The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Peter Jackson’s second film based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is landing in theaters this weekend. Earlier this week I got the chance to check out the return of Middle-Earth in order to see whether or not this film has learned from the An Unexpected Journey’s mistakes, or if it fails to deliver. Come inside to check out my thoughts on The Desolation of Smaug!
I’m a big fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and his journey’s into Middle-Earth have been satisfying in ways I didn’t expect. That being said, I had plenty of issues with last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It’s pacing was all wrong, and suffered in general from a lack of an real tension. Journey seemed to struggle for a purpose, the themes so central to the book felt muddled and half-hearted, while the characters’ goals were lifeless. Aimless, is one of the best ways I’ve describe the first Hobbit movie.
Things looked much better in the previews for Desolation of Smaug, as the film appeared to be much more focused...While this is somewhat true, sadly, Desolation suffers from the same problems plaguing the first film. The first 30-45 minutes of the film are pretty much entirely unnecessary, and do nothing but bog down the flow of the film. It’s filled with several generic Fantasy cliches and characters who do nothing more than provide fan service without actually being needed for the story. As cool as it was to see Beorn in the film, he was utterly useless and and didn’t do a damn thing.
I like to try and be positive, so let's pull away from the negative a little bit and talk about what works really well in the film. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression here, there are several things in this film that worked and I enjoyed a great deal. It’s a fun movie and features some enjoyable set pieces that had me ‘ooohing’ and ‘ahhing’ in my chair.
Smaug, the fire breathing dragon, in particular is handled incredibly well, and makes for one of the most exciting parts of the film. The special effects used to bring him to life look stunning and rank among the best I’ve seen. He felt like a real and existing character, and moved like you’d expect a creature of his size to do. You definitely feel like you’re watching a real live dragon up on the screen and I never had that moment where I was snapped out of that. Nothing about it screams “this is CGI”.
The acting in general was well done, and aside from the beginning (the uber cliche section of the film that felt useless), the characters were strong and felt like real people responding to the situations they were placed in. The beginning didn't work, because the dialog felt way too stilted and forced. When the film moved onward with the meat of the story, things smoothed over nicely and the characters were once again themselves.
In particular the performances from Lee Pace (who portrays the Elven King), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug) stand out in my mind. While everyone did a good job, when I think back on the film and my favorite parts, they were the ones involved. The only trouble in regards to the acting was that no one character seemed to get enough time and attention. There's simply too many of them, and just as I was really getting into the performance of one, they'd shift to another character. By the time they came back to the more interesting ones, I felt like I had to catch back up to remember what they were up to! Even so, the acting overall is very well done and one of the strongest aspects of the movie.
It's Time to Leave the Book Behind
Again, Desolation of Smaug is an enjoyable movie, but its failure to live up to its potential is damn frustrating. A big reason for this, is the movie seems to struggle with what, exactly, it wants to be. The film brings in a lot of extras that essentially act as a Lord of the Rings prequel, while the rest is an adaptation of the film's namesake book. The problem is, The Hobbit is meant to be a lighthearted tale intended mostly for children but the Lord of the Rings elements they've added in are dark and brooding.
These two tones are constantly at war with one another throughout the film, making it very difficult for the audience to take either of them seriously. The lack of commitment to either of the tones (lighthearted and fun or dark and menacing) makes the film feel as aimless as An Unexpected Journey.
What bothers me most, however, is that the darker aspects of the film (which are the prequel parts) form the more interesting story for the film. It's what caught my attention the most and seems to have the better themes throughout. In reality the parts of the film that I felt were out of place and useless, were the ones dealing with The Hobbit! Every time they cut to a scene that actually dealt with parts of the book I was more bored than anything and ready for them to return to the other story they were telling.
At this point, I'd almost rather them stop telling The Hobbit story and go all out with the Lord of the Rings prequel they were throwing in there. That or they needed to cut out the prequel stuff and stick to the original Hobbit tale. They're doing their best to merge the stories together but the tales are too drastically different to make it work. Their distinctions both have their own merits but rather than working in tandem, they're both fighting for attention. Without focusing on one or the other, both stories fail to succeed.
Lack of Tension
My biggest issue with Journey was it's general lack of tension. There didn't seem to be any weight or gravitas to what the adventurers were doing, nor did they have any substantial personal journeys to endure (aside from Bilbo). Desolation does a bit better in this regard by giving everyone stronger goals and upping the stakes with the orcs and Smaug. However, just when things start to get tense something happens to alleviate it entirely.
Each battle has some awesome moments in them with plenty of thrills, but they also had comedic elements that took away any sense of impact the battles had. So instead of having any real purpose behind the battles, they were nothing more than cool set pieces. Don't get me wrong, they were very fun to watch, but without any impact behind them they were almost superfluous. Too many ill fitting comedic relief during the battles robbed them of their punch, which once again results in a big lack of tension.
While the overall tension was better in Desolation, it struggled in the smaller moments to make me care for what was happening. Couple this problem with the pacing issues of the film and you're faced with a film that has exciting moments between bits of boring exposition that you can't attach yourself to.
Tolkien was an exceptional author and he rarely wrote anything without a purpose behind it. His books are filled with powerful themes that have obviously resonated with generations and continue to hold sway. The Lord of the Rings films capture these themes amazingly well mostly because they stuck with those themes. The Hobbit book is all about greed and courage, a pair of noble themes, and while the films have touched on these themes they've also added in a bunch of others as well.
The extra themes are reminiscent of those present in Lord of the Rings, and while they're good, they override the ones in The Hobbit. The result is a muddle of mixed themes fighting for significance, none of which are getting the attention they so rightly deserve. While I liked all of themes presented and think they're all worth talking about, Desolation needed to pick one or two of them and stick with those. It would have given the film a stronger focus and overall impact.
The real issue comes when the themes seem to be entirely forgotten in lieu of other things happening. Throughout the film, it’s quite obvious that Thorin is starting to lose himself to the greed. At one point, it’s so corrupting that he actually turns his sword on Bilbo (no spoilers here as it’s been in the trailers). The moment passes due to the larger threat of the dragon, but this theme for his character isn’t picked up again...at all. In fact, he once again takes on the hero role and everyone (including Bilbo) is looking up to him and following him.
It’s something that struck me as odd and it wasn’t something I wanted the film to drop. It was a very interesting character development for Thorin, yet they went nowhere with it. This happens a couple other times as well and it’s something that simply took me out of the experience, rather than drawing me in more.
In terms of spectacle you're going to walk away impressed, but after the credits roll, I'm finding myself hard pressed to find the desire to watch it again.
I hope There and Back Again is better.