastically beautiful setting, a few of the earlier films' characters (a surprisingly doughty mini-man called a Hobbit; an endearingly know-it-all wizard who's a sort of a headmaster with clout in high places), the cinematic wizardry devised to make the LOTR and, crucially, the wide public fan base.

            Tolkien's "Hobbit" has nothing trilogistic or apocalyptic about it. Though the book does climax with a violent conflict between good and evil, its theme is the charm of littleness. The Hobbit we meet at the start, Bilbo Baggins, is a homage to the little things of life. He's "the ordinary sensual man" -- a 19th literary term invented by Flaubert and exploited by Joyce in his everyman hero Leopold Bloom -- writ small.

            Tolkien's plot premise is to shake the Hobbit out of his materialistic satisfaction with everyday pleasures by tricking him into taking part in an adventure: he remains little on the outside but grows on the inside. He is forced to explore talents he doesn't know he has and reach his full potential as -- what? The common man forced into heroism? He's the English shopkeeper, you might say, standing up to Hitler.

            In Tolkien's book the Hobbit is carried along on the dwarfs' quest as a 'thief' by the wizard Gandalf because he's smaller than anyone else and somebody has to steal the jewel from the dragon. Unlike LOTR, the quest is as farcical and quirky as heroic. Bilbo has a riddle contest with a twisted creature who lives underground and turns out to be the now legendary cinematic creation Gollum. The dwarfs are not necessarily great warriors and they're not as amusing at the LOTR's Gimli. In Tolkien's "Hobbit" when muscle is needed to win a big battle, the author summons it (spoiler alert) from the sky.

            Jackson's tripartite "Hobbit" is something else again.To spin it out over three movies -- because that's how you justify the investment needed to make a big, technically clever, no-holds-bar fantasy epic -- you have to pad what you have with elements taken from Tolkien's other works, recycle some of the flashier bits from the LOTR films, and invent new stuff from whole cloth. The audience's initial encounter with this approach led to widespread dissatisfaction with the empty calories in last year's first installment.

            The good news is the second installment, "The Desolation of Smaug" is a much better movie, especially if you let go of the notion that it's a representation of Tolkien's Hobbit. (Perhaps it's 'The Bobbit by PJ Holkien.')

            I knew I would like this movie once I got past the spiders. In LOTR Jackson gave us a dark, completely chilling episode of a single giant spider tracking down a terrified Frodo. The episode was entirely in the spirit of Tolkien's book, but if you're as much of an arachnophobe as I am, you can manage to read some things you simply cannot bear to watch.

            In "Smaug," the mechanistic spiders who attack our heroes are colorful, rather bouncy toys who whisper weirdly to each other in a manner slightly reminiscent of Gollum, and the film's doughty dwarfs plus Bilbo can fight them off as equals. The episode is not overly long and simply paves the way for the next danger, the next fight. This installment's fights don't seem to go on as long as they did in the first film, when the effortless gymnastic dispatching of hordes of supposedly fearsome orcs threatens to turn the movie into a parody of itself. These cartoonish conflict are still a problem, as they were also for me in LOTR, but a smaller one since they occupy less space in the film.

            The film has a faster pace and new characters arrive, including a perfectly miserable reincarnation of Legolas, whose sulky adolescent pouting is not much enlivened by his relentless dispatching of orcs. He misses his buds from the earlier show. The elves themselves, kidnapped from LOTR and bossed around by a pompous short-sighted king figure from central casting, look like pale gestapo angels. This group needs a coup d'etat or a surprise inspection visit by the elf queen. However, the elves' presence offers us a charming female warrior whose romance-poetry aptitude clicks with a youthful, studly dwarf. Was this guy even in the first film?

            And escaping from the elves leads to a fun sequence when the dwarfs are forced to escape in barrels down a whitewater stream. The human lake-town they come is also another great cinematic setting. Then, at last, we come to the dragon.

            If every garden has to have a snake, then every treasure-house cave needs its dragon. In the beautifully illustrated edition of "The Hobbit" I acquired in the early days of parenting, a rather pretty dragon sits coiled on a reasonably comfortable pile of gold with a few baubles. In "Smaug," as everybody knows, the skyscraper dragon sleeps beneath a whole country of gold. The size of the pile suggests the over-topping of the film's lengthy final scene. It might even work, but I'd have to see it a few more times to figure out exactly what's going on.

            That's some kind of recommendation at least. I'm not desolated. It's a film I wouldn't mind seeing again.