Movie Review: “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug”

13 Dec

Let me be the first to highlight this movie’s #1 selling point: Smaug, the treasure-thieving dragon…and man, oh man, what a selling point he is. Smaug is, bar none, the best cinematic dragon of all time. Weta Workshop has clearly outdone itself; this monstrosity dominates the screen and is enough to justify the cost of admission.

With that out of the way, it saddens me to say that the rest of “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” is a disaster of mind-blowing proportions.

A group of dwarves, along with amiable “burglar” Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is seeking to take back their home mountain from the aforementioned monstrous dragon Smaug. Straightforward stuff, one would think….and in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic book, it is. Too bad Jackson botches the rest so badly.

A full litany of this movie’s cinematic and literary sins might fill many pages, but these are a few of the most grievous:

Swoop-O-Cam: This is the first thing you’ll notice. Essentially, this refers to the tendency of Jackson’s camera to fly and pan and dive at an ungodly, unnatural speed. This betrays the fact that he’s no longer using traditional techniques – cameras on helicopters, boom rig setups, etc. – but rather relying on greenscreens and monstrous amounts of postproduction. So much is happening onscreen, and the camera is zigzagging around so bizarrely, that any sense of dramatic realism disappears. Remember those breathtaking New Zealand vistas from the original LOTR trilogy? Yeah, Jackson will let you look at those for all of seven seconds before the camera flies off somewhere else.

CGI-Stravaganza: This is bad. Really, really, really bad. It’s hard to describe how bad it is until you actually see it. Remember that omnipresent white orc from the first “Hobbit” film? He’s back, and he’s brought some company – an entire cadre of badly-rendered goblins that are catastrophically un-frightening. Moreover, it appears as if everyone on screen (particularly the wood-elves, who make a reappearance in this movie) has been granted a waiver from the laws of physics. And this is not classic Zorro/Errol Flynn-type swashbuckling: this is video-game-level gymnastic activity, and the realism here is on par with a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon. (A river chase involving barrels is the worst offender here. Really, it’s kind of impossible to put into words.) The Dark Lord Sauron (LOTR’s big bad) even turns in an appearance here….too bad he looks like a combination of the Horcrux spirit from the “Harry Potter” films and the Symbiote from “Spider-Man 3.”

LOTR’s Greatest Hits: When he’s not actually interpreting Tolkien’s book (which he does pretty well, for all of 20 minutes), Jackson is throwing in oodles of extraneous subplots that nakedly crib from his own LOTR trilogy. Let’s highlight a few: a character gets stabbed with a “Morgul weapon” and needs a pretty female elf to heal him with the kingsfoil plant; Gandalf uses a supernatural bubble shield to deflect against dark power; a large army of evil orcs marches out of a fortress with dramatic music playing; big spiders with big teeth show up to cocoon our heroes; a character struggles against corruption in his home regime; and on and on it goes. This is not a result of the shared DNA between “The Hobbit” and “LOTR”: these are overt callbacks to elements that JACKSON HIMSELF ADDED in the original trilogy. Howard Shore even makes an admirable attempt at crafting new musical motifs, but it’s clear the magic is gone.

Awkward Interspecies Romance: Remember Kili (Aidan Turner), the good-looking dwarf from the first film? Yeah, this time around he ends up in a love triangle with pretty female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Who’s the other guy? None other than Legolas (Orlando Bloom), everyone’s favorite blond-haired, physics-flouting archer (who, here, constantly looks like he’s trying not to laugh at the terrible lines he’s been given). What’s that, you say? Not progressive enough? Well, let’s just throw in a classless sex joke or two and hope no one notices! (No, I am really not kidding). What Peter Jackson has depicted is nothing more than crummy fan-fiction writ large.

Deconstructionism: Gone is the mystic ethereality that made “LOTR” so enthralling. These characters are snarky, petty, and seem to have an obnoxiously ironic level of self-awareness. Thranduil (Legolas’ elf-king father, supposedly a noble if isolationist figure) is cruel, vain, and pretty much Middle-earth’s equivalent of Lucius Malfoy. Elves get blackout drunk. Gandalf pointlessly marches into dangerous situations throwing magic around left and right. You’d be hard-pressed to find any memorable or particularly admirable characters, with the possible exception of Bilbo…who, alas, gets short shrift in terms of screen time.

No Depth: Any larger themes are completely buried in the mishmash of forgettable subplots and digital dross. Case in point: Gandalf stops by an ancient ruin, where he finds out the Dark Lord Sauron has been resurrecting the evil Ringwraiths (black-hooded, faceless riders from the first trilogy). This misses the entire point of their inclusion in Tolkien’s original trilogy: rather than being some species of zombie/vampire, the Ringwraiths were human leaders whose lust for power consumed them and enslaved them…resulting in a physical, as well as spiritual, degradation. It’s a nice, if subtle, touch that Jackson completely overrides for no clear reason.

So….all that being said, is it worth watching at all?

As previously noted, there are about 20 minutes of fantastic, salvageable material from this movie; when he’s playing things straight and not trying to pad out the length of his movie, Jackson does a great job. The opening scene, in which dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) formulates his plans – pulled from Tolkien’s “Unfinished Tales” – is outstanding. But that level of reverence for the source material is most certainly not representative: as a movie, this is bad, and as a Tolkien adaptation, it is positively atrocious.

Some of the actors are trying their best (Armitage and Freeman, in particular, evoke the best of LOTR); others, like Orlando Bloom, are clearly phoning it in. The CGI, when not used on Smaug (who, as previously noted, is worth at least the matinee price of a ticket), is catastrophically overused. And little else need be said about the “story”…if you can call it that.

Peter Jackson: your glory days are clearly behind you.

Smaug the dragon earns all three of those stars. Everything else should’ve gone up in flames.

Normalized Score: 0.0

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Posted by on December 13, 2013 in Fantasy


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