Smurfs: The Lost Village ****

From The Hobbit’s Shire to the Smurfs’ mushroom village, big and small kids love the idea of a place of serenity, harking back to simpler living. Ironically, defending territory from an external ‘terror’ threat by those wanting to change an existence strikes a chord in today’s unsettled world – one way to use Smurfs: The Lost Village to explain world affairs to curious little minds. So, however simple in plot the new Smurfs film first seems, it does combine in one story a positive sense of self-preservation with a healthy dollop of adventure, all for the benefit of kiddies in glorious multicolour with intrepid gnome explorers. It also attempts to shine the spotlight on Smurfette and mould her (pardon the pun) into a lead character in her own right.

Voiced by Demi Lovato, Smurfette is still trying to figure out what her unique skill is, four years on from the second film, and where she fits in in the Smurfs’ world? A chance encounter with a masked stranger in the forbidden forest and a map leads the only girl gnome and her best buddies, Brainy (Danny Pudi voices), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello), on an adventure to find a lost village. However, Smurfette has unwittingly led the Smurfs’ sworn enemy Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and his beastly crew to the new location – and an untapped source of ‘blue power’ the sorcerer needs to be invincible. It’s up to Smurfette and co to warn the residents before it’s too late.

This time creator Peyo’s Smurfs are re-immersed in their own animated existence – no real-world shenanigans like in the 2013 film or creepy-looking ‘human-featured Smurfs’. Sadly, this also means no Hank Azaria in panto as Gargamel – nor in voice, though Wilson is just as entertaining. It does mean the filmmakers have full creative licence to explore the Avatar-styled world, equally bathed in blue. This film bounces along with 100 per cent enthusiasm and is very much about the gnome personalities, the introduction of which at the beginning wastes no time in reeling off a list of character traits in fun-filled, erratic fashion that younger viewers delight at. The rest of the frenetic pace follows suit, as expected with present-day kids animation.

As the momentum roller-coasters on – requiring a certain degree of concentration, as not to miss any ‘adult puns’, there is plenty of silliness, honesty, vulnerability, bravery and morals for kids to latch onto, absorb and ultimately cheer on their diminutive heroes. Admittedly, some of the funnier scenarios are touched on in the trailer, but the little personalities more than make up for this. Indeed, curiosity pays off as we’re all rewarded with plenty of ‘girl power’ in the end – hardly surprising given the writers are women and the scope for potential storyline spin-offs (and merchandise) could run on for years to come.

The fact is youngsters delight in the idea of little people saving the day in their narratives. The Lost Village delivers this thrill, with a few hiccups along the way. There’s also a nostalgic animated innocence to the whole affair that helps the Smurf personalities shine through – something the very busy, effects-heavy 2013 film lost. Smurfs: the Lost Village even has scampering dayglow bunnies, ready for Easter family viewing. There’s enough cinematic cuteness for everyone; if the plight of Smurfette doesn’t win you over, the bunnies will, while keeping the youngsters entertained for 90 minutes.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies (3D) ****


It’s the end of an era – and an adventure for a Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman – who has long dumped his The Office persona) that started in 2012. What better way to conclude it than an almighty battle to define all battles. This episode is much like writer-director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) in grandeur – a right royal punch-up that delivers what its title suggests. It starts and ends with iconic scenes, very different in temperament, but both equally memorable, picking up from last time when the fearsome dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), is about to attack the village at the foot of the hills holding the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.

Fans will know what to expect next in this finale, that of the dwarves, men of the dale, elves, orcs and shape-shifters having it out near the Lonely Mountain. This film does not disappoint with the character tension gradually building up to that point, but serving bursts of indifference to get you in the mood as sides fall out – and even allies.

Those not familiar with the novel but expecting more ‘back story’ after the last film, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), seeing the dwarves finally making it home might be disappointed as any jubilant homecoming is a bit thin on the ground. It’s not until gold-blinded legendary warrior and now appointed Dwarf King, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) charges out of his stronghold, Erebor to join his family member (hilariously voiced by Billy Connolly) that things get more interesting.

In the meantime, Jackson has something for every fan of each faction to delight in, seeing their heroes in action as greed takes grip (very topical in today’s consumer-led society) – or further evil unfolds in the orcs’ case. Among the fighting though, Jackson almost ‘pauses’ the mayhem to deliver key relationship nuggets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s infamous story that help break up proceedings.

The returning cast were never ‘away’ as such, having filmed their scenes concurrently, and all give splendid performances for the last time. Particularly praiseworthy is Luke Evans as Bard who gets an impressive opener. He then goes on to act as the definition of a mortal leader as the odds are against him and his townsfolk. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is like the ancient uncle that won’t go away, more worse for wear, and seems to pop up and act in his own parallel universe (even in the midst of battle), once freed from captivity.

Apart from an oddly ‘animated’ Orlando Bloom – like some creepy, plastic-skinned avatar – the effects are outstanding as Jackson reproduces his armies of hundreds, never failing on detail for the sake of the action. The most iconic action scene has the least number of players, that of the clash between Thorin and leader of the orcs, Azog (Manu Bennett), on the ice. It has a certain ballet-esque beauty to it, even with two ungraceful warriors involved. It’s another emotional high point of the film, more subdued and sombre in delivery, considering the dispensing of evil thus begins.

Jackson has done justice to Tolkien’s novel’s final saga, giving it more personality in the midst of war, and more action to feast on in a big-screen environment. Indeed, the 3D works to add depth to the battlefields, and particularly the impressive architecture and landscapes. At the end, we are reminded how it all started, as a sigh of acknowledgement accompanies a feeling of sadness that we have now witnessed all that Jackson’s take on Tolkien has to offer.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ****


The second film in The Hobbit trilogy was always going to have its work cut out to be a worthy piece of cinema in its own right, with Peter Jackson and team trying to give the fans what they want, while keeping focus and excitement brewing for the finale, There And Back Again next year. Jackson seems to have achieved the latter with some white-knuckle action moments and a world of imagination in The Desolation of Smaug. Indeed, it picks up where An Unexpected Journey left off and is always going to be seem as elaborate ‘padding’, but it’s watchable padding all the same that holds the attention.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) continue on their quest to reach Erebor, the dwarf homeland, and reclaim it from Smaug, a dragon that ferociously defends their inheritance. Along the way they get unexpected help from elf and man alike, making new allies in the fight against growing evil.

This film is very much a Bilbo showcase of bravery, with Freeman gurning in defiant mood as the diminutive hero, with a little help from his ‘precious’ ring. His is the only character development evident in the second film, what with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) very much out of the picture fighting his own sorcery battles. The dwarves are more of a collective team effort in this or ‘fighting troop’, with a smaller, standout role for Kili (Aidan Turner) to highlight the introduction of elf warrior beauty Tauriel (played with grace and confidence by Evangeline Lilly) who in turn gives back-story to Orlando Bloom’s Legolas character (who is featured very sparingly here).

That said there are a lot of thrills to be had with the film’s action sequences, including a white-water-barrelling escape from Rivendell/Misty Mountains. The dragon confrontation at the end also looks golden and sumptuous on screen, with echoes of Aliens/Terminator combat tactics to enjoy. What is lacking in individual film story arc is very much made up in design and imagination, energised by an ever-present tension. Those who are a tad arachnophobic may be wise to shut their eyes tight in one scene in the forest as the multiple-legged monsters send chills up your spine.

Overall, Smaug is a vast improvement on the first film that was very touch and go; tedious at the start in the Baggins abode and desperately relying on the orc battle scenes to bring us back to the table. Thankfully, bloated bit and artistic story licence aside, we are plunged into the journey and the action in this film that it satisfies and gets us in place for the concluding episode, rather than wallowing in character development perhaps? Nevertheless, a little more – or further – introduction would have been welcome so that we really do know what makes our heroes and their allies’ collaborations tick in the ultimate battle ahead. It is the stuff of big-screen Tolkien though, with much to feast on.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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