Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

I read the Hobbit in the early 80s when I was a young lad. I honestly can't same I remember that much about it save for broad themes and character arcs. I remember the old carton, and some great comics that game about thanks to the fantastic source material.

But movies? Especially when the book was so small and has been spread out over three films?

As a fantasy fan first, I thought it was a hell of a movie. I'll be pinging various things from it and there will probably be spoilers. But seeing as how I'm so late in seeing it, those of you who would be offended by spoilers have probably seen it well before me.

Soundtrack? I felt it added greatly to the film. Moments of tension and danger highlighted by the score.

Visuals: There could be several things to point out. When Bilbo emerges from the Mirkwood Forest and is surrounded by butterflies and enjoys the sunlight after the oppression of the forest? The costume designs on both the heroes and the villains? The variety of scarring and wounds that the orcs proudly bear to indicate their fierceness? The destroyed city which is proclaimed the desolation of Smaug when the Company sees it from above?

One of my favorite bits is when Gandalf confronts Sauron. I don't care if it was in the book or not. The imagery here, of a burning orb with a black pupil, one that resembles Sauron's armored from and yet is instantly recognizable as the Great Eye from the Lord of the Rings trilogy? It works on many levels and serves as a great tool to tie the two franchises together.

In terms of visuals for player characters, the make up crew did a great job in insuring that the dwarves, despite the shared origins, have little in common. They do this by making their beards distinguished from one another with different styles.

They make the beards of different lengths.

They make the beards braided or combed.

They make some taller than others and some fatter than others and some bald.

the ability to bring quick defining visuals to the dwarves makes them more individualistic and stand out more than they would if they were just a merry band as I tend to recall them from the book all those many years ago.

Scope: Similar in theme to visuals, but a bit more in setting the mood, is how grand some of the things are. For example, the dwarven home has a huge dwarf statue outside of it. Other elements continue to showcase a grandeur missing from the previous movie. For example, Smaug himself. Nothing in the Lord of the Rings compares to Smaug's screen presence. His movements, his facial gestures, his power. Bilbo's flattery of Smaug seems more apt than mere flattery to gain a few moments.

Screen shots from the movie would make great role playing aids. They could easily lend themselves to a wide variety of setting and help showcase how wide and diverse the world is.

Mood: One of the things I didn't enjoy about the first mood was I though it a touch too silly.I'm not saying all fantasy has to be 'grimdark' or anything like that, but the Brown Wizard for example? Yeah, way too much for my personal taste and the second movie essentially has the Brown Wizard perform a cameo before departing.

Do I think the movie without flaws? I'm a little unimpressed with Bard, one of the men from Lake Town. Not because he doesn't have a great introduction, but because his apparent skill is an archer. By having the elves feature so much in this film, the mere act of archery in and of itself is squat.  Legolas proves to have archery as well as swordplay. Bard doesn't have too much presence though in the movie and I'll be curious to see what they do with him in the third film.

I also though the dwarves captured a little too often and released a little too easily. After a while you can only wonder why on earth they thought they could succeed in their mission.

For role playing games, there is a lot that could be taken.

Titles: Smaug boldly claims the title "King Under the Mountain" which is normally a dwarf honorific. Others have their own titles but some of these are for deception. For example, Sauron doesn't name himself as such but rather goes by The Necromancer. This prevents his foes from knowing that he has returned and grown in power and ability. Players could be searching out an old foe never aware that he has taken a new guise and name.

Chance Encounters: One of the things that can be difficult to do in role playing games, is the introduction of a new character. Here when the dwarves are in danger of being overwhelmed by the spiders of Mirkwood, they are helped by the elves. A quick method of allowing a new player to join or replacing a character that has died, is to have the characters encounter one another against common enemies.

Skills Tests instead of Combat: There are several encounters in the movie that I think would play out better as skill challenges as opposed to pure combat. For example, when they dwarves escape from the elves, they are beset upon by orcs. Mind you, the dwarves are in the river, in barrels. The whole chase scene has a touch of humor to it, but relies on some quick thinking and physical prowess that move beyond the realm of hack and slash.

In addition, the encounter with Smaug the dragon? It reminded me of some video games I've played where the point isn't to cast spells and hack at the enemy, but to set up a scenario or maneuver the enemy into a position where he'll be destroyed. If the players are facing, at the GM's design, some creature that is far beyond their power, if they are meant to overcome it, design the meeting or location or nearby locations in a way that augment the encounter and have the players talking about luring the dragon into the cave so it couldn't fly or poisoning the well water so that it couldn't breath fire or allowing the players some other method that could work, to actually work.

Animosity: When looking at role playing games that have alignments, one of the harder elements to juggle is why good races allow other good races to fight alone. For example, when  Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves, speaks with Thrandui, the elf king, the dwarf accuses the elf of leaving his people to rot and die while the elf replies that he warned the dwarves what would happen and could not prevent it. The  elves here come across as fairly xenophobic and wish nothing to do with those outside their borders. Even Legollas himself bears many of these features initially so I imagine we'll see a bit more of a character arc for him in the third movie that expands his capacity for empathy.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug may not win any awards for theme, plot, acting, or other bits, but I hope it can only shine a light to hollywood that there is a lot of potential money to be made from the fantasy genre that falls outside of A Game of Thrones.