I Am Dragon, Hear Me Roar

A stellar actor can elevate the worst tripe, while special effects tend to plasticize story, yet the right art direction will add to not only the world but the characters as well. Purely Production is a monthly post where I explore the different elements that affect a finished media, for good or ill. We’ll forget about writing for a moment and delve into all the bedazzling doodads that dress a story.

Purely Production #4: How much does the main actor play in the success of a film and does it matter that the central character is a dragon?

Hobbit 2 Smaug and Bilbo

Actors command the big bucks because many of us in the audience queue up to watch a movie or television show specifically to see them in action. Bruce Willis comes to mind for many a movie fan, myself included. In light of his fairly recent honesty I’ve crossed him off my must watch list. (He was rather frank in Spain about his boredom with action flicks and how his motivation in accepting these roles is purely for money.) His last few roles reflected his attitude, G.I. Joe: Retribution, anyone?

Characters created through CGI also command the big bucks. In fact, CGI in general hogs much of the money in a production budget. Smaug, the dragon at the root of all the dwarves’ bad luck is no different. (View a great clip of him here.) Yet in all the reviews I read about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the main reason this movie is “much better than the previous film” is laid at the feet of this dragon.

Many will argue with me that the dragon is by no means the “main actor” or the “central character” of The Hobbit.

I don’t disagree.

My Central Character

In the book it is all about Bilbo Baggins and his growth, his change due to the journey he takes to help the dwarves. In the movie, specifically the middle section of the book’s story, The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo doesn’t make any growth. He doesn’t really change. He seems as brave at the beginning as at the end. My point is a movie’s story should stand alone from its companion movies. Bilbo isn’t the main character of this movie, he doesn’t arc enough. Nor do the dwarves.

A case can be made for Thorin Oakenshield being the central character. It’s his quest that motivates the company to journey to the Lonely Mountain. He also goes in after Bilbo when the dwarves worry he’s been eaten by the dragon. But I don’t consider this a change. He’s been protecting and “going after” Bilbo all along the journey.

No the character who makes the biggest change in The Desolation of Smaug is Smaug himself. He’s been a content, no longer warring dragon sleeping away the years in his Lonely Mountain home. By the last few minutes of the film he’s a raging, vengeful totally pissed mountain of a dragon ready to destroy and kill everything in his path, specifically the allies to the dwarves who roused him.

Now that we agree Smaug is the central character, we can agree he’s also the main actor. He’s the draw to the story, at least the story in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Well, of course, I had to join the throng and see what all the fuss was about. Let me say, the fake looking dragon head in promos worried me.

Hobbit 2 Cumberbatch Motion Capture

I was wowed.

I loved Smaug’s voice (hear it above), even before I realized Benedict Cumberbatch was that voice. It made the dragon for me. If I was Bilbo I’d be shaking in my boots too and kissing as much dragon butt as possible. The next thing I noticed was the way the dragon leapt and twisted as he moved around trying to locate the little intruder; almost cat-like, but with wings. It was a perfect way to move for a massive creature, believing in his own superiority and located in the treasure cache he’d won from warrior dwarves: totally comfortable and yet curious and almost frisky.

Researching this post I read an interview here where Cumberbatch explains they motion captured his attempts to mimic a dragon. You get a sense of his enthusiasm for the part in this quote:

It was motion capture, so I did roll around a bit on the carpet. It was great because that luxuriant sensation I imagine it is for him to feel all that gold around him, [as an actor] to have some kind of contact with this thing was great. There’s a lot of thrashing about and I really wanted to get that energy into the voice.

The wire came back to this little pack, and then trailed back around so that sort of became a swishy mermaid serpentine-type tail. It was great, they really got what I wanted to do with him, which was to color everything with a physicality rather than just being a disembodied voice. I think it works.

You don’t feel a disconnect between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing. As far as the speed of him and the color of him, the bigger picture of him, the boys and girls at WETA said it was really helpful because it gave them an idea of the characterization beyond the words.

How much does the main actor in a film play in the success of a film? Well in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug it’s pretty safe to say Cumberbatch earned his paycheck. He made the dragon look real, act real and sound real. 

Does it matter that the central character is a CGI dragon? With all the accolades and ticket sales The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has racked up I’d say no. In spite of a thin story and ridiculous dragon hijinks the movie was fun, because of the dragon.

We all came to see Smaug in action and we weren’t disappointed; in a dragon as the central character of the story nor in Cumberbatch as the voice and acting behind the CGI.

Did you love Smaug? Did you attribute your feelings to Cumberbatch? What makes a central character to you?
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