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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a fairly fun, but disengaging story that benefited from an extended audience absence in Middle Earth and carried a "coming home again" vibe that allowed some glossing over of its flaws. The film featured a strong debut performance from Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, the cowardly Hobbit that eventually turns the corner into becoming the capable burglar that Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellan) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) needed to help reclaim the dwarven kingdom of Eraborn from the frightful dragon Smaug (now voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). It also featured arguably the best segment of the entire book, the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum. In The Desolation of Smaug, we pick back up with these three characters and the eleven other dwarves as they continue their journey to "The Lonely Mountain" and encounter giant spiders, wood elves, a skin changer, orcs, and the dragon that occupies the title of the film.

All of the above work to the film's advantage, and feature some of the more inventive sequences that we've seen in the series. When the company enters Mirkwood Forest, and the sense of confusion and claustrophobia that is engendered by that environment, it harkens back to some of director Peter Jackson's horror roots; including some very nice jump moments featuring those above mentioned spiders. Subsequent scenes pulled straight from Tolkien's text but translated kinetically for the screen include the barrel-riding escape from the Wood Elves, the smuggling into Lake Town, and Bilbo's initial encounter with Smaug. These scenes perform wonderful homage to Tolkien's inventive, and often charming, storytelling. When it sticks to the original text, The Desolation of Smaug is a fun experience, if a little ill-defined when it comes to striking the clearly "important" tones it's striving for in terms of why the audience should care about the end goal.

Problems sneak in when the film attempts to add in subplots that either exist merely in the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, or are invented completely from whole cloth. This same issue existed in the previous film as well, but once the sojourn began, those additions to set up the eventual Lord of Rings storyline felt less distracting. Yet, here they come across as full-fledged brake pumping in the midst of the quest that we're supposed to be so heavily invested in. While following along with Bilbo and Company, we take detours with Gandalf as he deals with what the Necromancer is building in Dol Goldur, and with Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and, newly created for the series, fellow-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). 

Every time the film cut away from the main narrative thread, my aggravation as a viewer began to grow. This additional material isn't strong enough to make up nearly half of the film. The latter sub-plots involving Tauriel and Legolas are especially egregious, as while I value any impactful female presence in this male-dominated series, she's reduced to a love interest before we even get to know her. Legolas, for his part, bounces around like Spider-man and does little else. These distractions take up about an hour of the two hour and forty-five minute running time, and so exhaust, that when you reach the more substantive third act, you may find yourself hoping that they just "get on with it" and stop making Lord of the Rings references.

These issues also speak to a problem that still exists from the previous film, character development is totally absent. While in An Unexpected Journey, viewers at least had a throughline for Bilbo of "cowardly grocer turns into capable adventurer". In The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo stays in that same mode the entire time and in for a good long while, gets backgrounded other than serving as the escape hatch for the Dwarves whenever they may find themselves in trouble. 

A good argument could be made that this film isn't even about Bilbo, as everyone else has their own concerns to keep them busy: Thorin with his Arkenstone (another Macguffin in a series with the biggest one of all!), Legolas and Tauriel's concerns, Gandalf and the Necromancer, Bard the Bowman and the politics of Lake Town, etc. This is a shame as Martin Freeman is as terrific as ever, including one fantastic scene where we get a chance to see the effect possession of the One Ring is having on him. If only we had gotten more of that, and less of "Thorin as Aragorn" or "Legolas as action star". The rest of the Dwarves are as indistinguishable as last time, though Aidan Turner as Kili gets some spotlighting in likely the worst of the sub-plots.

With painfully obvious CGI (characters more often that not are standing on a set of rock or cliff faces in front of a green-screen) and needless padding that highlights the commercial interests of this entire "The Hobbit trilogy" enterprise, particularly by the time the credits abruptly roll; it's clear that Peter Jackson is making this prequel series on autopilot. There are moments where I would have rather played the video game that this movie almost appears to be, I'm sure that the Smaug level would have been really fun. At least I can safely say that the "Jar-Jar Binks" of the franchise, Radagast, has been relegated to near-cameo status. 

I can't even imagine what the next installment, There and Back Again will contain. If it's original material of this quality, that is a film I am not looking forward to.

I give it a C+.

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