Hobbit, The: The Desolation of Smaug

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/12/13 15:19:53

"A.K.A. Bilbo Versus The Smaug Monster"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

As I have pointed out here time and again, I am not exactly the biggest fan of big-screen fantasy epics, especially the ones involving elves, pixies, fairies, broadswords, ancient curses, mystical spells, flagons of mead, fire-breathing dragons and the like. This is not to say that I am completely against the genre as a whole--provided that they tell compelling and interesting stories, I can respond to the best of them with the enthusiasm of the most dedicated of fanboys. For example, even though I find it virtually impossible to understand what is going on with it as a whole, I find HBO's "Game of Thrones" to be an undeniably exciting achievement in storytelling. Likewise, while I cannot say that Peter Jackson's jumbo-sized adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy are among my all-time favorites by a long shot, I cheerfully concede that they were stunning productions that were put together with an enormous amount of love and dedication for the source material that came through in virtually every single scene.

On the other hand, I found "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," Jackson's return to Middle-Earth to film Tolkien's prequel to the "LOTR" saga, to be an absolutely excruciating bore that took a story that wasn't exactly overwhelming in terms of length or dramatic weight and tried to super-size it to approximate the dimensions of its predecessors to such an absurd degree--instead of three three-hour movies based on three separate novels, this was the first of what was promised/threatened to be three three-hour movies based on one short book aimed mostly at younger readers--that whatever charms it might have once possessed were buried under so much bloat that it became the chronicle of an epic quest in which it literally took its hero 90 minutes of screen time before he actually left his goddamned house to begin the journey in question. Sure, the film made a ton of money--thereby satisfying its only real prerogative--but even the faithful seemed a little less than fully enthusiastic, partly due to Jackson's highly questionable decision to shoot the thing in a super-fast film rate that made the proceedings look disconcertingly like one of those closed-circuit opera presentations and partly because even they felt that Jackson was dragging things out to an unconscionable length for no particularly good reason.

Now comes the second part of the trilogy, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," and to get the obvious question out of the way up front, it is an improvement over its predecessor. However, this is more because this installment is about 10 minutes shorter than the earlier film, kicks off with the action already underway and is refreshingly free of scenes in which our heroes burst into song or crockery-based whimsy than due to any significant artistic considerations. That said, this is otherwise another ridiculously bloated spectacle that stretches a thin narrative to the kind of insane lengths that will test the patience of the faithful while inspiring other viewers to doze off no more than 15 or 20 times before it comes to its merciful end. To make matters worse, since it only tells the middle of its story, it does little more than tread water, narratively speaking, for most of its duration because things obviously won't get wrapped up until the final installment coming out next year.

For those of you just tuning in, "The Hobbit" is concerned with a group of 13 dwarves, led by the redoubtable Thorin Oakenfield (Richard Armitage), who set off on a quest to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their former kingdom of Erebor, not to mention its vast riches, from the clutches of Smaug, a fire-breathing, smack-talking dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) that devastated the land many years earlier and which now resides inside a castle fairly bursting with gold, jewels and other treasures. Aiding them on this quest is the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellan) and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the amiably meek and mild-mannered Hobbit that Gandalf has insisted on being a part of the mission, much to the surprise and consternation of both the dwarves and Bilbo himself. While separated from the others at one point, Bilbo comes a certain piece of magical jewelry and if you do not know what it is that I am talking about, I can assure you right here and now that this is not going to be a movie for you.

After a prologue depicting the initial meeting between Gandalf and Thorin, the story picks up with Bilbo and the gang taking shelter at the farm of skinchanger Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) before continuing on to the Lonely Mountain. Their journey takes them through the forest of Mirkwood, where they fend off an attack from a group of giant angry spiders until they are eventually rescued by a group of elves led by the sharp-shooting Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and placed into captivity on the order of their king (and Legolas's father) Thranduil (Lee Pace). Eventually, the dwarves escape and make their way to Laketown, a once-thriving metropolis that has been plunged into despair since the arrival of Smaug, though it clings to the hope of a prophecy that the dragon will one day be slain. Eventually, Bilbo (who has found himself increasingly in the mysterious thrall of his recently acquired bling) finds himself at last going mano a beasto with Smaug amidst enormous piles of shimmering gold and wealth in a confrontation that, if it does nothing else (and it doesn't), certainly sets up the next installment.

Considering that the events of "The Hobbit" could easily be contained with in the confines of a single 2 1/2 hour film, some observers may find themselves wondering how Jackson and collaborators Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro could possibly manage to stretch what is essentially the middle of the story out to nearly three solid hours of running time. For starters, they have not only included what feels like every single word and punctuation mark from the book but they have tossed in a number of elements taken from the elaborate appendices that were included with the original works. Apparently fearing that filming the footnotes would only take them so far, Jackson & Co. decided to bring Legolas back into the fray, even though the character does not actually appear at all in the original story, and took the further and more controversial step of creating an entirely new character in the form of Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a fierce warrior elf who serves the dual purpose of potentially beginning a forbidden romance with hunky dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner) and preventing the entire film from coming off like a complete Vienna sausage fest.

When filming the "Lord of the Rings" novels, Jackson made effective use of the epic size and scope that he applied to the material--he gave the material room to breathe in ways that allowed it to flow better than it would have had he gone for a more rushed approach--and when he did make changes, usually structural in nature, to the original material, the differences were intelligently conceived and helped move the stories along in an effective manner. By comparison, his work here in bringing "The Hobbit" to life is so clumsy and clunky throughout that it is hard to believe that the same person could be responsible for both trilogies. For starters, the new stuff does not work at all. Adding Legolas, for example, makes sense in theory, I suppose--by putting a familiar face who could have theoretically been a part of the action into the proceedings, Jackson is clearly hoping to forge more of a link between the two sagas for the benefit of viewers who do not live and breathe all things Middle-Earth-related--but doesn't work in practice because at no point does the character really get to do anything other than serve as that subliminal link. Likewise, the new character of Tauriel, who has inspired some consternation amongst the faithful, has no particular impact on the proceedings other than to chew up more screen time and the resemblance to the feisty female else played by Liv Tyler in the earlier films is so great that some moviegoers may simply assume that they are actually one and the same.

Even when Jackson is sticking to the source material, however, he still fails to find the right tone or pace with "The Hobbit," a story which was originally conceived for younger audiences and which should have been approached with a lighter and breezier manner along the lines of a fairy tale. Instead, he once again tries to give it the weight and portent of "LOTR" and the result is a story that is too grim and nightmarish for younger viewers and a little too childish for older ones. The pacing is also disastrous as well thanks to his decision to let virtually every scene go on at least a minute or two longer than it needs to be--as a result, the good scenes (such as the dwarves escape from the elves via barrels on a raging river) wind up being less effective than they might have been at a slimmer length and the lesser moments are borderline interminable. This is never more evident than during the big climax between Bilbo and Smaug, a sequence that should been a true heart-stopper but which drags on for so long in order to allow Smaug to pontificate at excruciating length that the momentum is all but destroyed as a result. Instead of being dazzled by the finale, all I felt was that it was a perfect embodiment of one of my most sacred rules of moviegoing--never under any circumstance trust any movie featuring a talking dragon amongst the cast of characters.

Look, I have no problem with movies that take a long time to tell their stories--two of my very favorite films of 2013 are the French melodrama "Blue is the Warmest Color" and Martin Scorsese's upcoming "The Wolf of Wall Street" and both of those films clock in at an even three hours each. The difference is that those cases, the filmmakers more than justified their extended lengths by telling stories that made proper use of the extra time in ways that Jackson simply doesn't here. The difference between "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is that the former is a film that is about the perils of massive self-indulgence while the latter is merely an example of it. No doubt Jackson is already preparing an extended version of the film to hit home video around the time of the premiere of the final chapter. Instead, maybe someone can convince him to go through all three films, cut out all the hours of extraneous material and reedit the rest into one single and snappy feature at some point down the line. This could only be an improvement because as it is currently, the whole enterprise has all the propulsive energy of a Dungeons & Dragons game stuck in the middle of an extended rain delay.

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