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MOVIE REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite a relentless pace and impressive effects, most notably bringing to life the impressive dragon at the heart of the tale, part two of Peter Jackson’s adaptation seldom engages and often bores.


SYNOPSIS: The hobbit Bilbo Baggins and a pack of dwarves continue their quest to liberate dwarvish treasure hoarded in the Lonely Mountain by the dragon Smaug.

PROS: The dragon Smaug, arrestingly realized by CGI and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch; well-realized renditions of the Elf Kingdom and Lake-town; winning if hammy performance by Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town; impressively staged action sequences…
CONS: …that go nowhere for most of the movie; needless chases that serve little purpose; blending of elements from both Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Silmarillion that fit together too unevenly; forced love story between elf Tauriel and the dwarf Kili; dialogue and character development that sit poorly with the action sequences.

In a niche in world letters there lived The Hobbit.  Not an unknown, unobserved niche filled with the trite borrowings of second-rate hacks and uninspired tales palely reflecting J. R. R. Tolkien’s much-loved children’s book, nor yet a dry, bare, desiccated niche where fantasy fans sucked dry the marrow of their favorite genre: it was The Hobbit, a groundbreaking work that, despite countless imitators (and outright theft), still holds the power to enthrall readers of all ages today.

Which is why Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second installment), despite being an obvious labor of love by its director, seems so misguided it might as well have been made by one of Tolkien’s imitators.  Certainly Jackson learned a few lessons since last year’s release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — most notably that 48 frames per second makes what should be a breathtaking adventure look like the bottom of a cinematic wine barrel — but not the ones that would deliver a compelling, or even mildly diverting, movie.  Indeed, Jackson, along with co-screenwriters Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro, seem intent on delivering a cornucopia of Middle Earth’s greatest hits, melding elements of The Silmarillion to Tolkien’s twee tome.  It’s a mistake, and one that cripples the story itself.  The Hobbit worked in part because it maintained its focus on Bilbo Baggins, the bravest hobbit of them all, only occasionally leaving his point of view to help enhance a broader story.  In order for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to become the epic of Jackson’s own The Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, it adds chases, psychotic slobbering orcs, a potential battle against ultimate evil, a love story, the politics of Lake-town, a town on a lake near the Lonely Mountain where a hoard of treasure rests beneath the belly of the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), and the introduction of the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), as well as the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen).  Really, we’ve been there, do we need to go back again?

We do, and Jackson and company take great delight, alas, in offering viewers more of the same.  Stripped of whimsy, the screenplay incorporates the same saccharine sentiment that hampered the last 20 minutes of The Return of the King and too much of the previous movie—that is, when it’s not hammering action sequences heaped upon the viewer in a desperate attempt to hide how thin the novel is when stretched across three three-hour movies.  The sentiment, so cloyingly sweet that they might cause a hobbit himself to slip into a diabetic coma (and especially in the portions that hobbits consume of any meal) stands at odds with the darker subplot of orcs preparing for battle, especially as romance blooms between the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel.

Not always, however.  At times levity works in its favor.  Captured by Wood-eves, Bilbo rescues the dwarves and convinces them to escape by hiding in wine barrels; he rolls them into a river, and looks quite pleased with himself until he realizes that he has not considered his own part in the escape plan.   It’s a fine moment that only lasts as long as he winds up hanging onto the side of one barrel as elves and orcs do battle on the river banks, with Legolas at one point hopping from dwarf’s head to dwarf’s head in a scene so over-the-top it makes James Bond’s jaunt across the heads of alligators in Live and Let Die look like a meditative sequence by Ingmar Bergman.  Such sequences fit well with the modern blockbuster, but they possess little real energy, and there are far too many of them.  Characters from the novel such as Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the shape-shifter Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) take a backseat not only to mindless action but also to hammy performances by incidental characters such as Stephen Fry’s Master of Lake-town.  Indeed, for a tale about one ordinary hobbit finding his courage, it offers none of the characters a chance to grow, or the seasoned thespians to breathe life into them.  Hence, Martin Freeman’s Bilbo constantly waxes between astonishment and frustration, Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield seldom looks more than glum, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf all but appears to want to check the sundial to see how much time he has left in this trilogy.

Certainly The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug offers more visual interest than its predecessor.  Lake-town, despite at times looking like the back alleys of last year’s film adaptation of Les Miserables, appears as well-realized as the Shire, even as an army of orcs swarm across its rooftops.  The interior of the Misty Mountain, treasure filling its depths, shine with the best realization CGI can provide.

It’s a little unfair to judge The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, because it is not a single movie but the second, three-hour part of a nine-hour-long (and perhaps more, once the DVDs hit the shelves) tale.  It’s also understandable that Jackson and crew want to create a fantasy epic that viewers will not forget; why else would they tell a single tale in the amount of time it took the fellowship of the ring to reach Mordor?  However, it’s still a mistake.  In making a Berlin Alexander for the genre set, they have not brought the necessary depth and insight needed to make the endeavor worthwhile.  We see less the desolation of Smaug, unfortunately, but more the celebration of slog.

12 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

  1. The mistake is trying to make a rather charming kids book into something as grave and serious as Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit just plain isn’t and will never be. Jackson and the studio are simply cashing in by saying, “Hey, you liked my last trilogy, you’ll love this one.”

  2. I’m supposed to see this tomorrow with my family, and thanks to your review, I’m going in with absolutely no expectation of being entertained.

    I appreciate the warning.

  3. Disagree with all the negative commentary on the movie, as well as the fact that the “love story” between Tauriel and Kili “is” a love story. To me it was more that there was a friendship developing between people of two races who have cause to hate each other far more than they have cause to get along. Kili’s seeming infatuation with Tauriel was reminiscent of Gimli’s infatuation with the Lady Galadriel in Lord of the Rings.

    Also, just wanted to pointed out the typos in the review WRT to Ian McKellen and Martin Freeman’s names.

  4. Saw this yesterday, Derek.

    For what you mention about the whimsy, I saw this movie as being far *less* schizophrenic about that than Unexpected Journey. We have no dishes scene, Cockney Trolls or a bloated Goblin King here. All of the action scenes are “bloodier”. Even if Leoglas does the James Bond bit, the action feels more serious.

    The frenetic pace of the movie in keeping the company moving quickly felt at odds with the Hobbit. They were weeks in the dungeon in the Hobbit, not a night and a day.

    I suppose Jackson realizes he is never going to get to film a story about Beren and Luthien, or Turin Turambar, and so incorporating as much of the myth of the LOTR universe as he can, even if it fills “The Hobbit” to bursting, is his way of getting the next best thing.

  5. I do wonder why Hobbit the novel is so highly praised almost every time there’s a review for a Hobbit movie (this and the last one, on various sites). Have you read the Hobbit in last months? I have (a week ago), and I found that in raw writing quality, it was fairly bad. Surprisingly bad, even. Aye, the LotR universe shines through, but the pacing of the book itself is way out of whack, the dialogues / character motivations are below childish, and there’s no balance between important aspects and digressions..

    I can grant that people could find the movies boring (I personally didn’t think so, but ymmv). But to say that and praise the origin book at the same time? Please…

  6. I enjoyed the first one, and enjoyed this one, both for very different reasons.

    I thought the first one set a nice emotional tone with Bilbo building some courage and this one did a great job of showcasing many of the locations Tolkien created in his overall body of work. I don’t mind the changes at all, but then I’m not as devoted to The Hobbit as I am The Lord of the Rings films. I feel the films get much more criticism because of Jackson’s previous success. If you spend any time at all watching the extras on the EE of the first film it is very obvious just how passionate Peter Jackson, and everyone else, is about making the best movie they can make. It isn’t just another job, and that increases my appreciation for what they have done.

    Are these films flawless? Of course not, the source material is much thinner than for LOTR. Am I glad they are making three? Absolutely. It was worth it just to see all the locations shown in Desolation.

  7. I agree with X2Eliah that the novel itself is twee, uneven and almost insulting to its readers, even if they were young kids (the coy authorial asides are as maddening as Radagast and his sleigh bunnies in the film).

    That said, I agree with Chris Orr of the Atlantic who said that 1) Jackson’s Hobbit is bad fanfic (emphasis on the bad: fanfic can be as good as or better than canon source) and 2) Jackson seems to have fulfilled his ambition to become today’s George Lucas (snark intended). Of course, that underscores the point that much of Tolkien is also fanfic without even the serial numbers filed off (Turin is Kullervo, Turin & Whatshername are Siegmund & Sieglinde, etc).

    I liked LotR — partly relief that it wasn’t produced on plywood sets in California, but it also had moments of genuine resonance when Jackson dialed back on the CGI, flying decapitations, sentimentality and crude levity. It says much that a Kiwi schlockmeister gave us a far better work than any Hollywood director ever could. The Hobbit has no legs to carry the artificial weight that has been foisted on it. Jackson, like Wagner, does well when given a good libretto and firm boundaries. With LotR, he was obscure enough to be restrained. Now, he has no editor.

    Longer opinion, with some foreshadowing: Hagiography in the SFX Age – Jackson’s The Hobbit,

  8. I haven’t seen The Desolation of Smaug yet but, I will. Given that, what follows is not a critique of the movie. I’ll judge that after I’ve seen it.

    I believe most folks are looking at this whole trilogy the wrong way. I don’t think Jackson needs to follow Tolkien here. What people are missing is that the whole Hobbit trilogy is very high end Fan Fiction.

    No one can fault Jackson’s love of Middle Earth. The Ring trilogy he produced was as completely faithful to the books as was possible.

    I think Peter Jackson is so deeply in love with and committed to Middle Earth that he’s having a hard time leaving it.

    And, if he wants to do them, I, for one, would go to see any Middle Earth movie that Jackson makes.

  9. People did not miss that Jackson’s Hobbit is fanfic, it’s as subtle as Tolkien’s good/evil splits. Other people fall in love with their stuff (that’s why SFF authors often create “universes” to roam in) but you can indulge in bloated excess only if you have clout. Which is a sad misuse of clout — instead of doing novel risky stuff, more rechurned corn-syrup gruel and, of course, lunchboxes!

  10. As I said, I’ll make my judgment about it as a movie when I see it. Your comments seem to reflect the prevailing opinions of folks in the genre and the critics, even those who are generally favorable to Jackson.

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