Give Martin Freeman an empty room and he'll give you comedy. The best parts of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — an admittedly mishandled movie in large — involved his subdued grimaces, his Chaplinian waddling, and the way he carried himself with equal parts neurosis and snark in every scene. If there is one primary misstep of An Unexpected Journey's terrifically improved sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, it is the spiritual absence of Bilbo Baggins.
Freeman's good-natured but disgruntled Hobbit takes a backseat to the Dwarf team in this chapter of Peter Jackon's three-part saga, distributing the heavy lifting among the front lines of the bearded mooks. Thankfully, we're not shafted with too much "Thorin's destiny" backstory, instead focusing on the trek forward, through far more interesting terrain than we got last time around. The Dwarves voyage through a trippy woodland that'll conjur fond memories of The Legend of Zelda's unnavigable forest levels and inside the borders of Lake-town, a man-occupied working class monarchy that is more vivid and living than any place we have seen yet in the series. And while Unexpected Journey's goblin caverns might have been cool to look at, none of the quests in Desolation feel nearly as close to a tangential detour. Every step the Dwarves take is one that beckons us closer to the central, increasingly engaging story.
Desolation is not entirely without its curiosities. While Gandalf's mission to meet the Necromancer serves to connect the Hobbit trilogy to the Lord of the Rings movies, the occasional cuts over to the wizard's pursuits are primarily distracting and just a bit dull. Although we're happy to welcome the Elf race back into our Middle-earth adventures, it's easy to imagine a version of this story that didn't involve side characters like Legolas and Kate... I mean, Tauriel... and still felt whole (perhaps even more cohesive). The latter's love affair with hot Dwarf Kili seems like a last minute addition to the canon, and one not built on anything beyond the cinematic rule that two sexually compatible attractive people should probably have something brewing alongside all the action.
But the most egregious of crimes committed by Desolation is, unquestionably, the shafting of Bilbo Baggins to secondary status. Yes, he proves himself a savior to his fellow travelers four times in the film, but long stretches of action go by without so much as a word from the wide-eyed burglar. When he finally takes center stage in his theatrical face-off with Smaug — an exercise in double-talk reminiscent of Oedipus outsmarting the Sphinx — the film picks up with a new, cool energy, with a chilling fun laced around the impending doom of their back-and-forth. We've been waiting since the first frames of Unexpected to see how the dragon material will pay off, and it does in spades... albeit in the final third of Desolation, but with equal parts gravitas and fun, to reunite us with our Tolkien passions once more.
Benedict Cumberbatch's dragon doesn't do much to subvert expectation — he's slithering, sadistic, vain, manipulative, and vaguely Londonian. But tradition feels good here. Smaug's half hour spent toying with the mousey Bilbo (who does get a chance to showcase his aptitude at small-scale physical comedy here) is terrific in every way.
Its Hobbit problem aside, Desolation proves itself worthy of Bilbo's past proclamation. "I'm going on an adventure!" more than pays off here, in the form of mystifying boat rides, edge-of-your-seat efforts in dragon slaying, and the most joyful action set piece we've seen in years. Twelve Dwarves, twelve barrels, and one roaring river amounts for enough fun to warrant your trip to the theater for this latest outing into Middle-earth.
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The Hobbit may be small in stature, but he sure knows how to pull down some solid box office numbers! Crossing the $300 million mark in North America this past weekend put The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey over the top as it joins the very exclusive ranks of the Billion Dollar Club with $1.001.4 billion in total worldwide theatrical revenue ($301.4M N. Am/$700M Int'l). Only 15 films in box office history have earned the bragging rights that go along with reaching this monumental milestone.
More importantly, it is the overseas revenues (which often dwarf the N. Am revenues) that can often make the difference between a movie being a hit or an out and out flop. Some key examples: John Carter ($73.1M in N. Am/$210M overseas), Battleship ($65.2 N. Am/$238.7M overseas), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($241.1M N. Am/$802.6M overseas).
The most recent example of a film that will need major help overseas to bolster its profit margin is Jack the Giant Slayer which debuted with a disappointing $27.2 million this past weekend and has now banked just $42.6 million worldwide. To be fair, the film is just starting to grow in the overseas marketplace so we will have to wait and see if it can suddenly take off and take some of the edge off the reported $200 million budget.
Here is a list of the 15 members of the Worldwide Billion Dollar Club:
1 2009 Avatar $2.783B2 1997 Titanic $2.185B3 2012 The Avengers $1.514B4 2011 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II $1.328B5 2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King $1.141B6 2011 Transformers: Dark of the Moon $1.123B7 2012 Skyfall $1.108B8 2012 The Dark Knight Rises $1.079B9 2010 Toy Story 3 $1.063B10 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest $1.060B11 2011 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides $1.043B12 2010 Alice in Wonderland $1.024B13 1999 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace $1.007B14 2008 The Dark Knight $1.002B15 2012 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey $1.001B
The bad news is, you'll need to buy a new calendar — you were so excited to learn about the release dates of all of your favorite upcoming movies, you didn't realize that permanent ink was too bold a choice for the notations on that cats-dressed-as-townspeople planner you got gratis from the dry cleaners (you really should have learned after that whole Man of Steel fiasco). The worse news is, you'll have to wait an additional five months for the conclusion of Peter Jackson's Bilbo Baggins trilogy, The Hobbit: There and Back Again. But the good news: at least you'll get 2 Guns a couple of weeks earlier. So that's... something.
Thursday evening saw a slew of new release dates for the second half of 2013 go public, plucking two of the summer's anticipated titles from their slated releases. The Hollywood Reporter reports that Universal's Kick-Ass 2, originally planned to hit theaters in June, has been moved to Aug. 16, where the superhero flick's dark comic sensibility's will compete with the supremely cast coming-of-age comedy The to Do List and the next installment of the percy Jackson series.
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Meanwhile, a former occupant of the Aug. 16 spot will find itself releasing two weeks earlier: 2 Guns, the Denzel Washington/Mark Wahlberg film, also from Universal, has been relocated to Aug. 2, facing fellow action-heavy entries, the sequels of 300 and 2010's RED.
And although this isn't expected to affect its July 19 release date, Universal also plans to translate its supernatural crime comedy R.I.P.D. to 3D.
Later on in the year, we'll see Martin Scorsese's next jaunt vying for the awards attention it is likely to attract: Paramount's The Wolf of Wall Street, the director's Leonardo DiCaprio-starring biopic of infamous white collar criminal Jordan Belford, is hitting theaters on Nov. 15 — the heat of Oscar-bait season.
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In the longer term, Warner Bros. has new plans for The Hobbit: There and Back Again, which has shifted most dramatically from its July 18, 2014 position to Dec. 17, 2014, in keeping with the releases of its predecessors (An Unexpected Journey hit Dec. 14 of 2012, Desolation of Smaug will take to theaters on Dec. 13, 2013).
But we're thinking we might mark these new dates in pencil... and maybe we'll go for a penguins-wearing-top-hats calendar theme this time around.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]
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