Saturday, December 14, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

            You are planning on having an actual hobbit in your Hobbit movie, yes?

            Is it time to write off Peter Jackson as a filmmaker? After the LOTR trilogy, it seemed he was ready to conquer the cinematic blockbuster landscape in the vein of a James Cameron or a Steven Spielberg… But then came the one-two punch of King Kong and The Lovely Bones, implying that the filmmaker had perhaps learned all the wrong lessons from his earlier trilogy, seemingly unwilling to cut anything from his massive and overwrought narratives. It was hoped that a return to Middle-Earth would be just the course-correction to put the film-maker back on track, but the first installment An Unexpected Journey (while not without its charms) was saggy and bloated - confirming many a fan’s fears that turning a three-hundred page children’s novel into a trilogy of three-hour films was nothing more than an exercise in needless excess and greed to wring as much money out of the LOTR franchise as possible. The Desolation of Smaug sadly continues the trend in much the same way: a dense and overcomplicated narrative brought down with each and every mounting and lengthy scene - a shame, really, as there is much good and notable work on display elsewhere. 

            The Desolation of Smaug’s greatest sin (other than its length) is the sidelining of its main character, played to perfection once again by Martin Freeman. Freeman is the film’s secret weapon and greatest asset, able to shoulder the bulk of the huge narrative on his incredibly capable shoulders, but here disappears into the background of far too many scenes. This is where the decision to turn the proposed duology into a trilogy really comes off as especially wrong-headed, as other characters and scenes are inflated to a degree that they push Bilbo out of the movie completely, and serve as a perfect example of everything wrong with the Hobbit trilogy thus far: a lack of clear focus. 

As big and unwieldy as they often got, you could always trace the disparate scenes in the LOTR films right back to the central quest of Frodo destroying the One Ring. It was what motivated and incited the action in all the other storylines and character arcs - the binding element that held the films together. The Hobbit trilogy has no central story-arc to carry its scenes from one element to the next. Tolkien’s book acts on two levels: that of Bilbo finding his courage, and setting up the larger world that would be expounded upon in his later trilogy. The filmmakers take the relatively simple story of Bilbo and the dwarves and pad it out with needless narrative elements. We don’t need to spend so much time with the Necromancer or the elves or the city of Lake-torn; these scenes act as nothing but clutter to what we should be really caring about: Bilbo’s journey.  

            The rest of the cast performs about as admirably as Freeman does in the “lead,” although many of their scenes of course have no bearing on what should be the central drive of the story. The old regulars return and provide much warmth and pathos to their scenes, such as Ian McKellan returning to Gandalf the Grey - once again proving to be the best damn cinematic wizard there ever was. Also making a return appearance is Orlando Bloom’s Constipated Glare as the elf Legolas - all kidding aside, Bloom’s grown as an actor quite a bit since the early days, but you couldn’t really tell by watching him here. Legolas was always a tad one-dimensional, and there’s an attempt to shoehorn him into some romantic nonsense, but let’s face it: the only reason they brought him back is for the action beats. Bilbo’s band of dwarves also return, and fare about as well here as they did in the previous film. We get to learn a bit more about a few of them, but there’s still way too many for us to care about any of them in a real, meaningful way. Rounding out the returning principals is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, who continues off the good work he accomplished in An Unexpected Journey, and even gets to add a shade more complexity to the character, as we learn that Thorin may not be quite the stand-up, moralistic hero he’s been made out to be.

            A few new characters come into the story as well, each with their own complicated backstories and motivation, although still admirably portrayed by their respective actors. Luke Evans is pretty great as Bard the Bowman, a gifted archer and secret heir to the throne * who helps Bilbo and the dwarves once they arrive in Lake-town. Also bringing some zest is Evangeline Lily as Tauriel, Legolas’s elven companion who begins to fall in love with Kili. I wound up liking the character and Lily’s performance, but it’s pretty clear she’s only there so the series can engage in some Twilight-flavored nonsense between her, Legolas and Kili for the teeny-boppers. But my favorite of the new performers just might be Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon Smaug, who threatens to give Gollum a run for his money in terms of blending performance and animation, if only the dragon weren’t so one note.

            Despite an excellent cast, The Desolation of Smaug still feels hollow and shallow when compared to the earlier trilogy. It’s not just the overabundance of CGI, which pretty much single-handedly destroys the idea that Middle-Earth is a tactile place you could get lost in. It’s not the digital photography, which continues to look cold and impersonal when compared to the original three films. It’s not even the overlong action set-pieces, which though impressive in fits and starts, come at such a relentless pace they soon become mind-numbing instead of awe-inspiring.

            No, what makes The Desolation of Smaug pale in comparison to the LOTR films is the distinct lack of human emotion. There’s plenty of drama throughout, as Legolas loves Tauriel and Tauriel loves Kili and Gandalf loves leaving his companions behind for flimsy narrative reasons to investigate stuff everyone with half a brain already damn well knows… but despite the earnestness of all involved, nothing real or human ever comes through in the way it did in Fellowship, when Gandalf talked with Frodo in the mines about making the right choice; or Sam’s speech about courage and heroism at the end of Two Towers; or the remarkable conversation about death that takes place between Gandalf and Pippin during the massive battle in Return of the King. Those were the scenes that held the films together, that made them more than just mere blockbuster entertainment. They were what made us care about the world and the characters in the first place, and they are entirely missing here.

            We’ll have to wait and see how There and Back Again turns out before we can make any final judgments on the series, but as it stands right now, The Hobbit trilogy falls far short of its predecessor in every conceivable way. Honestly, I’m more looking forward to the resulting fan-edits of all three films into one.   

            * Speaking of which, there are waaay too many secret heirs to the throne in this series. There was Aragorn previously, and - wouldn’t you know it - Thorin’s one, too.


  1. While it is a bit better than the first, that still doesn't mean all that much to begin with. Then again, I'm glad to say I have something to look forward to with this already overlong trilogy. Good review Nathan.


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