THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Review

Usually, I'm rather fond of middle chapters in these serialized movies that seem to come in more than threes these days, but there is something distinctly offensive about this second installment of Peter Jackson's return to middle earth. First off, and I stated this in my review of last years An Unexpected Journey, we knew at some point that the fact a trilogy of movies, at three hours a piece no less and drawn from a 300-page book and its appendices as well as further Tolkien notes was going to begin to feel a bit drawn out and if anything re-enforces that fact better it is the last half hour of this film. It literally felt like the first two hours flew by; it had my attention, my appreciation and even my interest (for the most part), but when our heroes finally reach the mountain and encounter the dragon whose name plagues the subtitle it goes on, and then it goes on a little more, and then it continues. It is over-indulgence at it's finest and seems to exist solely for the fact that Jackson and his team of writers might feel they've placed a large enough action sequence near the end of the film to serve as the big climactic set piece when in reality all it does is feel like they're really trying to make you feel that two hour and forty minute runtime. If they'd only just teased the entrance into the kingdom under the mountain and been fine with a just over two hour movie all would have been better off, though the cliffhanger even more ridiculous, I admit. Which brings us back around to the point that there was no need for more than two films based off this book in question. It is what it is and we can't change the greedy minds in Hollywood now that they will have plagued the credibility and artistic achievements of Jackson's Lord of the Rings films with these sub-par prequels. It is simply spreading the butter too thin and though I assume many of the fans of Tolkien's work might find it enthralling to be wrapped up in not only what was on the original page in The Hobbit novel, but to see that world fleshed out with his later writings that built a further and more dense mythology for middle earth might be ecstatic and find these to be on the same level as Jackson's previous trilogy, but as pieces of individual cinema this second installment fails on the most basic of levels.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) steps up in big ways for Thorin (Richard Armitage) this time around.
With The Desolation of Smaug what we have is ultimately a series of obstacles to overcome that will lead into another, each one more dangerous than the next and likely a more confusing set of circumstances that are intended to up the tension as to if Bilbo (the wonderful Martin Freeman who is taken for granted this time around) and the merry band of dwarfs he travels with will survive their quest to make it to the mountain and kill the dragon Smaug to reclaim their kingdom. The thing is, we know that if none of them have failed to make it past a certain level by now, then they probably won't the rest of the way. I'm not saying the final battle that is now sure to take place over a large portion of There and Back Again won't include several (hopefully emotional) deaths of some of the characters we've grown accustomed to over the course of these first two films, but holding it all for the final film just feels typical in many ways and adds no real gravity to the events of these first two chapters. That isn't to say you need death in order to have something of genuine meaning, but in a movie about make believe characters on an epic quest that is probably the easiest route to go. There does come into play somewhat of a love story between the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and the bad ass she-Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), but even this feels more shoe-horned in than anything as we are expected to base the eventual affection and devotion off of one night talking through a prison cell. This is not to discount any of the actors putting forth their best effort here, but the story with which they are cooperating in begins to feel more and more patched together as this film progresses to the point it is hard to become as invested in the journey and as a result the numerous characters. The bigger problem though, might be the fact there really is no story arc felt other than completing the next level and moving closer to the ultimate goal, and that there is limited character development, but no lack of characters and plenty of things being set-up for the finale of the trilogy that I'm already worried about because I have no idea how they might legitimately pull another three hour movie out of what is left to tell. And while I have no doubt they have an abundance of filler to accomplish this feat, it is the quality of the piece I worry about as that aspect only seems to be continuing a downward trend.

Let's talk about the good for a moment though. Despite the fact I seem to have absolutely hated this film for how it executes itself and what it represents in the grander scheme of things there is still a good portion of things to enjoy here. Most of these have to deal with the large action pieces that occur periodically throughout the film, but that is clearly where Jackson shines and that is easy to forget as we've become so accustomed to middle earth now (a sad thing, really). If I'd forgotten at all the skill it takes to bring these stories to the big screen I was quickly reminded of what an investment this was as Jackson is the first person we see on screen in The Desolation of Smaug and it was almost as if the quick nod was showing the tail end of a break before being forced to walk off camera and back into the directors chair. That being said, he concocts some pretty great sequences here that are thrilling to see unfold on the big screen. I saw the film in IMAX 3D (If you're in Arkansas, Chenal 9 Plus IMAX is the only place to see it this way in the state) and while the scope of these movies alone justifies the biggest screen possible Jackson also is able to effectively use the 3D to make his action sequences pop. The stand out being the scene where the dwarfs, still led by Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield, escape the forest of Mirkwood where Lee Pace's King Thranduil and Orlando Bloom's Legolas dwell, and make their way down the river each in an individual barrel. As I sat watching the film, anticipating the scene as I'd heard nothing but good things about it, I wondered how Jackson as a filmmaker might creatively make this sequence stand out. In the early stages I began to get concerned as nothing inherently seemed special about it. We were then quickly reminded that the White Orc, Azog, and his minions are still hot on the dwarfs trail. It is when these foes come into play and the camera begins to move swiftly along with our heroes as they defend themselves under this odd set of circumstances and in incredibly difficult positions that the experience becomes just that, as well as being really fun. While the inclusion of Bloom's Legolas might ultimately be unnecessary it is good to see him in action again as the grace and skill with which he takes out each enemy simply elevates any set piece he chooses to be a part of and effectively relays to the audience how competent he is when placed in high pressure situations that will no doubt come in hand later.

Bard (Luke Evans) and his son are citizens of Lake-town, which sits right outside The Lonely Mountain.
Based on little more than that massive scope and the substance with which these films operate it is hard to look at them as underwhelming, but as our band of heroes reach the human inhabited Lake-town where we are introduced to Bard (Luke Evans), who seems will play a critical role in the final film, I began to think back to the beginning and the reasoning for all of this. In the first scene of the film Gandalf (Ian McKellen) approaches Thorin and sets up the incentive, the meaning for which he is meant to go on this journey to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and why they will need a burglar (Bilbo) to come along with them. Don't get me started on Gandalf's role in the film though as he disappears for the bulk of it to handle some extracurricular business that will no doubt form the basis of a more powerful opponent in the third film. Back to what I was saying though, I began to wonder if, besides the fact Smaug loves gold, was there any reason or justification as to why this dragon decided to take over the dwarf home? I haven't been able to find one and more than anything this represents a problem I have with the fantasy genre in general. With the freedom to make up ones own rules it allows the writers to not necessarily be lazy, but take certain short cuts that might not be as easily accepted were you writing in another field. It's as if saying, "Well, we need to have a threat and a reason for that threat. Let's make it an inherent quality of dragons that they love gold and we'll have the dwarfs sitting on a pile of it! That will set this whole thing up nicely." For all its mythology and layers, this world just seems so convenient in places. I have never been able to necessarily understand the appeal of taking stock characters such as Elfs, Dwarfs, Dragons and Orcs and inserting them into your own world in order to tell a story that has almost certainly been done before in some form or fashion, but I can understand why it has entertainment value. I wasn't not entertained by The Desolation of Smaug or any other features influenced by Tolkien's work, but in this film especially it seems the genre elements begin to step on their own toes.

As said before, the final sequence that includes Smaug does go on much longer than it should no matter how menacing Benedict Cumberbatch sounds, and this is where the biting your own tongue comes in big time. There are so many facets, so many different levels to the space in which the final scene takes place that there is too much going on at once. Instead of just focusing in on one plan and one goal in order to outsmart the dragon the characters are spread out and the payoff for the scene is less effective and feels spur of the moment because of it. There is a distinct lack of focus in the scene as it becomes so easy to get lost in who is where and who is doing what and overall it seems that might have become the case with the series in general. If Jackson really wanted to create such an episodic series he might have been better off going the Game of Thrones route, but despite the fact he has plenty of technical talent behind the camera (Gollum doesn't appear in this one, but Andy Serkis still served as second unit director) and acting talent in front of the camera we never feel the essence of what this trilogy of films is actually about and that is the development of the Bilbo Baggins character. While this isn't necessarily set around the one ring to rule them all, it does take it's title from our big-footed burglar that finds the ring and allows it influence to guide his life up through the Lord of the Rings films. And while I understand the major events of this trilogy are set around the quest to reclaim the dwarfs homeland, the most critical piece would still seem to be Bilbo's character development and sans for a few lines of dialogue between Bilbo and Gandalf early on, there isn't much to indicate where Bilbo is at in his own personal journey. Sure, we see how the ring is influencing his decisions slightly, how it is making him more brave, but we don't get much of the inner-dialogue that might give us more of an indication of what Bilbo is really thinking. I know there is more to his quest with the dwarfs than simply upholding his end of the bargain, but I couldn't tell you what that is yet; hopefully we will get some answers this time next year. I'm not so much worried (I feel I already know what to expect), but more concerned Jackson has fallen into a rut and is simply running on fumes to finish this series that can only mean bad, bad things for the final installment. But hey, Two Towers was my least favorite of the previous series and Return of the King was my favorite so who knows, maybe we'll have a repeat.