THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Review: Mired Thieving, Draggin’
As a film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is many things: an adaptation of a portion of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s novel, The Hobbit; a sequel to the 2012 film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; a combination of both; the latest entry in the overall (director Peter) Jackson-adapts-Tolkien franchise, which includes the aforementioned Hobbit entry, as well as the Lord of the Rings Trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003); and a stand-alone film.
My approach to the film is as both sequel and stand-alone. I can’t speak to any other option because other than The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which I only watched a few days ago so I could at least familiarize myself with the players before walking into the sequel), I am unfamiliar with the cinematic Tolkien oeuvre, and I know absolutely nothing about the printed works.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug begins where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey leaves off, with the hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves marching onward to find the hidden door in Lonely Mountain. On the way, the Dwarves (without Gandalf, who ventures on his own to confront the Necromancer, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) have many adventures. They fight giant spiders; they combat orcs; they are captured by Wood-elves led by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly); they sneak into Lake-town; and they confront the fire-breathing dragon Smaug. And there you have it. They start somewhere, they end somewhere, and stuff happens in the middle.
There is a consensus in the ether that Smaug is better than Journey. This is, really, damning the sequel with faint praise; Journey is not a good film, so UP was the most likely direction that Smaug would go the minute Journey hit theaters. Also, the phrase “better than” is quite relative. If my diet consists of eating only fried foods, and I introduce fruits and vegetables into my diet, then my diet is technically better. But adding something good to something bad, without at least getting rid of some of the bad, dilutes the good being done. I would need to simultaneously reduce the fried foods while introducing the healthy foods; that would be better to a greater degree. This is what prevents Smaug from being truly better than Journey: good things are added to the sequel, but its predecessor’s bad traits come along too.
The improvement Smaug makes over Journey is that it contains more action, and the action, when it happens, happens with considerable excitement. The problem with it, though, is technical. Director Peter Jackson, despite his VFX wizardry (or perhaps because of it), doesn’t stage action sequences very well. There is so much going on during any given battle that his camera is in constant motion, often times creating a blurring of images. The characters are moving, the background (or the action in it) is moving, and the camera is moving. Suddenly a quick action climax occurs but no sooner does it, the camera sweeps to the action happening next to/across from/behind the action that just happened. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s frustrating. I don’t need to watch a 12-round boxing match, nor do I need the camera to linger until each victim falls still to the ground, but I certainly want to see a little more than a sword slice before it’s on to the next thing. Some of the archery scenes in the film have great potential, and the occasional shot works, but Jackson’s direction, along with Jabez Olssen‘s editing, fail to properly seize those moments.
(Speaking of sweeping camerawork, during many of Jackson’s establishing shots of expansive “sets” – real or virtual – I was reminded of the camera work in Now You See Me, with its endless roller coaster-like movement.)
The rest of Smaug, like Journey is terribly boring, but simply adding more action to boredom doesn’t alleviate the boredom of the non-action scenes … and there are plenty of long, boring non-action scenes to be had. It defies logic that a chronicle of people traveling from Point A to Point B runs 2 hours and 40 minutes and accomplishes so little in terms of substance. The periods between the action are arduous to watch, and they do nothing to develop, or generate interest in, the characters or their quest.
Even the romance storyline (yes, it has one of those) is dull. Here is a chance to invoke Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues, but in the form of dwarves and elves, and nothing remotely close to that happens. There’s as much spark in the shorts of soaking wet orc as there is in this ginned-up relationship. (And before you cry “source material,” while I might not know the books, I screened this film with someone who does, and on the hour-long trip home, I got an earful about inaccuracies and liberties taken, including the invention of Tauriel for the sole purposes of the film. With that, I restate that Dwarfio and Elfiet could have happened.)
Only Bilbo, the thief, seems to have changed since last we saw him, shedding his persona of Hobbit fop and becoming more the reluctant hero.
The special effects as a whole, when not mired in blurred camera motion and choppy editing, are quite impressive. The giant spiders and their endless series of webs are sufficiently creepy, and Smaug, the dragon you have to travel deep into Act III to see, is everything you want in an evil dragon, from his scales to his flaming breath. There’s even a sequence during the climactic conclusion, where Thorin, rising and falling in a well while dangling from a long chain, goes head-to-head with Smaug, that is the most spectacular sequence (outside of Gravity) on film this year. It is well-choreographed, well-executed, and well-filmed. It’s too bad the rest of the movie isn’t like it.
In the end (when it eventually arrives), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug plays like porn: you have to suffer long droughts of boredom to get to the good parts. Unfortunately, there isn’t a fast-forward button in sight.