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Entries in Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug [2013] (1)

Friday
Dec132013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Padded Sell

I may be proven wrong, but I predict The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will remembered as Peter Jackson's Return of the Jedi--the moment he jumped the creative shark and became a savvy marketer who makes movies on the side. The second film in the Hobbit trilogy is still a well-made technical marvel, but it lacks much of the first film's brains and heart, as well as the soul and stakes of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In fairness, nearly two-thirds of Desolation's one-hundred-and-sixty-one minutes is pretty exciting. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a feisty company of dwarves continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain, with an eye to defeating the fearsome dragon, Smaug (an impressive CG creation voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). They're beset by all manner of danger, including giant spiders; an army of trigger-happy, prejudiced elves; and a growing horde of Orcs, led by Azog (Manu Bennett).* The centerpiece is a grand escape from the Elf King Thranduil's (Lee Pace) prison, via barrels rolling down a mountain river. It reminded me of a set piece from the first Pirates of the Carribbean movie: fun, funny, unpredictable, and completely unlike anything that followed.

Before I get to the film's problematic last hour (yes, hour), I should mention the warning signs that I'd worked really hard to ignore leading up to it. First (and here's where the Jedi comparison holds strongest), there is way to much CGI in this movie. The triumph of the original Rings trilogy, and even the first Hobbit, was Jackson's insistence on building a practical world for his characters to rule. Unlike George Lucas' latter-day Star Wars universe, the actors largely performed on elaborate sets or in God's-honest woods--instead of milling awkwardly about on massive green-screen soundstages, responding to cues that would later become digital co-stars.

The locations in Desolation are real, but a larger percentage of the characters have become pixel-based creations. For the record, I'm not complaining about Smaug (not in this context, anyway), as I understand how impractical building a two-hundred-foot dragon would be. No, my issue lies with the Orcs and the elves, who alternate between costumed actors and floppy CG puppets who perform inhuman acrobatics for much of their screen time. Jackson relied on such techniques for massive, marching-army shots in LOTR, but had the good sense to (mostly) go practical in close-ups. Not so here, and the result is distressingly like watching a video game based on a fantasy film, rather than an actual fantasy film.

This extends to whatever the hell is going on with Orlando Bloom's face in this movie. The actor re-appears as fan-favorite elven badass, Legolas (even though the character didn't show up in the Hobbit novel). True, elves don't age as humans do, so it makes sense for Bloom to reprise the role that put him on the map--but there's something eerie going on with his looks that ripped me right out of the movie. Whether due to pounds of makeup or awkward digital smoothing, his face appears as unnatural as a Playmate's airbrushed ass.

Leaving that aside, Legolas' presence saddles Desolation with two dashing, furrowed-brow heroes.** The second is Bard (Luke Evans), a down-on-his-luck something-or-other who encounters the Bilbo and the dwarves after their escape from the Orcs. Despite the dangers of imperial entanglements, he agrees to smuggle them into Lake-town aboard his vessel, the Millennium Falcon.

Wait, is that right? Might as well be...

Bard shepherds the protagonists to safety, just as he leads the audience into the film's lazy and tiresome third act. I've never understood the complaint about the first Hobbit feeling padded and unnecessary--after having nodded off numerous times during the sequel, I find that charge utterly ridiculous. Unlike this movie's epically front-loaded portion, the ending stretches five-minute scenes into twenty-minute ones, and lays naked Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro's struggle to turn a three-hundred-page book into a nine-hour mega-movie.

I might have forgiven the padding had it at least been in service of something original. Instead, we're inundated with material rehashed from the first film, from Star Wars, and from another surprising source, which I'll get to in a moment. Once again, there's a giant action set piece that takes place in a mountain/fortress, which finds Bilbo separated from the main group. Once again, he engages in an extended game of wits with a monster, so he can retrieve an object of power (the One Ring in the first film, a sacred gem called the Arkenstone here). An Unexpected Journey left me wanting more; The Desolation of Smaug's over-long climax and lack of resolution just left me wanting to leave this world behind.

After what seems like an eternity of Smaug chasing Bilbo around the castle, the dwarves show up and immediately begin re-enacting the end of Alien3: several non-descript, middle-aged British men scurry about a giant foundry, trying to drown a monster in molten metal. It works, for about a minute, until Smaug miraculously shakes off the goo and flies off towards Lake-town to exact his revenge. The cliffhanger made me wonder if I could really stomach more of this vain, boring dragon wreaking more havoc on a town he destroyed at the beginning of the last movie. The only difference, I guess, is now he'll lay it to waste at night.

Unlike Alien3, Jackson and company don't have the good sense to kill off anyone in their party of heroes. I know they're adapting J.R.R. Tolkein's beloved novel, but they've already played fast and loose with the story and characters in making three beyond-feature-length pictures; I doubt audiences would bat an eye (okay, maybe two days later, when they determined which spunky pseudo-Muppet actually got the axe). The thing about Epic Quests is that they're fraught with danger. There are no stakes for the viewer if the worst thing that happens to the protagonists is one of them getting an arrow through the leg.

Don't get me wrong: there's still gold in this franchise, but it's begun to tarnish. Though Jackson continues to rely on gorgeous practical sets and elaborate costumes, even the new stuff is becoming overly familiar (see also: Tim Burton). Freeman, Armitage, and Ian McKellan are all in top form, but they're given little to do but react to any number of tertiary characters who pop up, wrest control of the movie for a half-hour, and then disappear.

Speaking of McKellan, the movie's coolest visual moment happens when Gandalf sees the evil Eye of Sauron atop a mountain. Inside that magnificent, fiery vagina's black slit appears the metal-suited form of Middle Earth's fiercest villain. I was so taken with the image that I momentarily forgot my confusion as to why the whole scene was necessary. Gandalf climbs to the top of the mountain; looks inside; sees nothing; runs into a friend who lives in the woods; and decides to turn around and climb back down (at which point he sees the eye). Why didn't he send one of his giant-eagle friends to scout out the mountain instead of leaving his dwarf buddies behind?

The Desolation of Smaug is pretty and lively in a lot of places, but this is the first time I've watched Jackson's Middle Earth saga (since finding a newfound appreciation for them) when I've felt bored and more than a little cheated. I hope he returns to form in the concluding chapter, but I have a sickening suspicion that we're in for more dragon carnage, more CG puppet-people, and a hell of a lot more walking. 

*And, eventually, Azog's second-in-command, whose name I didn't catch.

**Richard Armitage's Thorin doesn't count, as he's not so much "dashing" as "brooding".