Christmas comes early for Tolkien fans
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2013 - 12:00am

It’s easy to be awed by Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit installment, The Desolation of Smaug. Especially if you’re watching it in IMAX, in 3-D, in all its HFR glory.

What’s HFR? It’s geek speak for High Frame Rate, the shooting format used for this sequel (and the first Hobbit installment). It means that, instead of 24 frames per second zipping by on the big screen, your glazzies are taking in 48 fat frames. It’s either amazingly immersive and hyper-real or amazingly fake, depending on how your brain (and eye) registers images.

I’ll have to go with amazingly hyper-real on this one. At first, after watching Peter Jackson skirt by munching a carrot in the opening cameo shot, you are drawn into a warm tavern where Gandalf (Ian McKellan) meets with Thorin (Richard Armitage) to plot the dwarves’ quest to reclaim the riches of Lonely Mountain (or somesuch). It feels like you’re in someone’s living room, watching a high-def home video. A really expensive home video with great production values. The movement of figures and the level of detail is almost magical. You begin to see this as the future of how we view movies. With limitless storage space, HFR digital cameras can make any event seem, well, larger than life. 

This effect is multiplied during the action scenes, which are superior to those in the first Hobbit movie, An Unexpected Journey. Your jaw drops as you take a barrel ride down a waterfall with the dwarves, escaping the Elven castle; your head spins at the cascades of gold and riches looming in the dragon Smaug’s underground castle; you grimace as the dwarves are spun into cocoons by giant spiders in Mirkwood.

And yet all this would mean nothing if the script didn’t keep the story focused on the characters. Here, the characters come to life in even sharper detail than An Unexpected Journey. Martin Freeman brings more of his comical brilliance to Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who is only beginning to grasp the complexity of danger and allure that his newly acquired ring (filched from Gollum in the previous episode) brings. His mastery of the double-take alone is worth price of admission.

Gandalf is also a fully drawn character, wise and resourceful, yet also reckless at times and never completely sure of the outcome of his actions. He’s a risk taker, but also one used to high risks.

The other characters come into sharp relief. Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) catches the eye of female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly — who knew she had talent beyond Lost?), only to earn suspicious looks from Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to whom she’s been promised. As in the first movie, the dwarves show off their respective talents and personalities.

But this isn’t a character study, really: it’s an action movie. The highlight, perhaps, is the escape from Mirkwood castle in stolen barrels. In this 10-minute sequence, action is balanced with story by Jackson in a masterful way: several story lines are juggled with wit and brio as the elves pursue the dwarves, only to encounter a small army of orcs along the raging river.

Tolkien purists are already displeased that Jackson’s script (with the help of Lord of the Rings writer Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro) strays from the details of the book, while others crab that such a short volume doesn’t deserve three whole movies. Well, they’re both right — but there’s never any pleasing purists and geeks, so the show must go on.

Bilbo has some great moments in this movie, as he discovers a new courage — much of it founded on the mysterious ring that grants him not only invisibility, but a disturbing sense of invincibility as well. He defeats spiders and orcs with his trusty sword, but a moral dilemma begins to gnaw at him. When Gandalf sniffs out this sudden change in Bilbo, he confronts him: “You’re not the hobbit you were before.” Baggins weighs Gandalf’s words; he weighs the ring in his pocket, deciding whether to reveal the truth; he pauses meaningfully: “I… I have changed. I found something in the Gollum’s tunnels… My courage.”

In another sequence, he comically tries to buy time by flattering the cranky Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) until he can snatch away a magical white jewel: “Truly the tales — and songs — fall utterly short of your enormity, oh, Smaug, the stupendous…”

Elsewhere, all the dangerous threads that will eventually lead to The Lord of the Rings are laid out: the approach of evil passes like a dark wind over the Elvenking Thanduil; over Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) who seeks to restore the kingdom of old Dale; and under the nose of Gandalf, who realizes that the Necromancer is plotting to command armies of the undead.

Dare I say it? This movie gives us a more vivid depiction of the evil to come than the Lord of the Rings trilogy manages in three long outings. And it’s less somber, less plodding, and more in love with storytelling. Perhaps it’s because we know what’s to come, and perhaps because The Hobbit is Tolkien Lite — also, perhaps, I have been bedazzled by Jackson’s new technical mastery at the helm. The movie is overly long — he could have squeezed the Hobbit book down to two installments easily, and once again lengthy chases through forests lead to eyelids fluttering downward for quick power snoozes — but Jackson is in good form here. (Credit also to Jackson pal and Gollum impersonator Andy Serkis, who directs the second unit “action” scenes with grit and style.)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may be tech-driven Tolkien porn, the most visual distillation yet of the writer’s complex narratives, full of eye candy and money shots; but that doesn’t make it wrong to watch it. If you see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, don’t deprive yourself of the full optical experience — it will truly make your jaw drop open.

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