The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

December 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

So another December has come bearing with it another Peter Jackson adaptation of a J.R.R. Tolkien story.  With each passing movie, my enjoyment has declined to the point where I decided that I would make the effort to see the second The Hobbit adaptation, The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug more out of a morbid curiosity to see how I would react this time to the sundry changes than out of any real expectation that what I would view would be engaging entertainment.  With such expectations, it is hard to be disappointed, as the critic then is, if not suspending her judgments, involved more in a meta-evaluation than a full-scale critique of the film at hand. 

This is, of course, merely a long-winded way of saying that some films provide exactly what they promise, dammit if viewers would have liked something more from it.  Before commencing with this review, I re-read my 2012 review of the first film and found myself thinking that I could copy/paste almost the entirety of that review here, changing only the title and specific details and it would encapsulate well what I thought of the second installment.

As I said in that earlier review, I am no “purist”; I understand that cinema and novels are very different storytelling forms and that there are things that have to be adjusted to fit the medium in question.  That being said, the questionable alterations that Jackson did in order to split the story in three (presumably in order to spend more time on the Gandalf/Necromancer side-plot) bear their dreadful fruit here.  For those who favor a tauter narrative less filled with repetitive scenes, The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug is not the movie for you.  Now onto an exploration of some of the issues I had with it (filled of course, with those ever-so-dreadful “spoilers” that some drone on about for some reason or another.)

The film begins roughly a day or two after the final events of the first installment.  While Beorn does make an appearance here (and Jackson provides a great visual of his home that suits the descriptions found in the book), his entire history and his interactions with the war party are so haphazardly presented that one might question, if it were not for the fact that the dwarves needed ponies for a little while, why this scene appeared here if it to be so sketchily presented.  But mercifully, the scene quickly shifts to Mirkwood and the visceral horrors of that place are well-rendered.

But even here there are issues with the narrative.  Jackson’s Bilbo does not get that moment of character development present in the book when he fights the spiders.  Instead, this scene devolves into a more generic action-adventure scene with dizzying spirals of action as the dwarfs, hobbit, and then some elves dance hither and fro slashing at and filling their enemies full of arrows and pointy objects.  There is nothing outright “bad,” per se, about having such depicted in detail (conceding of course that this alters the themes of the source material), but there is really nothing spectacular here.  In thinking back to this scene and to subsequent fighting scenes (and there are a lot of fighting scenes, since one cannot keep a good orc down, it seems), I found myself thinking of two movie trailers that appeared before the opening scene, Seventh Son and the 300 sequel.  In those trailers and here in Jackson’s film, the cinematography is very similar.  The camera moves in such a vertiginous fashion that it is difficult to keep the eye focused on the movements.  The grim-faced characters, speaking with voices reminiscent of 300‘s King Leonidas yelling “Sparta!”, back-handing foes and having evil beasts roaring in their faces – all of this runs together into a prosaic, forgettable mash-up of action at the expense of any real storytelling.  Yet for many who “like this sort of stuff,” these action scenes, which comprise at least 1/3 of the film’s nearly three hours, will be appealing to them (as it was for my dad, who has never read the Tolkien books).

Other additions are a bit more tedious.  While the latest elf-maiden stand-in wasn’t as incongruous as the Arwen character in the LotR films, the story becomes bogged down in its own need to justify its length around the point of the elvish appearance.  Instead of a simpler means of explaining the dwarfs’ escape, Jackson feels the need to provide drama in the form of extraneous attacks (and lots of fighting, some of which, like the running across the heads of some of the fighters, was ridiculous to behold).  This does not add tension to the narrative as much as it drags out the scenes, making the flight-then-fight sequences feel redundant, as if the characters were trapped in some sort of Middle-Earth Groundhog Day.  Add to that a half-developed political conflict interlude in Lake Town and the entire affair just feels bloated in order to justify earlier bloatedness.

The Gandalf scenes, left undescribed in the book, also suffers from this bloating, not so much in the scenes themselves, but in the lack of development in contrast to the too-long time devoted to going from the elvish halls to the Lonely Mountain of Erebor.  While some of the scenes in this sub-plot are well-rendered, there is a discernible lack of connection with the greater narrative, something that perhaps could have been redressed by judicious edits in the larger plot coupled with perhaps a furthering of Gandalf’s narrative.  As it stands, however, his scenes feel superfluous and they too add to the sense that Jackson has delayed overlong in having the war party reach Smaug’s lair.

The final hour or so of the film is pretty much non-stop action, which again will appeal to some, but for others such as myself, will be another tedious exercise in repetitive fighting.  Smaug’s initial scene with Bilbo is well-done, but Jackson’s choice of having the dwarfs emerge to fight the dragon leads merely to a series of capers that quickly becomes dull.  There is nothing that occurs here that justifies over 45 minutes of movements and dumping of copious amounts of ore and molten metal ad nauseam.  Even if only 20 minutes (I would have preferred less than 10) were devoted to this fight, it might have been bearable, but near the end, I began to lose focus as I kept wondering, “when will this damn thing ever end?”  Finally, it does, with a series of (expected) cliffhangers that remain to be resolved in a year’s time.

The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug is not the sort of movie that I ever would enjoy.  If it weren’t for the fact that I loved the book when I was 12 in early 1987, I wouldn’t have considered watching it, knowing that it would be chock-full of the sorts of generic action/adventure scenes that I have come to loathe.  For this cinematic genre, however, it is decent, albeit not the sort of plot one should lose any sleep over considering its cohesiveness (or lack thereof).  But it certainly is a film that reveals in painful detail just why so many people questioned the need to have a 300 page book split into three movies that will cover nearly a combined nine hours.  A thoroughly mediocre production that illustrates well the declining abilities of its producer.

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