The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (2013)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens
Starring: Ian McKellen, Ken Stott, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 164 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
At the Prancing Pony Inn in Bree, Gandalf the Grey persuades Thorin Oakenshield to obtain the Arkenstone to unite the dwarves, and suggests that a stealthy burglar may be needed to steal the jewel back from the dragon, Smaug. One year later, Thorin and his company are being pursued by Azog and his Orc party. After Bilbo informs the group that a bear is also tracking them, Gandalf ushers them along to the nearby home of Beorn, a skin-changer who has taken the form of the bear. The following day, the company reaches Mirkwood where Gandalf discovers Black Speech graffiti imprinted on an old ruin, and abruptly leaves without explanation. He cautions them to remain on the path and wait for him before entering the Lonely Mountain, but they lose their way and are caught by giant spiders…
How has it come to this? Just over a year ago, I was writing a stupidly lengthy article for this here website praising to the skies the Lord Of The Rings film trilogy. Now, I sit here at this computer and feel thoroughly disheartened because I’m going to struggle to say much that is good about the second film in director Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy The Hobbit. Even before seeing An Unexpected Journey I was very unhappy at the decision to expand J.R.R. Tolkien’s book to three films. No matter how much you take and expand upon from the writer’s Appendices, which may fill gaps and connect his stories better but were mostly written after the fact, it didn’t seem that there was enough material to fill three films which, of course, knowing Jackson, were all going to be over two and a half hours, and the whole concept smelt of being more of a commercial than an artistic endeavour. Coming out of An Unexpected Journey, it seemed that my suspicions were correct. The film was enjoyable, but it was all ridiculously bloated and Jackson seemed to be turning into George Lucas in more ways than one. This second movie has some very good moments, but there are times it’s far worse than the first one, and it saddens me to say that a director I’ve loved right from Bad Taste is turning into one I’m beginning to hate.
I guess how much you enjoy The Desolation Of Smaug in part depends on whether you’ve read or liked the book, though I think it’s a badly flawed film even if taken on its own. For me personally – well, I’m not going to go on about my childhood being violated – but I certainly felt similar such emotions watching this film. This film is NOT The Hobbit. Its elements from a few chapters of The Hobbit augmented by a load of other stuff, but worse than that, it prefers to skip portions of the book in favour of material that isn’t in Tolkien at all. It prefers to have a bloody love triangle, bloody Stephen Fry reprising his role from Blackadder, and bloody irrelevant action scenes that have barely any bearing on the main plot. I would say at least a third of this film is totally invented. I certainly don’t believe that films should be entirely accurate to their sources – it’s my belief that there are some ways in The Lord Of The Rings films where Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens improved on Tolkien – but The Desolation Of Smaug is just ridiculous in this respect. It’s a total travesty of an adaptation and shows, even more than An Unexpected Journey, that Jackson and co. stretching the book out into three films is being done strictly because of greed.
Taken on its own, The Desolation Of Smaug is a reasonably entertaining fantasy adventure for much of the time and its first hour is actually rather good, but it still has problems and soon after that it goes downhill quite fast. An early sequence of Bilbo and company battling big spiders is nice and intense and will probably make anyone afraid of spiders feel very uneasy, but the next big action scene where the team are escaping the Elves in barrels on a river in the middle of a battle between Elves and Orcs shows only a flash of the technical and film-making skill that was constantly on offer in The Lord Of The Rings. It’s especially hampered by overly fast cutting, some really bad water shots which look like they were done on a normal video camera, and excessive use of CGI which is sometimes quite bad. In fact, there are shots in this film of Orcs on Wargs [wolf-like creatures] which are really embarrassing for a production with a budget like this, and why on earth did Jackson think that computer-generated Orcs look better than live-action ones? His love for what CGI can do has resulted in laziness and a sterile feel to some of the proceedings. One of the things that was so great technically about The Lord Of The Rings was its great and varied use of traditional techniques as well as CGI, but there’s far less evidence of that here. And anyway, is it me or is CGI in some respects getting worse?
The Desolation Of Smaug’s pacing is way off. Even if you haven’t read the book, it’s obvious that much of the first half is rushed and much of the second half dragged out. It takes forever for them to get inside that darn mountain and find Smaug, and, while the big climactic action scene is certainly exciting, it’s constantly ludicrous, with characters able to fall hundreds of feet and get up again and balance on a dragon’s head. I know The Lord Of The Rings films had a bit of this stuff, but it was only here and there and resulted in some great “Hell Yeah” moments, while much of the rest of it still felt somewhat grounded. Here, nothing seems to have any reality to it. Smaug the dragon moves quite convincingly but looks so much like a certain other film dragon that I kept expecting Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy to show up, and he’s a thorough idiotic dragon too, though at least he’s a good character. The result of constantly taking the attention away from Bilbo and the Dwarves – the folk we should care about most – means that the hobbit’s relationship with his co-adventurers is now barely a relationship at all, because the filmmakers would rather show us Super Legolas killing fifty orcs. And that love triangle, I mean for God’s sake. Maybe it was put in a sop to female viewers [as well as make up for Jackson not having achieved his wish of having Arwen kick arse at Helm’s Deep], and I will admit that Evangeline Lilly certainly looks good and provides some eye candy for the fellas, but actually it’s getting annoying that every female lead character in a film, however tough they may be, still seems to need a love interest.
The Desolation Of Smaug often looks great, with the varied landscapes of New Zealand again being put to great use, and some of the scenes involving Gandalf and a certain deadly peril bring in some welcome darkness, but this particular subplot, despite being in Tolkien’s Appendices, is given short shrift [the film would rather waste time on other stuff], its scenes coming across as an interruption when they shouldn’t be, and they can’t even seem to work out what the villain here looks like. Elsewhere a great deal just seems like rehashes of bits and pieces from The Lord Of The Rings [not the fault of the screenwriters in every case, I know], with even some ‘tempted by power’ stuff, but it mostly feels like a pale shadow of what we’ve seen before [even if it actually happened afterwards, if you know what I mean]. And then the thing just suddenly ends. The first movie and indeed the first two Lord Of The Rings films may have finished with the story obviously not over, but they still felt like completed films in their own right and had good final scenes. This one appears to just stop mid-scene.
The cast mostly play their parts well and Ian McKellen can still make the tackiest of dialogue sound like the best of Shakespeare but poor Martin Freeman just doesn’t get much of a chance to shine here. Howard Shore’s music provides reasonable dramatic backing but is thoroughly unmemorable and only really shines when bits of Lord Of The Rings themes are heard. I suppose they shot themselves in the foot by not filming The Hobbit first, which I still think they should have done, and as one film and without all the Appendices stuff. Then, the move on to the epic that is The Lord Of The Rings would have been thrilling. What we have instead is Jackson and co. trying to make The Hobbit like The Lord Of The Rings and struggling to recapture their past glories. The Desolation Of Smaug is not, overall, a terrible film, hence the not-too-bad rating for a film I’ve spent ages criticising, but it’s decidedly messy, only actually gets good in occasional fits and spurts, and remains an insult to its source material. What a shame it’s come to this.