“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, and Benedict Cumberbatch
Written by: Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, & Guillermo Del Toro (screenplay); J.R.R. Tolkein (novel)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
How can a film like this be boring? I love the previous four films (yes, four, since the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy is so clearly connected to this), so what possibly could go wrong? Is it conceivable that I try harder to be ‘critical’ now that I’m writing about these things I love? Sure. Is it also conceivable that the bubble finally burst, and Peter Jackson delivered a bloated, plodding, nearly joyless Middle Earth film that actually feels three hours long before we even meet the marvelous titular character? Absolutely.
Up to this point, these ‘creatively adapted’ four films have given us visual splendors as well as soulful performances. Jackson and crew have no equals as it pertains to technical brilliance, and they have such an outward passion for the material that it has shown on-screen. His indie sensibilities paired with his keen eye for ‘dirty worlds’ have been a natural fit for J.R.R.Tolkein’s material, and I do not believe there is another filmmaker working today who could have come close to what he’s accomplished.
So, what is “The Desolation of Smaug” missing? To begin with, it lacks the sincerity and heart of the previous films. Perhaps it’s the lack of whimsical, wispy musical overtures like the ‘Shire’ theme. Perhaps it’s the lack of hobbits in general. Perhaps it’s the newfound toy Bilbo has that draws his darker side out. Perhaps it’s a creative choice to show all, or most of the main characters allowing their negative traits to shine through, leading them on dangerous paths. By themselves, all of these reasons would be solid markers to prove the lack of heart in the film, but together it snowballs into an unenjoyable conglomeration of CGI set pieces and choreographed battles.
Even the lightest part of the film involving the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) had no resonance once I learned that she was a completely fabricated character. I made a point not to read The Hobbit, as I figured that three films totaling 8 hours would probably provide all the narrative I needed. Finding out after the film that Tauriel was invented for this film was disheartening- after all, if Tolkein’s work alone, and Jackson’s prowess aren’t enough, why would we be interested? I think the answer lies in a cynical place- Tauriel exists to soften the edges, to attract more females to a film with a predominantly male cast, and mostly, to bring in more money.
Thus far, Jackson has been able to deftly navigate the muddied waters of studio interests, rights issues, fanboys, and casual viewers. Choosing to include a character not previously established, combined with the need to stretch this material into three films, disappoints me. I guarantee it has been difficult for Jackson to satisfy everyone, but I cannot deny the negativity that has now gathered around what had been a relatively pure experience for me. Call me naive, but that’s where I stand.
If there is one thing that works extremely well, it’s certainly the realization of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on-screen. If Smaug were in the rest of the film, I’d have to reconsider my overall opinion. Sadly, he’s only part of roughly 45 minutes, and it’s clearly the high-water mark for the film. Smaug’s slithering, booming voice strikes an excellent balance as he exchanges witty repartee with Bilbo, and his movements are so cool yet menacing that I can’t help but think of him as one of the better ‘villains’ of recent age. It should come as no surprise that he’s the best dragon we’ve ever seen in movies, with respect to Draco of “Dragonheart”, and the Hungarian Horntail of “Harry Potter” fame.
I imagine that the last entry for Middle Earth, next year’s “There and Back Again” will be a better film than this. One can only hope that Jackson has remembered what made these films the experiences they are as he finishes the editing process- they are deeply rooted, beautiful to look at, and strong with emotion and heart. The first two things are abundant in “The Desolation of Smaug”, but the heart is sorely lacking, turning this into an exercise in action choreography and CGI set pieces, nearly redeemed by a scaly talking monster.
*note- I saw this in 2D instead of the ‘groundbreaking’ High Frame Rate 3D format introduced with the last film. While I slightly regret this after taking in Smaug’s antics, I still don’t know if the HFR format is a thing or not. If you’ve seen it in HFR 3D, please, please let me know what you thought.