Movie Review ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)


The Facts
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Synopsis: An adaptation of the Disney fairy tale about a monstrous-looking prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Sir Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Luke Evans, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dan Stevens, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan

Director: Bill Condon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10, 7.5 on a second viewing)

Review: Let’s start with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: I had to see this live-action version of Beauty and the Beast twice before I felt I could really give it a fair shake.  I had been so looking forward to seeing Disney’s classic tale come to life that I perhaps went in with expectations dialed too high, spending much of the first screening feeling a bit, well, let-down.  Not that the production design wasn’t glorious (it is), not that the music wasn’t stirring (Alan Menken’s score still dazzles), and not that the actors giving flesh and bone life to characters crafted in animation studios weren’t up to the task (they are…mostly), but there was something that just didn’t hit my ‘Thrill Me’ button.  Seeing it again two weeks later in 3D accompanied by rich Dolby Atmos sound, I found some magic that wasn’t there before…but many of the problems remained.

Let’s go back to 1991 when Disney hand-drawn animation reached its full renaissance and true zenith with the release of Beauty and the Beast.  A dynamite blockbuster and instant classic, it also became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture (other nominees that year? Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides, and the winner The Silence of the Lambs) a title it held for 18 years until the list of nominees was expanded and Pixar’s Up nabbed a nom.  Disney recognized it had a property that could have a life beyond the silver screen and soon Beauty and the Beast became a highly popular and endlessly profitable Broadway musical.  With countless releases on video, DVD, BluRay and a 2012 re-release in 3D, the film is easily Disney’s bread and butter.  It’s no wonder, then, that with the popularity of Disney’s recent slate of live-action adaptations of their classic animated films (Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book), Beauty and the Beast is swooping back into theaters in a lavish new production.

You know the story, right?  Snooty, spoiled prince angers old beggar woman that’s really an enchantress in disguise.  Prince is turned into a beast and his staff are turned into various objects until the prince/beast learns to love and be loved in return.  Enter headstrong and misunderstood Belle who winds up imprisoned by the Beast but warms his cold heart.  The rest is fairy tale history.

My biggest issue with 2017’s BatB (let’s shorten it, shall we?) is its length.  The original film was a solid 84 minutes with very little in the way of excess plot, characters, or showiness but this film is 129 minutes and feels longer than it had to be.  That’s due to some baffling additions in plot and characters that feel like distractions from the action instead of support for the story.

Take Audra McDonald (Ricki and the Flash) and Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) as the castle entertainment turned into a wardrobe and a cadenza, respectively.  McDonald’s character isn’t new but the role is beefed up to ridiculous proportions, seemingly only to have an excuse to showcase McDonald’s glorious soprano.  Tucci’s piano man adds nothing to the plot and winds up taking time away from established characters Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen, The Wolverine, crazily underused) and Lumiere (Scotsman Ewan McGregor, A Million Ways to Die in the West, nearly nailing a French accent).  Emma Thompson’s (Saving Mr. Banks) is no Angela Lansbury but, even though an obvious choice, her warm-hearted Mrs. Potts gets the job done, delivering a sweet interpretation of the title tune.

Screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) has made the curious decision to provide a backstory for Belle and her father that involves Paris, a windmill, and the Black Plague.  While it may give more dimension to the character in general, it takes up too much time and again feels like it was added to introduce one of Menken’s new songs.

Ah…the songs.  Three songs from original musical written by Menken and the late Howard Ashman were nominated for an Oscar and hearing them again with a full orchestra it’s not hard to see (or hear) why.  ‘Belle’ is still an energetic introduction not only to our heroine but to her “poor provincial town” as well.  I missed some of the eccentric townsfolk Disney animators dreamed up, they’ve been replaced by bland-ish niceties that strangely seem more sinister than their hand-drawn inspirations ever did.  ‘Be Our Guest’ remains the star centerpiece with McGregor and an entire Crate and Barrel’s worth of kitchen fare going Busby Berkley when serving dinner.  I’ve heard ‘Beauty and the Beas’t a zillion times in a million different versions but it never fails to choke me up with its grand music but tender lyrics.  Surprisingly, the songs Menken and Tim Rice wrote for the Broadway musical are jettisoned for lesser carbon copies.  I can’t quite understand why the Beast’s knock-out Act 1 closing number ‘If I Can’t Love Her’ was replaced by ‘Evermore’ which says nearly the exact same thing.  So, too, for ‘Days in the Sun’, taking the place of ‘Human Again’ without much justification.  The only semi-winner in the bunch is ‘How Can a Moment Last Forever’, sung by Emma Watson and Kevin Kline in the movie and Celine Dion over the closing credits.  It’s a clear bid for an Oscar nomination and never count Menken out to sneak in and win the prize.

Director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) has never had the lightest touch and it shows in several frenetically edited numbers that cut away when they should be pulling back and showing the choreography.  It’s interesting that the best staged number (‘Be Our Guest’) is the one largely done with CGI and not the otherwise exuberant opening number or villain Gaston’s big boastful number set in a beer hall.  I was worried that the enchanted objects would look odd and they most certainly do.  It takes a good fifteen minutes to adjust to these computer creations which are blended seamlessly into the live-action pieces.  The castle design is gorgeous and the film looks like it spent every nickel of its sizable budget.

In the title roles, Dan Stevens (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) and Emma Watson (Noah) are just dandy but don’t truly possess the ‘It” factor that would make them feel like the only possible choices.  Watson’s got a good demeanor and knows exactly who Belle is, but her singing voice is AutoTuned to an almost comical level and I so missed hearing the soaring vocals of Paige O’Hara.  Though Stevens feels slightly too old next to Watson (giving further fodder to the whole Stockholm Syndrome debate that’s followed the tale since it’s origins), he manages to create an actual character within the constraints of his motion-captured Beast creation.  He’s got a nice singing voice too.

The best of the non-professionals is Luke Evans (The Raven) as Gaston.  Though he isn’t the ‘size of a barge’ as his character indicates in song, he’s a nicely nasty villain cut-off at the knees by the independent Belle and her protective father (Kevin Kline, The Big Chill).  He’s got a rich voice and makes each of his scenes and interactions count, I like that he didn’t try to excuse Gaston’s actions or show any redeeming qualities that might make us feel sorry for him.  Then there’s Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer), an actor I just don’t get.  I liked him in Frozen when he was heard and not seen but as Gaston’s sidekick Lefou he’s easily the most grating presence in the film.  Condon gives Gad far too much slack to modernize his character through shamelessly mugging while lip-synching terribly and though his affections for Gaston are plain as day, the “exclusive gay moment” being buzzed about is a blink and you’ll miss it beat most won’t even recognize.

There’s no doubt this is going to make Disney another trillion dollars at the box office and in clever tie-ins but for me this was the least successful live-action update so far.  It wants to have it both ways; being reverential to the original one moment and not quite as precious to it in another.  Condon wraps it up with a terrible final edit that only made me angrier the second time I saw it. Rated PG, it rides the line of being too long for little kids and pretty scary when you throw in two fairly terrifying wolf attacks.  It’s much darker than the animated film so parents should think twice before taking the tots to this – popping in the original would be my suggestion.

The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Trailer 2

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Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: No, YOU teared up when you were watching this look at Beauty and the Beast…ok…I did too.  One of Disney’s most beloved animated fairy tales comes to live action life from director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) in 2017 and it looks like, well, a beauty.  We all know the story so even seeing some spoilerific scenes doesn’t deter me from counting down the days until this one gets released.  Boasting an impressive cast with Emma Watson (The Bling Ring), Kevin Kline (The Big Chill), Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures), Sir Ian McKellen (X: Men – Days of Future Past), Josh Gad (Frozen), Luke Evans (The Raven), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games), and Ewan McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) all signing and dancing up a storm, anticipation is high for Beauty and the Beast to be another jewel in Disney’s recent slate of live action remakes of their cartoon classics.

View the teaser trailer here: Beauty and the Beast – Teaser Trailer

The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: Gosh darn it, there’s no denying that Disney is sure on a winning streak with re-purposing their animated fairy-tale canon as live action films. After the winning success of 2015’s Cinderella and the eye-popping visuals of The Jungle Book, Disney is unleashing the big guns in 2017 with their production of Beauty and the Beast.  Already well represented in the flesh in a Broadway show and touring companies around the world, the stars are aligning for this to be one beauty of a movie. This first teaser gave me legit goosebumps, mostly due to the creative use of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s haunting score and the briefest of first looks at Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) as Belle and the voices of Ian McKellen (The Wolverine) and Ewan McGregor (August: Osage County) as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively.  In future trailers I’m sure we’ll see more of Dan Stevens (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) as Beast, Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) as Gaston, Audra McDonald (Ricki and the Flash) as Garderobe, Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as Mrs. Potts, and Kevin Kline (The Big Chill) as Maurice.  Directed by Bill Condon (Mr. Holmes), I’m praying it’s light on gimmicky CGI and retains the heart that made the animated film such an instant classic.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Girl on the Train

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Synopsis: Rachel spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until one morning she sees something shocking happen there and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds

Release Date:  October 7, 2016

Thoughts: For several years now I find myself thinking at the end of most movies “Emily Blunt should have been in this…Emily Blunt makes everything good.” and it’s an opinion I hold fast to. Luckily, Blunt (Into the Woods) is front and center in this new trailer for the highly anticipated big screen adaptation of the bestselling novel The Girl on the Train.  Sure it shares not only an October release date but a plot kinship with 2014’s nice and twisted Gone Girl, but if this first look is any indication (and, I know, it’s not) Blunt could find herself with an Oscar nomination like Rosamund Pike did for Gone Girl.  Plus…I mean, look at the cast: Allison Janney (The Way, Way Back), Justin Theroux (Wanderlust), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Lisa Kudrow (Neighbors)…just a roster of dependable, stellar talent. October is a great month for mystery and I’m ready for my ticket to ride this Train.

The Silver Bullet ~ High-Rise

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Synopsis: A big screen adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel centered on a new residential tower where one man finds himself in the middle of mounting violence. Violence that he also finds emerging in himself.

Release Date:  March 18, 2016

Thoughts: I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t yet heard of director Ben Wheatley.  The Brit director isn’t well known in the states, having yet to make a commercial cross over hit that would get him the attention he deserves.  His 2011 film Kill List remains one of the most deeply frightening films I’ve ever seen and now he’s movin’ on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky with High-Rise.  A nicely done true teaser of a trailer, there’s lots to see but little explained…just like I like it.  I’ve a feeling the finished film will be less straight-forward than it appears but I’m trusting in Wheatley to lead me down a worthy less traveled path.  Starring Tom Hiddleston (Only Lovers Left Alive), Sienna Miller (American Sniper), and Jeremy Irons (Beautiful Creatures), this is popping up first in England but should make its way to our coast sometime in 2016.

Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bilbo and Company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the terrifying Smaug from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-earth.

Stars: Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Martin Freeman,Stephen Fry, Jed Brophy, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom,Billy Connolly, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Ken Stott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Graham McTavish, Lee Pace,Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Richard Armitage, John Bell,Adam Brown, John Callen, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Dean O’Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt, Aidan Turner, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  So here it is…the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth and the end of his second trilogy featuring all sorts of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards, dragons, rings, etc.  Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is arguably an example of the truly best storytelling on film since the medium began and it helped that the movies comprising that original trilogy were based on three individual books.  With The Hobbit films, it’s been clear that Jackson struggled with the limitations of working with just one J.R.R. Tolkien book as the subject for three rather lengthy films.

Originally intended as a two-part series, somewhere along the line the concept of another trilogy was just too appealing and Jackson went back and shot more footage to fill out the narrative, drawing on the Appendices from Tolkien and creating an entirely new character in the form of a female woodland elf (Evangeline Lilly) that forms a connection with a dwarf.

I (along with many others) wasn’t quite enamored with 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey finding it too ponderous and uneventful even with its impressive technical merits. A year later, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug suffered from another workmanlike introduction before hitting paydirt in its final hour when the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek: Into Darkness) made his appearance.  Ending with a great cliffhanger, I think many fans were equal parts excited to see the finale in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and relieved that this troubled chapter was closing.

Before seeing this last film I did something I didn’t do last year, I spent a day with my favorite Lord of the Rings fan and watched the first two Hobbit films in their extended versions back to back.  I suddenly found the narrative less onerous and appreciated the way that Jackson let the story unfold as brave hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The World’s End) traversed across the countryside with a group of dwarves toward the Lonely Mountain searching for a stone that would restore a kingdom to its rightful owners.

Unlike the original Lord of the Rings films, these three Hobbit entries are essentially one long (looooooong) movie and should be seen together.  Now, I’m sure your rump just let out a little squeal of disagreement but I know I enjoyed The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies as much as I did because I had seen its two predecessors shortly before.  Now, Jackson’s stretching of the material wasn’t quite so objectionable and began to make a lot of sense.

That’s not to say The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t fall into the same traps that befell the earlier entries.  There’s still a questionable amount of scenes that go on longer than they should; Jackson backs off on his gained momentum when he should be blazing forward.  The battle sequences occupy the majority of this chapter and at times it can be an overwhelming experience, but on the other hand they’re staged with the kind of epic grandeur that recalls old Hollywood epics featuring casts of thousands.

The digital rendering of an endless supply of hideous evils are a sight to behold and the technicians involved should not only pick out their attire for the Oscar ceremony now, they should ready their acceptance speeches.  It’s the highest level of proficiency I’ve seen out of Jackson’s effects house and the results are excellent.

As for the flesh and blood actors, all deliver solid performances that tie in nicely to the events that follow in the Lord of the Rings series.  Though there are a few references to future characters that seem overly shoehorned in, I gotta say that I appreciated how well Jackson and co. make sure that all the ends are connected before the credits roll.

Along with Freeman’s jittery Bilbo (I’ve decided he’s the Hugh Grant of hobbits) there’s Ian McKellen’s (X-Men: Days of Future Past) wise wizard Gandalf, Richard Armitage’s (Into the Storm) haunted dwarf who would be king, and the luminous Cate Blanchett’s (Blue Jasmine) as Galadriel who winds up with one of the film’s most thrilling moments that’s nearly worth the price of admission in and of itself.

One couldn’t be blamed if the feeling to move right into a Lord of the Rings marathon is present as this film reaches its conclusion.  Jackson has seen to it that the transition between his two trilogies is fluid and while he won’t win an Oscar for his efforts this time around, he deserves another round of applause for the world he brought to life in six films.  A high-water achievement as a filmmaker…even if The Hobbit films still can’t hold a candle to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Movie Review ~ Dracula Untold

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Facing threats to his kingdom and his family, Vlad Tepes makes a deal with dangerous supernatural forces – whilst trying to avoid succumbing to the darkness himself.

Stars: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Diarmaid Murtagh, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance

Director: Gary Shore

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: When it comes to films about Dracula I’m a, well, sucker.  I’m not sure where this childhood fascination came with the fanged count began but one need only look at my sequential years of Halloween costume pictures where I sported a black cape and a set of too big for my mouth fangs that eventually fit perfectly to see that there was nary a vampire vein I wasn’t willing to open.

Vampires have had their fair share of cinematic excursions over the decades in pretty much every genre in existence.  From the Bela Lugosi original to Christopher Lee’s long tenure for Hammer Studios to Chris Sarandon’s menacing 80s hunk of Fright Night and Gary Oldman’s highly stylized take on the count for Francis Ford Coppola, vampires had come a long way…only to be reduced to romantic glittery naval gazers in the Twilight films. The makers of Dracula Untold are counting on the big guy having a little blood left to feed the masses and it’s nice to report that while there isn’t a feast to be had, what’s on the plate is more satisfying than one would imagine.

The good thing about Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’s script is that it doesn’t feel like an outright “Dracula Project”.  I get the impression they used the legend of Vlad the Impaler as a jumping off point for their leather and sword action pic and went back later to add more mythology, fangs, and bloodletting to the mix. However they approached it, the film as a whole works surprisingly well because it has a strong backbone to support it during some of the less successful moments involving iffy special effects and an overstuffed ending leading to an unnecessary epilogue.

Leading the cast as the man who would become a vampire legend is Luke Evans who possesses the Eastern European looks to suggest a denizen of Transylvania but the British accent that makes one wonder if Prince Vlad was educated at Oxford.  Yes, friends, this is another of those movies set in a district where the UK dialect doesn’t make any sort of sense yet is widely employed by all who cross the screen.  Evans (The Raven) brings a considerable assuredness to Vlad, painting him as a one-time impaling warrior now content to rule his kingdom in peace with his lovely wife (Sarah Gadon, Enemy, with bosom appropriately heaving and on display) and son.

When a Turkish sultan and former comrade (a not the least bit believable Dominic Cooper, Need for Speed, sporting enough eyeliner to write a short story) demands Vlad provide 1,000 boys (including his own progeny) as soldiers for his army, he refuses and incurs the impending wrath of destruction against his kingdom.  Turning to a mysterious figure (Charles Dance) that haunts a lonely mountain, Vlad is given the power of the vampire and has three days to reverse the effects while using his newfound power to destroy his enemy.

Director Gary Shore keeps the first half of the movie flowing nicely as a well-executed origin story that’s more interesting than it has any right to be.  With some handsome scenery and nicely constructed set pieces (no RenFest rickety buildings here, thank you very much) there’s an agreeable momentum built by all as Vlad moves toward the dark side of his growing vampiric prowess.  It’s only when it devolves into blurry battle sequences that mythology gets thrown out of the door in favor of some carefully edited PG-13 violence.  For a film about the famed blood drinker, there’s precious little of the red stuff on display.

Feeling longer than its 92 minutes, Dracula Untold still manages to keep pace with our expectations for most of its running length.  Aside from the aforementioned unfortunate epilogue that represents  both one ending too many and some obvious studio sequel pressure, by and large this is one Dracula story that earns its telling.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dracula Untold

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Synopsis: Facing threats to his kingdom and his family, Vlad Tepes looks to make a deal with dangerous supernatural forces – without succumbing to the darkness himself.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts:  Okay, so along with my weakness for shark movies, creature features, Grease 2, Showgirls, and a bunch of other cinematic eye-rolls I have to say that I’m always up for a revisionist take on the vampire kingpin of ‘em all: Dracula. The origin of Dracula has been told countless times over the years from historically sound efforts to wildly fantastical takes on the myth with nary a drop of blood left unspilled. With a cast that includes Luke Evans (The Raven), Sarah Gadon (Enemy), and Dominic Cooper (Need for Speed), Dracula Untold looks to be in the campy-yet-serious group, catering to the Underworld and fan base but don’t think that will stop me from resting comfortably in my screening seat to see what new creases the creators have in store for this well-worn tale.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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Synopsis: The Company of Thorin has reached Smaug’s lair; but can Bilbo and the Dwarves reclaim Erebor and the treasure? And, if so, can they hold on to it?

Release Date: December 17, 2014

Thoughts: All those eyebrows that have been raised since Peter Jackson returned to Middle Earth and the land of elves, hobbits, dragons, and wizards will finally get a chance to rest once the final chapter of The Hobbit trilogy is released in December. Though the trilogy hasn’t been met with the same rapturous acclaim that The Lord of the Rings films accumulated, there’s no denying Jackson has leveraged his talents to see it all through to the very end. I was slow to warm to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and thought The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was an improvement so I hope that trajectory continues. Even with the endless debate about Jackson’s use of advanced filming technology and employment of 3D can’t diminish my overall respect for his hefty accomplishment. Looking forward to this, no question.

Movie Review ~ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug.

Stars: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Lee Pace

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  A little over a year ago the groans heard ‘round the world were from the audiences coming out of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.  After waiting so long for the director’s vision of J.R.R. Tolkien predecessor to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the disappointing first film was a tough one to sit through, hardly justifying its nearly three hour running length.  Adding to some headaches was the High Frame Ratio (HFR) filming style the movie was released in, which displays the film at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.  This creates an overly realistic image that some audiences (including myself) had a hard time adjusting to.  I closed my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey by saying “I only hope that in the time he {Peter Jackson} has until the next film is released Jackson listens to the feedback on the pace and edits the next entries accordingly.”

Well it’s a year later and I’m happy to say that Jackson must have listened to me ( 🙂 ) because The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug represents a significant improvement in almost every area that wasn’t quite up to snuff the first time around.  Though the film is still overinflated to fill out the requirements of a trilogy, there’s more action to hold your attention and some incredible effects sequences that had me on the edge of my seat.  Seeing it again in 3D HFR I found the projected image a lot easier to adjust to, with only a few select sequences coming off as funky due to the way the HFR affects movement. 

Picking up where the first film left off (after a brief prologue that comes before the events of the first film), we are once again partners on a journey with Bilbo and the dwarves in their quest to make it to The Lonely Mountain to reclaim their rightful homeland.  Along the way they encounter a bevy of roadblocks like large spiders, shape shifting men, fiendishly rendered orcs, and combative elves…all trying to knock them off their path toward the mountain.

Of course, it’s all a means to an end because anyone that has read the books or seen the previews or read the title knows that a meeting with the destructive dragon Smaug is pending.  Whatever you may think about the first 2/3 of the film, it’s the final act where Bilbo comes face to face with the fire-breathing monster where the film earns some major brownie points.  Smaug, (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek: Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave) is a stunning creation of visual effects, seamlessly blending in with the live action sets and stars – the digital titans at the special effects company WETA have truly outdone themselves here. 

Though the time flies once the dragon appears on screen, I did find the first chunk of the movie easy to sit through even if my mind wandered more than I’d like and my eyes drifted to my watch on more than one occasion.  Though Evangeline Lilly’s sylvan elf character Tauriel was created solely for these final two films, I found her presence to be very strong.  The bad part is that her supposed romance with dwarf Kili unfortunately adds lengthy time to the already long movie and isn’t really necessary or truly integral to the plot.  Who knows how this romance will factor into the final film but it did feel like extraneous filler to stretch out the running length. 

Overall, this film really delivers the goods.  Though it’s clear now that The Hobbit films won’t be able to topple the original trilogy, fans of Tolkien’s work or Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings films should find more reasons to like this second installment while being reminded once again how special that original trilogy was.  Ending with a dynamite cliffhanger, a year seems too far away to be able to finish the journey in middle earth.  If you had asked me a year ago, I’d have said that a year wasn’t long enough.  A grand improvement of a film.