Silver Screen Riot: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUGOnly those fond of cliffhanger endings and tease as tale will truly appreciate the second lackluster installment in Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit trilogy. Certainly there are things to love; Bilbo’s character progression and his untimely addiction to one precious ring is welcome (although not nearly as prominent as it ought to be), the set design and telescopic vistas are almost as epic as ever, seeing the majesty of gold-diggin’ dragon Smaug realized in impressive CG tantalizes the little boy in me (the one who listened to The Hobbit audiobook until it wore out), and one particularly fun scene involving dwarves in a barrel is a blatant film highlight; but other elements that ought to stand out fall flat on their face and never recover.

For instance, one would expect the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to kick in some much needed nostalgia for the series but he, worse so than Ian McKellen‘s performance of Gandalf, seemingly lacks interest in the role and his apathy shines a bright hole where they’re ought to be life. Lacking the breezy comic relief he brought to LOTR, this new (old?) Legolas is instead a cantankerous daddy’s boy to dwarfophobe elf-king father, Thranduil (Lee Pace). That relationship and his kittenish flirtation with elf Ms. Forest Elf herself, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), reveals a bratty blonde-haired, weird-eyed elf whose presence is entirely unnecessarily. But such is the nature of these prequels. He does come loaded with all the dynamic bowman bells and whistles that make for great action beats but he’s not the Legolas we know and love. As has become my general response to these films: why bring him up at all then?

But The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug‘s greatest crime lies in the continuation of the first installment’s trend of doing too little, too late. For a film that stretches over two and a half hours, there is probably only an hour worth of necessary story development. Everything else is superlative nonsense stuffed in purely to milk the material into three films. Worse yet, it plays like an episode of Lost where the most important cue you get from the film is: MAKE SURE YOU SEE THE NEXT ONE! And while it’s nowhere in the same league of disappointment as the Star Wars prequels, this Hobbit trilogy is so far a major bummer.

Let’s try and recount the events of Desolation of Smaug just to give you a better idea of what’s in store. First, Biblo (Martin Freeman, who seems to be the only one really trying), Gandalf, and the company of dwarves continue to flee the armless, severely face-raked white orc Azog (Manu Bennett) and his small legion of trackers. They seek refuge at the home of a surly skin-changer Boern (Mikael Persbrandt) who (unless he comes back into play in the third installment) adds absolutely nothing to the narrative. From there it’s through a inky, stinky dark forest whose dandelions have the power to make everyone trip out (a sequence which provides some satisfying laughs) and after battling a troop of lispy giant spiders, they, once again, find themselves the captives of a battalion of grumpy, wood elves.

On and on it goes, all the while you’re sitting there wondering if the whole Smaug thing (as in the name of the movie) is going to emerge. Unfortunately for those of us who’ve been anticipating Smaug to prominently feature in the film (you know because IT’S NAMED AFTER HIM), expect disappointment as his first appearance is somewhere around the two-hour mark.

The problem is, once we finally get around to all this Smaug business, we’re so worn out from all the boorishness that came before that it’s hard to muster up the excitement that ought to come from seeing this epic, gold-hoarding, talking dragon come to life. Admittedly scenes with Smaug are visually stunning and Benedict Cumberbatch is nearly perfect as the megalomaniacal, near-diva dragon but, as mentioned, it’s too little, too late.

As for all of this talk of returning to form, Jackson is still miles from the magic that made the Lord of the Rings such a rousing and resounding adventure. Missing is the enthusiasm, edge of your seat action beats, and general sense of wonder. Don’t get me wrong, action sequences here are amazingly choreographed and I can’t imagine how intricate the process of getting some of the stuff they did on screen – all the way from storyboarding to post-production – but it’s clear that Jackson’s put too much time into these action beats and not nearly enough into the hobbit, dwarves, wizards, and elves in them. What he falls to understand is that it was never the CGI that made the LOTR world magical, it was the characters and their relationships.

Here, I don’t feel like I know anyone other than Bilbo, Gandalf (the Gray, I might add), and to a lesser extent, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). As far as potential dwarf king Oakenshield is concerned, I can’t quite tell where our allegiance is supposed to lie with him. Biblo has finally won over his approval after the events of An Unexpected Journey but Thorin’s still a tyrant of a leader. He’s willing to leave behind wounded soldiers. He shakes down Bilbo for his treasure. And he’s just obviously much more concerned with securing his precious Arkenstone than he is with the safety of anyone around him. I mean the guy blatantly disregards advice from Gandalf. I think we all know, that’s never a wise move.

The rest of the dwarves all have their little bits but none are given quite enough to become a rounded character. I guess it doesn’t matter since all of them have silly names that rhyme with each other anyways and are sure to pass from one ear to the other for those who are not Tolkeinheads but it would be nice if we actually cared about some of them instead of just seeing them relegated to various stereotypical caricatures.

As this endless story rolls on, other characters pop up to pack the story as tightly as possible with characters we could care less about. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who looks exactly like an amalgamate of Bloom and Viggo Mortensen, gets significantly more play than he did in Tolkein’s story and his Da’ chirping kiddies are just more fodder for the nonsense character pile. In fact, all of the Laketown characters seem like derivations of characters we’ve seen before in Rohan. Stephen Fry‘s Master is little more than a greedier, more sentient version of pre-Gandalf-exorcism Théoden. He’s even equipped with his own Wormtongue in Alfrid (Ryan Gage). So many extraneous characters, so little to do. Loopy brown wizard Radaghast (Sylvester McCoy) even returns to do absolutely nothing.

As far as where this film lies in the pantheon of films, it’s a shame that they’re forever be linked with the greatness of LOTR. And while many seem to think the Lord of the Rings films are nerdy, they are wrong. Well, maybe that’s a little far but let me run with this. This series, on the other hand, is definitively nerdy. There’s so many Tolkien tidbits unnecessarily stuffed in that only the most hardcore of Tolkien fanatics will remember more than fifty percent of this tale from the book. Jackson stretches paragraphs into pages, minor characters into twenty minute asides, and focuses the chief propulsion on a villain who we all know won’t be realized until after this prequel trilogy has concluded (you know of who I speak). ‘The Hobbit’ was 300 pages long and is being turned into nearly nine hours of film. The entirety of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was 1500 in small print and was the same length. So essentially Jackson turns each page of The Hobbit into two minutes. No wonder the story lags so much.

Most egregious, he goes so far as to include material in this film negate the logic of The Fellowship of the Ring and Gandalf’s general story arc. Unless he gets clunked in the head in the next installment and forgets everything he learned in this film, his ignorance to the importance of the ring and Sauron’s presence is entirely unforgivable. What a travesty!

Apparently, we all have to swallow the pill though and get in line for the next bit, the finale that promises to actually deliver on, you know, being good. Jackson is dangling the carrot and we have little choice but to wait and see if the third one manages to muster up a film that can stand on its own. As is, I’m waiting until all the films are done so someone can craft a three-hour supercut of the whole trilogy. When that hits the shelves (or the internet) then I might be interested in revisiting this ought-to-be epic. It’ll clearly be way more worthwhile than any extended editions. I guess at least this time, instead of walking, they’re mostly running.

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 8.25.57 PM Read more of Matt Oakes’s work at his site and follow Matt on Facebook and on Twitter.