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Film Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Reviewer: Cliff Davenport













 

Admit it.  Some of you were looking forward to December this year more for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug than you were for whatever flavor of Christmahannukwanzakuh you celebrate.  It’s okay.  I was too, and yes, I do mean “was.”  Ready your pitchforks, peasants, for I have seen the beast, and the rumors are true.  The black arrows of yore did weaken its hide, and now, entire scales are broken and missing, holes gaping wide to the dragon’s heart.  Now, I probably just lost half of you there.  For the rest of you, allow me to explain why I was deeply disappointed in this film, and hope to high heaven for a much-improved extended-cut-to-come.    


Before you start chanting war cries en-masse for my head on a pike though, let me just say that my dubbing this film as the very weakest of any Lord of the Rings film to date is much like calling a millionaire the poorest man in a room full of other millionaires.  At the end of the day, he’s still far more successful than most could ever hope to become, and The Desolation of Smaug fits that exact same bill.  It’s every bit the fun and exciting spectacle that audiences have come to expect, but like a rich playboy surrounded by plastic friends and trophy girls, it’s empty, shallow, and confused inside, and I do not like the direction that Peter Jackson is taking this franchise in anymore.  Not even because it’s a poor adaptation of Tolkien’s original work; no, I was prepared for that after the happy surprise that was An Unexpected Journey, but because it is a poorly made film.  

















“Abandon post!  Get out now, before the fanboys arrive!”


Utterly inconsistent pacing, a near-total lack of a proper narrative arc, and even a lazy cliffhanger ending all lead this film in unrewarding circles that would make the spiders of Mirkwood blush.  Now, don’t get me wrong here; I’m just fine with cliffhanger endings when they’re done right.  The Fellowship of the Ring did it right.  The Two Towers did it right.  The Desolation of Smaug did not.  One can write a cliffhanger ending, and even boldly sequel drop if the narrative arc of a film still experiences a proper rise, a proper fall, and certain degree of closure.  That doesn’t happen in this film.  Its narrative is less the leaning bell curve of well written adventure, and more akin to a heart monitor; rising, falling, and rising again, but never very high, and never very long, until it just flatlines at the ending.  I can only surmise that this problem arose from the writers’ failed attempts at crafting a “middle” into a whole, seeing as this film represents the second of three sequential adaptations of the same book.  That may not have been their fault, but it was their responsibility to address, as was seeing to the film’s proper narrative execution.  


Deus ex machina, once a last resort plot device of previous films in the series, whose spectacular executions often distracted viewers from its heavy-handedness, like the giant eagle or moth scenes, is now the order of the day, and very often, that order’s name is Tauriel.  No review of this film is really complete without taking good long look at one of Jackson and his writers’ most controversial characters to date, but I’ll revisit that subject in detail a little later on.  Foremost amongst Desolation’s litany of flaws, however, is its horrific pacing.  Some scenes fly by in the blink of an eye, like Beorn’s cameo (no, I will not call it a scene, as it hardly warrants the term), while others drag on for far too long, like the Laketown sequence and the dwarves’ subsequent confrontation with Smaug.  Despite the drag of the latter, however, the whole film ends up feeling rushed, as though it were constantly hurrying to reach the third movie rather than representing a truly fast-paced adventure.  That difference is most certainly a thin line to toe, but unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Jackson lost his balance.   


















And his mind.


What’s worse, he drug his logic down with him in the fall.  As an author myself, I understand very well that literally any fantasy story requires some suspension of disbelief.  It comes with the territory, but that’s not a catch-all excuse to fail within the confines of a tale’s own constants.  Consistency is still an important pillar of such a story’s structure, as it is indeed the only thing holding a tale outside the bounds of our own reality together.  Throughout this movie, however, elves only seem to remember their bows when nameless minions need killing, but forget about them entirely when important foes appear, despite those foes presenting absolutely beautiful targets for archers to whom popping a shaft into their eye sockets would be child’s play.  Smaug too forgets at incredibly opportune moments that he can breathe bloody fire, despite extremely minor barriers, like pillars or bars, keeping him from the dwarves he’s so hell-bent upon killing, and when said dwarves turn the tables (Beware: here there be spoilers!), they quite literally attempt to fight fire with fire, dousing a living embodiment of fury, greed, and flame in molten gold in their best attempt at killing it.  Three guesses how well that goes, whether or not you’ve read The Hobbit.  What part of “I am fire” is unclear to these characters?!















“Do I look like a guy with a plan?”


Crucify me if you will, but I even found the musical score lacking this time around, and it pains me to say that about any Lord of the Rings film.  The one track that stood out, as Atticus also noted, was Lake Town’s theme, but unfortunately, audiences are only briefly treated to it twice, despite that overall film segment’s length.  Don’t expect Desolation’s visuals to cover for its lyrical shortcomings either; they too are dishearteningly underwhelming.  As breathtaking and beautiful as many of Desolation’s wider setpieces and establishing shots are, the real meat of the movie is rife with cramped sets and oddly claustrophobic cinematography.   Certain scenes thrive on this, like the packed and desperate streets of the Lake Town of Esgaroth, but others just feel like low-budget, incomplete film facades .  Don’t get me wrong, the film has got its “wow” moments, and what it does well, it does as well as any Tolkien film before it, but it just doesn’t do so often enough to compare.  


Finally, there’s the narrative, but first I want to clarify something: I did not enter this movie expecting a fully faithful representation of The Hobbit, nor do I consider such to be essential for a book-to-film adaptation’s success.  An Unexpected Journey most certainly was not a perfect translation, but the alterations made to that film’s story, by and large, strengthened it and gave it the chops to withstand a three-film duration.  As long as the core themes of a source narrative and its overall plot arcs remain faithful to one another, an adaptation has succeeded.  That said, Desolation has failed miserably.  Many of its narrative themes are cheaply recycled from previous films, almost ver batim in some cases.  Does the line, “Are we not part of this world?” sound familiar?  Think hobbits.  Tree-riding, mushroom-nicking, pipeweed-stoning hobbits.  This repetition of thematic elements and conflicts isn’t even an artifact of the film’s adaptation status, either; these redundancies almost universally arise from the new material, demonstrating a clear failure to understand what’s come before on the writers’ parts.  


Even series continuity starts coming apart at the seams as Desolation drags on, especially with regard to the character of Gandalf.  The Dol Guldur subplot that Unexpected Journey introduced is further explored throughout this film, and leads to Gandalf’s discovery beyond a shadow of a doubt (get it?) that Sauron has indeed returned, and is in fact the eminent threat from Dol Guldur, only to apparently forget all of that by the time Fellowship of the Ring rolls around.





















“Blast, I know I’m forgetting something…ah well, can’t be that important.  

Another hit of the ol’ pipe should jog my memory. “


Also, I’m not over fond of one scene, one line that this film gives to Gandalf.  Debating the weight of the threat from Dol Guldur against the safety of the dwarven company, Gandalf speaks aloud the dilemma to Radaghast, “You would have me cast aside my friends..” Now, most viewers, whether fans of the books, of the films, or both, would think this a bygone given of a choice, but, just a few scenes later, we see that the doddering old sage has done exactly as Radaghast implied he should, assaulting Dol Guldur alone without so much as a second’s hesitation for Bilbo, Thorin, and company.  I wouldn’t actually mind this overmuch if it weren’t so very out of character for the otherwise universally warm-hearted Gandalf.  Sure, he does constantly go out of his way to put otherwise peaceable, or at least good-natured people into harm’s way, but never before, even in the darker, grittier Lord of the Rings trilogy, has he ever outright sacrificed someone, much less thirteen someones, for the sake of the “greater good.”  

“Unless, you know, you count me.


And then there’s Tauriel, Desolation’s redheaded stepchild.  I would not have minded the addition of her character, or her romantic subplot with the dwarf Kili, had she and said plot arc been handled well.  As it is, it’s a forced façade of a Romeo & Juliet tale with a little love triangle drama sprinkled in for good measure.  Nothing precipitates their attraction, as each have been raised amongst the racial prejudices of their peoples, and nothing really comes of it.  One can’t even make a solid argument that her rebellious actions, namely aiding the dwarven company far beyond King Thranduil’s wishes, stem from any romanticized notions of love without boundaries, as her motivations get confused amongst her own anti-isolationist rhetoric.  Honestly, I think Jackson took this character in too many directions.  

















Like “butter scraped over too much bread,” perhaps?


Her story would have been stronger, more cohesive, and more thematic if Jackson had really stuck with one of the two major motivators that Tauriel seems to juggle, those being her attraction to Kili and her objection to the elves’ traditional isolationism in the face of a greater threat.  Sure, the former would have set feminist fans ablaze with further accusations that she’s a husk of a warrior-woman, defined only by the men around her (despite the power of such an admittedly clichéd but classical love story), and sure, the latter would have disappointed every starry-eyed fangirl (or boy, we’re not here to judge) with hopes for some manner of a love story with which to break up all the violence once in a while, but at least she would have been a definable character.  


As she is now, she just feels like a bland, pointy-eared bone tossed to those who complained about the previous films’ sausage fest casting.  I’ll even take that statement one step further.  Every last scene that the Tauriel character appears in, even those in which she conveniently saves the day, are artificial crises.  She is only important in those scenes because the choreography said so, even down to the very last scene that she shares with Kili.  For the sake of spoilers, I won’t spell that one out, but suffice it to say, what she does, someone else was already doing, and she interrupts them to do it her way.  Nevermind the fact that she’s a “lowly wood elf servant,” and yet displays abilities traditionally ascribed to the more powerful high elves.  That disparity is hardly touched upon in this story, or in the previous films for that matter, so it’s more a gripe for lore purists than for most viewers, and won’t factor into the film’s numerical critique.  



















“For the last time, my name is not Mary Sue!  It’s Tauriel!

Tauriel, you daft bastard!”


Now, don’t mistake any of what I’ve just said for criticism of this film’s actors.  Desolation’s acting was excellent as always, even if audiences aren’t treated to quite as much of it this time around, and its casting, even down to Evangeline Lilly’s role as Tauriel, remains spot on.  The actors are not the problem in this movie.  The problems come from its writers, which Desolation’s cast most certainly made the best of given what they were saddled with.  Case in point: Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Smaug was every bit as awesome as one could hope for.  Not quite Jeremy Serkis/ Gollum awesome, but memorably outstanding all the same.  Martin Freeman too once again masters his role as Bilbo Baggins, bringing an impressively subtle, yet dramatic undertone of self-conscious confidence into his performance, even as Bilbo gradually slips ever deeper into the dreadful gradient of madness which his precious new ring is has abetted.


To my rather great surprise, even Legolas  was actually handled quite well in this film, and it might not have gone that way if it weren’t for Orlando Bloom’s well-honed portrayal of the character.  On a more minor, but still impressive note, Legolas actually really, really resembles his father, King Thranduil throughout this movie, a subtle feat of makeup and costumery that I can hardly overstate, given the actors’ otherwise disparate appearances and comparable ages.   And while Legolas does make short work of most foes throughout the film’s nigh-constant fight scenes, and even brings back everyone’s favorite tactical-shield-ride maneuver ad nauseum (sub out the shield for spiders, orcs, and even balding dwarves for this go around!), he is not the untouchable killing machine that so many fans and critics alike complained about from the original Lord of the Rings films.  He actually meets his match in this film, and while his most climactic fight does end in a stalemate, it’s a fight he most certainly does not win, nor come out of unscathed.  Perhaps most impressive of all is how recognizably the character feels like the Legolas of The Fellowship of the Ring, even as the story draws new, unforeseen facets of his personality to the forefront, and most of those are actually delivered less by dialogue and more by facial expressions.  Make no mistake, Orlando Bloom is at the top of his game in this film, and I will gladly eat my words regarding my early apprehensions at Legolas’ introduction into this narrative.  



















“Oh, it’s not your words you’ll be eating, Mr. Critic.”


Despite the many flaws that mar The Desolation of Smaug,I can’t bring myself to hate it, or even to dislike it, despite all of my criticism.  It does still feel like a timeless, J.R.R. Tolkien tale, even if it is the weakest such chapter to date.  Continuity issues aside, its deeper explorations of the happenings at Dol Guldur and the foreshadowing delivered thereby help to guide the Hobbit trilogy into a place more befitting a set of prequels to The Lord of the Rings proper, tying the two narratives together more firmly and cohesively.  Unfortunately, however, I hardly feel that I can recommend this film to fans of the first Hobbit film, to Lord of the Rings fans, or to Tolkien fans in general in good conscience.  I can only really bring myself to recommend it confidently to those who want a good, fun, brainless two and a half hours of action and spectacle, and that hurts to put to words.  The Lord of the Rings is better than that.  The Hobbit is better than that.  And damnit, Peter Jackson is better than that.  One can only hope that the inevitable release of a further-extended cut of the film will address the worst of the issues that plague this film, but some cuts may well go too deep.



Rating: 6.6


Visuals: 8
Audio: 6
Narrative: 9
Acting: 6
Atmosphere & Experience: 4





















“I don’t like this ‘Mr. Black’ sod.  Keeps calling me ‘Will Turner,’

the barmy bastard.”


Final Verdict:


6.6


Want a second

opinion? Check out Atticus’

review.

  Director: Peter Jackson

  Producer: Carolynne Cunningham

                   Zane Weiner

                   Fran Walsh

                   Peter Jackson

  Studio:  New Line Cinema

                Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

                WingNut Films

  Release Date (U.S.): Dec 13, 2013

  Release Date (U.K.): Dec 13, 2013

  Release Date (JP):  Feb 28, 2014


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