Film Review: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

With the release of the second installment of The Hobbit Trilogy it is now clear that the power and emotion of the first LOTR films is not coming back. The good news is that the pacing problems which plagued Jackson’s first film are less detrimental here. The seemingly endless run-time of The Desolation of Smaug (pronounced both as SMAOWG and SMOG) does occasionally still feel like a burden. Jackson’s insistence upon ratching up the stakes to equal the apocalyptic anxiety of his earlier trilogy also feels periodically desperate. The gloom hangs over nearly every scene of this bleak picture, which is ridiculous considering its source material. Hell, even The Lord of the Rings found time for a laugh or two.

The Hobbit mythos has always been vague to anyone whose geekiness has not become all-consuming. The basic details are these: A gang of dwarfs led by the gruff Thorin Oakenshield want their home and their treasure back. Both are now under the control of the dragon Smaug (given life through the inimitable baritone of the now ubiquitous Benedict Cummberbatch) who has taken up residence in the Lonely Mountain. In order for their plan to work, the dwarfs need what they dub as a burgler, in this case Bilbo Baggins, who is played again quite effectively by Martin Freeman. When we last left this dour lot they had escaped the CGI clutches of something called Azog, a monstrous, pale, yet curiously fake looking slab of evil beef. Azog, like all of Middle Earth’s “bad guys” is evil just for the sheer hell of it. He has no motivation behind his lust for blood; killing indiscriminately is just something this vile creep does.

When the Desolation of Smuag begins the Oakenshield company is still on the run from this Azog fellow. They’re weary, on foot, and death hangs over their heavily bearded (and full of  prosthetics) heads. Salvation comes from an unlikely place, a dude who also occasionally takes the form of a bear and goes by the name of Beorn. This lucky break sets the dwarfs on the path to Mirkwood, an ancient, deadly forest where they continue their adventure and where we meet new and old characters alike. Some of these characters register, but most of them sadly don’t.

As in The Lord of the Rings, the splendor of Jackson’s vision is highly evident. The impossibly dense forests of Mirkwood; a gothic, devastated castle (where an old evil is lurking); and especially the human community of Laketown are all strongly realized. Even more impressive is that Jackson’s flair for pairing grit with scope remains. There is a wonderful close up of Bilbo’s hands as he examines the ring of power. His nails, which are full of caked dirt, is a great touch that speaks to Jackson’s commitment to small details.

That being said much of the original trilogy’s “lived in” quality has evaporated. While the original trilogy also featured an absolutely stupefying amount of CGI, one always got a sense, particularly in the first film, that the fantasy was grounded in reality. Conversely, in The Hobbit series many of the film’s locations have a weightlessness: a vapid, smooth beauty which evokes horrific memories of Toy Boy George Lucas and his unholy vistas from the Star Wars prequels. One example of this is the sequence where Bilbo finally confronts Smuag in his hall filled with literal mountains of gold. This is an impressive sequence for several reasons, particularly the meta connotations that it evokes due to the face-off between BBC players Freeman and Cumberbatch. However the digital playground surrounding them mars the dynamic between Smaug and Bilbo. It never equals the power displayed in the first Hobbit film’s face-off between Bilbo and Gollum. That scene, shot in an unassuming, subterranean space, when compared to the fake-looking location of the dragon’s lair, encapsulates the still lingering limitations of this thing called CGI. It can never compensate for what’s lacking in characterization or storytelling. Also, even when other elements of a scene are strong (as they are here) CGI can still negatively affect it.

While the scene in the dragon’s lair successfully evokes the character of the titular Smaug the central fellowship of the story, our band of dwarves barely register aside from one or two basic attributes. These characters are nearly on the level of the dwarves in Snow White; we hardly know anything about them aside from one being fat, another one being old and so forth. The only one of the company (aside from Bilbo) whose characterization occasionally seems to move into the third dimension is Thorin. The film sets up a nice discussion about what exactly is motivating the guy, which includes everything from the desire to return his people to their original home, to the primal human drive of boundless greed. Richard Armitage continues to do an excellent job in embodying him. He may not completely fill the void left by Viggo Mortensen’s easy-on-the-eyes Aragorn, but he’s the best this series has got.

Other faces in the story are a mixed-bag. Bard the Bowman, played by Luke Evans, is a strong character. Evans evokes the idea of a man hamstrung by economic disparity and somewhat ostracized by his community due to his father failing to kill Smaug when he first attacked Laketown. He certainly fares better than Orlando Bloom, returning once more as the insipid Legolas. Jackson has always done very little with this character, typically relegating him to being the vessel for big, CGI-assisted visual moments. We all remember the eye-rolling shot of him surfing on a shield during The Battle of Helm’s Deep or, even worse, him bringing down an entire Mumakil by himself in The Battle of Pelennoir Fields. His only other function in the original trilogy was to produce some basic comedic relief with the dwarf Gimli, which was typically only marginally amusing. In this new series his personality is still non-existent. There are no personality traits aside from an ambivalence for dwarves.

In Desolation of Smaug, Legolas’s foil has been replaced with a new character who has no basis in Tolkien lore. Obviously designed to be a figure of female empowerment, the elf Tauriel (played by the amazingly beautiful Evangeline Lilly) is his new companion. Tauriel is a ferocious fighter, and her acrobatic take-down of the spiders in Mirkwood provides a few cool shots for the film. Unfortunately, Tauriel also showcases the profound weaknesses of Jackson and his writing parter Fran Walsh when it comes to writing female characters. Tauriel claims that her reasons for wanting to assist the dwarves in battling evil is purely because the elves have a responsibility to ensure Middle Earth’s well-being. It is obvious though to everyone (except apparently to the characters and Jackson and Walsh) that her primary motivation is to simply hook back up with the dwarf Kili, who she takes a shine to while the dwarves are briefly incarcerated in the elf kingdom in Mirkwood. It’s somewhat insulting when you look at it for long enough. A majority of what she does in the film revolves around trying to secure herself a guy.

With part two of The Hobbit trilogy completed and the final chapter to be released next year, it is hard to look at the results so far with anything other than painful exhaustion. As I mentioned in my review of the original Hobbit film, the series often has the look that the hand of a much older man is behind the proceedings. The Desolation of Smaug, just like An Unexpected Journey, does not have the same ambition that was behind the original trilogy. One can see this with a good majority of the action sequences. Compare the final fight scene between Aragorn and Lurtz in Fellowship of the Ring with the climactic brawl between Legolas and Bolg; it’s like night and day. The down and dirty action of real people, doing real stunts and having real fake fights has been replaced by the shocking weightlessness and blurry movement of CGI.

What is more loathsome is that even while Jackson’s ambition has clearly been diminished his storytelling style has obviously not. The Desolation of Smaug is an ungodly long film and for all the wrong reasons. There is plenty of material to work with here, enough perhaps to even justify the uncomfortable running time. The included material is simply misguided. The character of Beorn could have been explored more. Additionally, one of the titular characters of the story, Bilbo Baggins, is reduced to a supporting role in what is supposed to be his story of going there and coming back again.

Essentially, this trilogy’s verbose storytelling is not supported by artistic integrity. These movies are engorged not for any valid reason but to justify a three act structure. It’s also this way so the studio can fill its coffers with our money not once but three times. Therefore when Bilbo finally enters the dwarf treasure hall, one realizes that it is not Thorin, not Smaug but that it is Warner Brothers that is King Under the Mountain.

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