The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Why, again, does The Hobbit need to be split into not two, but three huge films? I could accept a certain amount of bloating in An Unexpected Journey, when it was just a matter of expanding casual mentions from the books into whole set pieces. Unfortunately, Jackson, Walsh, Boyens, and del Toro could not be content with this. In The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we not only have this sort of expansion, but large chunks of completely new story, and everything new is pretty hackneyed and awful.
We pick up where the first film left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), and the band of assonant dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) having escaped from both the goblin tunnels under the Misty Mountains and a band of orcs on their trail. Gandalf takes his leave of the company while the rest head through the Mirkwood, then to Esgaroth the Lake-town, and on to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo will have his confrontation with the great dragon, Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
But then there’s all the new stuff that wasn’t contained in Tolkien’s novel, and every new subplot is the most boring, unimaginative, teen fan-fiction pablum possible. There’s a wholly extraneous love triangle between Kili (Aidan Turner), a wood-elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom). My best guess is that the writers realized that there are basically no female characters in the story, and the only possible arc that makes sense for a female character is a romance — preferably two in competition, to make her a prize. I will stop short of ranting about the seemingly random insertion of a popular character from The Lord of the Rings, though; Legolas is indeed well-established as the son of the Sindarin king Thranduil (Lee Pace), so it makes sense for him to have been around the Mirkwood.
Then there’s the whole intrigue in Esgaroth, with a venal, power-hungry master of the town (Stephen Fry) and his weaselly peon (Ryan Gage), and their attempts to enforce a police state against the efforts of rebels like Bard (Luke Evans). Yes, the Master was a petty sort in the book, but he wasn’t really a major character, and there certainly wasn’t a sense that the city was on lock-down; it’s just another unnecessary, pre-fabricated plot.
And there’s another on top of this, with gratuitous overtones of prophecy and destiny that Bard, as heir of Girion, last lord of Dale before it was destroyed by Smaug, has some special power against Smaug. His black arrow has become a near-magical weapon, fired not from his own strong yew bow, but from a special Dwarvish ballista. I really hope they were calling it a “wind-lance”, since a “windlass” — what they seem to say — is not a weapon at all, but a tool for cocking and loading a crossbow. The final battle against Smaug — teasingly held back for the third movie — will be a very different matter than it was in the book.
And then there’s Gandalf’s business — pointedly omitted from the novel — as he investigates the tales of a necromancer occupying Dol Guldur. While not as canned as the other new plots, it feels like a cheap excuse for some less-than-impressive visual effects and a rehash (prehash?) of Gandalf’s experiences in Orthanc from The Fellowship of the Ring.
In fact, the visual effects are overall a sort of disappointment. After preferring practical effects and miniatures to CGI in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson seems to embrace it wholeheartedly in The Hobbit. The orcs here are all motion-captured and rendered rather than being real actors in makeup and prostheses, and it shows. Huge swaths of the action scenes are rendered rather than filmed. And it’s not so much that rendering is inherently bad, but the matting between the live-action foregrounds and rendered backgrounds is pretty spectacularly bad. In a way, it’s fitting; both the images and the story suffer from difficulties in matching content from two different sources.
It’s not all terrible, though. Some of the injected set-pieces really work. The escape from Mirkwood in the book is a lazy float downstream, which now becomes a frantic chase and fight involving wood-elves, orcs, and barreled dwarves. It looks pretty good, and works okay as a more exciting replacement sequence. Similarly the escape from Erebor now involves a tour of the forges and other regions of these ancient dwarven halls, and this also pretty much works.
But a few good action sequences here and there don’t make up for the bloated mess that’s left of the rest of the story after throwing in all the half-baked new material. As a standalone film, The Desolation of Smaug is a disappointment; as a key entry in the series, it just manages to be adequate.
Update: When I first saw the film it was in a standard 24 frames-per-second format. Having now seen it in a “High Frame Rate” format, I can say that the situation is pretty much the same as I wrote about last year. In brief: the image and motion are crisper, but at the cost of making everything look like a BBC made-for-TV movie, with actors on soundstages rather than characters in a fantasy land. One difference is notable: the terrible matting between filmed foreground images and rendered background images is somewhat less terrible in HFR. Not sure why, but there it is.
Worth It: right on the edge. It’s worth seeing as part of the whole, but maybe not otherwise.
Bechdel Test: fail.