The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Here we are. Last big review of 2013. I know I’m a few weeks late on this one, but I was saving Desolation of Smaug for a big IMAX viewing. As always with big seatfillers like this, there have been loud voices on both sides, either shouting its praises from the rooftops or decrying it as the disappointing prequel trilogy for the millennial generation. If you’ve read my review of An Unexpected Journey, you’ll know that whilst I rated the first film, I had my reservations of how the series as a whole was going to play out. Tell you what, it’s a horrible feeling when your fears are confirmed.
“I did not come to steal from you, O Smaug the Unassessably Wealthy. I merely wanted to gaze upon your magnificence, to see if you were as great as the old tales say. I did not believe them.”
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and the rest of their motley dwarven crew are still on their quest to restablish Oakenshield as the rightful King of Erebor, with the gang requiring Bilbo and his sneaky hobbittyness to find the Arkenstone, a mythical gem that will reunite the dwarves. The fellowship encounter the Elves and fan-favourite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns to the series, accompanied by new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Only problem is that the fire-breathing dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) guards the treasure horde where the stone is to be found. For a film called “The Hobbit”, the film doesn’t seem very interested in Bilbo this time round, choosing instead to focus on Thorin’s plight and Gandalf hobbling around doing magical shit.One of my problems with the first Hobbit was that Freeman’s Bilbo was a more complete character than the wide-eyed Frodo so you really felt it when he was sidelined and underused. DoS takes this a step further, having long stretches where he isn’t doing much and becomes a poorer film for it. As with the first film, things are padded to buggery, with every subplot and side quest given the same focus as the main narrative. The cast are fine, with Freeman still impressing as Bilbo. I even liked the film-fabricated Tauriel, with Evangeline Lilly doing well as what could have been an eye-rolling attempt at a kick-ass female. The little love triangle between her, Legolas and the only other conventionally attractive dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) is pretty decently done, all things considered.
It’s hard to not be at least slightly disappointed with Desolation of Smaug. It’s not a disaster, but it’s not great either. I had my misgivings about the decision to turn The Hobbit into a trilogy of Lord of the Rings lite films and that’s still a problem. The Hobbit is a kids’ book. It’s nowhere near the epic that Lord of the Rings was. Put simply, this film is only tangentially related to the source book. It ain’t Tolkien’s Hobbit. Taking damn near nine hours to tell a simple tale is bad storytelling, plain and simple. Imagine if your Mum or Dad took hours to read you a bedtime fairytale as a kid, telling you the origins of every single little thing and making up plot additions on the spot. It would be a very unsatisfying experience and you wouldn’t fall asleep with a smile on your face, safe in the knowledge that the good guys won and the bad guys were defeated. It’s basically the same here. I remember seeing The Two Towers and being frustrated that I had to wait a whole damn year for the next part. Now, I really don’t care as much. I’ll see it, but it feels like more of an obligation rather than an anticipated experience.
People have been arguing that these Hobbit films shouldn’t be compared to Lord of the Rings, but I can’t see that argument at all. The fucking films want you to think of LotR throughout, with the same characters appearing regardless of whether they were in the book or not, little references to the original trilogy and so on. One of my problems with the first one is that it seemed scared to be taken on its own merit, using the love that people had for the existing series to justify its own existence. Thankfully, that whole “accept me!” vibe isn’t as full-on as it was, but it’s still there. Prime example being Gandalf discovering the empty tombs of the Ringwraiths. It’s just needless busywork for his character to be getting on with. It doesn’t add anything other than another tenuous link to LotR. It reminds me of George Lucas’ desperate attempts to link his prequel trilogy to the original Star Wars films, forcing thematic links and parallel scenes on audiences until they couldn’t take any more. Don’t get me wrong- Jackson, Fran Walsh and the team aren’t anywhere near that bad, but they’re teetering at the top of same slippery slope.
I still think Peter Jackson and his team are bloody brilliant. Despite all the crippling compromises, DoS does manage to be entertaining in fits and starts. There are some real stand-out action bits and some slick character interactions. The world building is just as good as it ever was. Laketown is a treat and has the added bonus of having Stephen Fry popping up as mayor. The same care and attention to detail that permeated the original trilogy is still there, but it’s in service of a baggy, unfocused story that insists on making a (lonely) mountain out of a molehill. There’s nothing here to really rival the first film’s “Gollum riddles” scene, but Bilbo’s scenes with Smaug are enjoyable, even though they’re stretched out longer than they need to be (noticing a pattern?) The one scene that everyone’s talking about is the barrel sequence where Bilbo and the dwarves escape imprisonment by taking a barrel ride down a raging river whilst pursued by angry orcs. It’s a hell of a lot of fun and the action is innovative and entertaining. It certainly comes at the right time in the story as my attention was flagging at that point, but it won me round. It feels fresh and exciting, which is something the film needed more of. Most of the other action bits we’ve seen before. Spiders? Well, we had the intense Shelob bit in Return of the King. Swordfights with orcs? All the films up until this point. Legolas being a badass archer whilst simultaneously looking like he’s advertising hair products? You get the picture. Also he skateboards on stuff more, as if to try and make that awesome but ludicrous bit in Two Towers sit better.
“Dragonfire and ruin, that is what you’ll bring upon us! He cannot not see beyond his own desire!”
Truth be told, I walked away from Desolation of Smaug deflated. I’m no expert on the book, but by my calculations, there’s not much more of it to go, so the third film might contain even more padding and treading water. It’s overlong and stretched too thin. Whilst I consider the extended versions of Lord of the Rings to be the definitive ones, I’m looking forward to the inevitable fan edit of this trilogy that whittles down all the bullshit into a solid tale about Bilbo Baggins.