I interrupt my regularly scheduled post this week to offer a spoiler light review of The Desolation of Smaug. As always, the opinions below are solely my own. If you had a mainly positive experience with the film, more power to you. You just might want to stop reading now.
Tolkien’s The Hobbit might have been a great movie—maybe even two—but it’s making for a lackluster three. The Desolation of Smaug’s stunning visuals and capable acting can’t mask a sprawling and overly decompressed story, and the cliffhanger ending leaves one wondering why this chapter couldn’t be skipped altogether. The second film in a trilogy, it suffers horribly from middle film syndrome: with no true beginning or ending, it languishes somewhere between, never truly establishing its own raison d’etre. The only truly significant plot beats are the introduction of Laketown and Bard and the awakening of Smaug, neither of which requires the movie’s almost three hour running time. There isn’t really even a single, substantive character arc in the entire film (sleepy dragon to angry dragon, maybe?). Less time spent combing through Tolkien’s appendices and reinventing his fairy tale as an action movie and more time spent aggressively editing the screenplay might have gone a long way toward providing the audience with a more worthwhile experience.
Much like Tolkien’s original story, Desolation also has a decidedly episodic structure. Where the novel enjoys a certain storybook-at-bedtime charm, however, the film just leaves one bewildered and struggling to retain a grasp of the central plot. Its first act in particular presents a staccato series of only loosely connected and unfulfilling scenes that together comprise a faltering, unfocused (re)introduction. For much of the run time, I felt less as if I was following a cohesive narrative and more as if I was listening to a friend recount the events of his Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It seems to me the problem might be one of over-loyalty to the source material. Rather than trim the original story, sharpening its cinematic focus, the filmmakers chose to leave in everything, regardless of its applicability to their specific vision. Fan service has a place, but so does efficient storytelling.
In fact, not only does the film’s creative team apparently refuse to refine their use of the novel, their solution to the lack of through line in the narrative is to inject even more disjointed content into it. Pulling from Tolkien’s comprehensive appendices—as well as their own hats as far as I can tell—they weave a couple of plot threads into their story that receive, at most, only a passing reference in the original text. The Istari wizards’ discovery of and confrontation with Sauron at Dol Guldur is the most prominent example of this practice. As promising as such a conflict sounds, its execution leaves much to be desired. In practice, the time spent exploring that utterly tangential branch of the story is not only relatively boring, but also a fails to reinforce—indeed, distracts from—the central plot: namely, the reclamation by the dwarves of their ancestral kingdom in Erebor. The screenwriters may find a way to tie all these divergent strands together in the events surrounding the Battle of Five Armies that awaits us in movie three, but I’m not sure even the most convincing narrative hoop jumping can make up for the rambling bemusement of the story so far.
My other primary complaint against both of the Hobbit films is that their fantasy elements are often so ridiculously over the top. (I’m not unaware of the irony in that statement, but hear me out.) Why have a clean getaway through goblin tunnels when you can have a wooden platform on which your protagonists stand fall hundreds of feet without so much as tipping over? Why have giant eagles rescue a company of dwarves from the branches of burning trees when you can have giant eagles rescue a company of dwarves from the branches of burning trees overhanging a vertiginously sheer cliff? Why have a sensible vault full of gold upon which a gargantuan dragon sleeps when you can have a small mountain range of gold he sleeps under? (There is easily multiple times as much gold in that treasure chamber as has been mined in the entire history of humankind.)What made the Lord of the Rings movies so successfully immersive was the effort they made at keeping their fantasy grounded. Practical makeup, miniatures, physical camera tricks, and a consistently realistic scale to their settings (I’ll grant you a few obvious exceptions) maintained a believability and tangibility that is completely lost in the glowing, oversaturated, CG-happy Hobbit films. There are very few scenes, from Desolation in particular, that left me with the feeling I had visited a real place.
This unrealistic cartoonishness is especially present in Desolation’s action sequences. The colossal set piece inside the Lonely Mountain at the film’s finale is one of the biggest offenders. Invented for the screenplay (nothing remotely like it exists in the novel), it serves no real purpose that I can tell apart from providing an excuse for—well, I don’t know. Perhaps a flooring upgrade in the lobby? It actually feels like the sort of manufactured scenario that would be tacked on to a video game adaptation to provide the player an experience more participatory than watching a quick cut scene in which Smaug announces, “Those nasty lake men stole my fancy cup. I think I’ll burn them.” The whole thing is so ludicrously overblown and contrived as to be laughable. (SPOILER: **What exactly were the dwarves up to when Smaug arrived that could elucidate the presence of such a massive contraption? “Hear ye, hear ye! The pouring of the great golden graven goliath will commence in just one hour! Be sure not to miss this historic ev— Oh crap, is that a dragon!?”**)
And I probably shouldn’t even get started on Legolas and the barrel escape. Ignoring the pressing question of why Legolas plays such a large part in the movie at all since he’s not even mentioned in the novel, I find myself wondering how exactly he acquired his super powers. Was he bitten by an irradiated spawn of Ungoliant (and inspired by the death of his uncle Benduil)? Or does his strength flow from his glittering, golden jedi braids a la Samson? His solo take down of a Mumakil in Return of the King was, to me, one of the most outrageous scenes in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. That he now demonstrates even more preposterous capability is simply annoying. Just once I’d like to see him take a full-on punch to the face. And then fall down a long flight of stone stairs. Onto a pointy orc helmet.
One area where I can almost give Desolation’s over-reliance on CG a pass is in the design of the orcs and goblins. While I do occasionally miss the buy-in encouraged by practical makeup effects, the use of motion capture technology for characters like Azog and Bolg allows for comparatively believable figures with distinctly inhuman proportions. Realizing Azog’s facial structure using only prosthetics would be virtually impossible, and his “otherness” is genuinely unsettling. There ends my praise.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is colorful and pretty. And disappointing. In these and so many other ways. I think a movie about the politics of Laketown might ultimately have proved more satisfying.
If you’re wondering why you’re reading this instead of the second part of my board gaming/Lovecraft post, don’t worry. That post is in the can and will hit the blog next week. I just wanted to squeeze this review out while the movie was still fresh on people’s minds.
So do you agree with me? Does The Desolation of Smaug fall woefully short of its legacy? Or am I cynically overlooking the magic of its childlike imagination?