See It Instead: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug Edition
Sometimes a movie comes along and makes you aware of an itch you never knew you had. Perhaps a review piqued your interest, or you’d rather stay in and pay yourself $10 for a small popcorn and watch a movie on the cheap. Perhaps you’re valiantly struggling through your queue on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and need a wise, cultured voice to direct you to where the real movie viewing gold is hiding amidst the shitty Christmas cartoons and serial killer biopics. Well, look no further. See It Instead is here to take today’s new releases and guide you to what you should really be watching.
The Hobbit – Blah Blah Blah Smaug.
OK, my antipathy for this movie is pretty well documented. Peter Jackson is stretching the material pretty thin with a 3 part movie series, and most of the filler is crappy Lord of the Rings lite material. I guess nobody told him that prequel trilogies are pretty dodgy affairs. This movie has the pay-off pitch though, with the actual appearance of the dragon Smaug (whose pronunciation Bilbo mangles relentlessly on-screen.) If only the weight of the tacked on Legolas love story doesn’t sink the overall premise, we may have a decent movie on our hands. Why not go for the sure thing and watch these great movies instead?
The Serious Pick: Rankin/Bass The Hobbit (1977)
The real journey of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions.
In keeping with this month’s theme, The Rankin/Bass movie collection, it would be criminal to neglect the truly epic Hobbit adaptation they produced in 1977. A labor of love in an era before J.R.R. Tolkien became fashionable, Rankin personally involved himself with the project and declared he would add nothing to the source material. In your face, Jackson!
The art style is unique and conveys a fantasy element that borrows from other works while making the creatures its own. The stylized facial features, truncated bodies, and painstaking detail are memorable, and for audiences of a certain age, define the mythological creatures depicted. Any orc or troll that is not a Rankin/Bass creation just looks wrong to me, that’s how iconic the imagery was.
The sound and score are breathtaking, developing the material straight from Tolkien’s work. The guttural history songs of the dwarves act as anchor points to story, and are interspersed with cackling battle songs of the orcs, whispering riddle songs from Gollum’s lair, and Gregorian-style chant’s from the land of men. The orchestration is nicely arranged, and the blaring french horns that herald incoming danger can still move my pulse three decades later. The sound effects are mostly orchestral, as well, and the blaze of dragon fire is perhaps one of the nicest touches in an strong library of effects.
The voice acting is strong as well, giving a booming cadence and echo for most of the grander characters. Gandalf is a pleasure to hear, uttering iconic lines to a warbling, aged falsetto only to drop into a menacing snarl or soothing laugh as the scene requires. And Smaug. The dragon is rightly the center-piece in a drama filled with amazing characters. His voice drips condescension and menace, as his character literally drips molten fire from his mouth as he speaks. Despite looking like a giant cat, he manages to be both elegant and primal/visceral at once. Bard of Lake Town is also a gigantic bad ass, speaking in Scandinavian lilt while dropping matter-of-fact bad-ass boasts. He will mess you up, and sound serene while doing it.
Get on board with this moving journey, which promises you the best of the J.R.R. Tolkien franchise without any addition or artifice. The road leads ever, ever on, and you could do worse than to travel with this genial Hobbit and his misfit band of dwarves.
The Unconventional Pick: Reign of Fire (2002)
Want to fight a dragon? Want to jump out of an Apache helicopter while swinging a fire axe and chugging Red Bull? Check, Check, double Check!
In this battle of beautiful Hollywood cheek-bones, the audience is the winner. Starring Matthew McCongaughey as a ruthless dragon hunter, and Christian Bale as a refugee displaced by the war against the dragons, Rob Bowman makes a testosterone fueled dragon-fest that is one part King Arthur and one part Fast and Furious.
The discovery of ancient dragon remains has once again filled the world with the winged terrors, and humanity is on the brink of annihilation. The dragons spawn prolifically and survive by eating ash, meaning they care little for the world around them as they burn their way to a fiery apocalypse. Humanity has hidden away in old castles, the only structures capable of withstanding the gargantuan fire-slingers.
Bale plays Quinn, the leader of a group of survivors who actually witnessed the unearthing of the first dragon. His mother died shielding him, and he has become gun-shy about confronting the beasts, preferring to eek out of subsistence life-style, hoping the mess will all blow over. Enter McConaughey, as the brash American Van Zan, who leads a military outfit that tracks and kills dragons. He’s come to the conclusion that there is only one Alpha male dragon which has bred all of the smaller females, and aims to wipe the infestation out at the source. After a pissing match with Bale, he wins and takes all of the castle’s strongest warriors with him to London, to mess up the elder dragons day.
Quinn decides to follow, as he has actually seen the only male dragon as a boy, and hopes to prevent a greater part of the bloodshed by lending his expertise. The dragon is cagey, and ambushes the lot, and kills most of the men, including Gerard Butler, which is not cool. The two remaining action stars team up to take its ass down, Mt. Dew style, skydiving, swinging axes, and doing other feats of bad-assery. This movie probably came with a stick of beef jerky instead of a movie ticket.
The visual effects are quite good for an early decade, CGI-laced movie, certainly better than other contemporaneous dragon movies, such as Dragon Heart, which is probably the worst dragon movie ever made. Sorry, Sean Connery, it sucked big time.
The Lighthearted Pick: Dragonslayer (1981)
If you like a young man’s wizard-guided journey to defeat a dragon. And meat-splosions.
Disney actually did something cool in its younger days, like an investment banker who once slummed around with a Punk Rock band. That something was Dragonslayer. This movie had blood, gore, dragons and a little something something in the way of fan service (I’m talking about breasts. Let’s cut to the chase here.)
The movie is the story of a young Art Garfunkel look-alike who is a wizard’s apprentice. A nasty dragon has recently been terrorizing the population, and knock-kneed warriors come searching for the wizard to give them a hope of killing the beast. One thing leads to another, and the wizard dies. What? Yup, just flat out is stabbed to death. This leaves Gallen, the apprentice, in a lurch, as he must hunt the dragon alone.
It turns out one of the warrior supplicants was a girl, disguised since women in the kingdom are regularly sacrificed to the beast to prevent full out warfare. She convinces Gallen to grow a set and accomplish his master’s quest. Taking a magic amulet, he sets out to confront the dragon. Through trials and tribulatons…blah blah blah, he gets a sweet magic spear and dragon scale shield. He attacks the dragon after it is given the king’s daughter, wounds it, but is unable to save the girl or kill the winged monster. He does however wreck its lair, making it very very angry. It goes on a rampage, and shit looks bleak.
Enter the old wizard. He faked his death to spur his successor on, and returns for one last confrontation with the dragon. He gives the boy the magic amulet, and tells him to crush it, but only when he is at his most bad-ass. See, he has a certain reputation to live up to. The wizard attacks the dragon, setting up a sentence that causes most fantasy fans to instantly sport a spongy-one. The dragon is unimpressed, and lifts his old ass into space. The wizard smiles knowingly and film legend is made.
See, the amulet causes the wizard to explode. So, he was being all sly by firing magic missiles at the dumb lizard, daring it to pick him up. Once locked in a a sweet sweet death embrace, the wizard gives the signal and Gallen crushes the amulet, creating a gigantic explosion of wizard and dragon bits. It is the greatest thing I have ever seen, and I’ve been to two county fairs and a hanging. Gandalf wishes he could go out in an epic meat-splosion like this dude does. Suck it again, Peter Jackson.
Also, meat-splosion is now a word, OK?