The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Bored of the things.

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.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Having finally seen The Hobbit, it’s time to add my manly tones to the already thousands-strong choir of internet douchebags who think their opinions matter. I didn’t end up seeing it in the now-infamous and almost universally panned 48fps, but I did see it in IMAX 3D. I’m tempted to hunt for a high frame rate (HFR) screening, but it seems like an exercise in self abuse. It’s like watching a DVD and then deciding you want to watch it again, except this time you want to pay for the privilege of chugging a pint of cold piss at 6 minute intervals.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

I’ve missed having a Christmas event movie that I can go and see with my family. It’s been 9 long years since Return of the King and it’s a great thing to have Peter Jackson take us all back to Middle Earth again. To be completely honest, I was worried about The Hobbit and I still am to a certain extent. Primary amongst my concerns was the purely money-orientated decision to split the planned two films into a trilogy. The Hobbit is not, nor has ever been Lord of the Rings. It’s a pretty simple children’s tale that doesn’t have anywhere near the level of complexity that the Rings books had. It’s a different beast and should be treated as such, but I’ll get back into that point later.

“My dear Frodo, you asked me once if I had told you everything there was to know about my adventures. Well, I can honestly say I’ve told you the truth, I may not have told you all of it.”

I think I might just skip plot summaries in my reviews from now on. I write them myself and to me, it seems like a lot of effort to tell people something they already know, especially when dealing with a film such as this. You want a summary? IMDB is your friend. I am not. Anyway- Martin Freeman is fantastic as the finicky Bilbo. He’s a joy to watch and I totally bought that Freeman was the younger version of the the Ian Holm Bilbo we’re all familiar with.  In fact, the casting is spot-on throughout. All the dwarves are well done and most have distinct personalities (apart from the fat one who just eats- HAHAHAHA HE’S FAT LOOOOOOL). It’s nice to see McKellen back as Gandalf and I liked seeing a good portion of the Rings crew make cameos. I even liked Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast, despite having read reviews comparing him to Jar Jar Binks. That’s some cold shit. He’s a bit too zany and most of his scenes end “hilariously” with him going cross-eyed, but Christ, let’s not force the kiddies out of a film supposedly for them, eh?

Okay, here’s where I will probably lose most of you. Apart from the Rings trilogy, there is another film that The Hobbit kept reminding me of : The Bourne Legacy. Now before you wrinkle up your face and scream “WHAT THE FUCK?!” at the nearest sentient being, let me explain. My main problem with The Bourne Legacy was that it was relying too much on audience familiarity with the preceding series. For instance, there’s a bit where Jeremy Renner looks up at a wooden slat on a bunk bed where Jason Bourne’s name is etched. It doesn’t mean anything to the character in the film and is only there for the audience’s benefit. A neat little reference is fine, but Legacy kept on pulling this shit and it’s the same with The Hobbit. Both films seemed scared to step out of their respective series’ shadow. The Hobbit brings in characters from the films that weren’t in the book, recycles music (I swear 90% of the score is just a greatest hits compilation from the original trilogy) and even has the same sweeping shots of the New Zealand landscape to accompany the stolen triumphant score.

This was all summed up for me in one little bit when Bilbo meets Gollum. It’s a wonderful, incredibly well done scene where we see Bilbo play a deadly game of riddles and ultimately steal the One Ring from Gollum. There’s a moment where the ring drops to the ground and we’re treated to a slow motion, “Holy shit guys! It’s the actual fucking ring that sets off a whole bunch of fuck! Isn’t this significant?!” shot as the ring clatters to the ground. I’m not saying I know better than Peter Jackson, but if I was in his position, I would have just had a quick shot of this at normal speed, if I even decided to put it in at all. Why? Because I thought the whole point of the ring was that it was just a seemingly small, insignificant thing that just happened to be hugely important. We know how significant it is already because we’ve seen hours and hours of the consequences. I think that’s my main problem with prequels like this, the audience is always several steps in front of the characters and you’re just waiting for them to catch up. There’s no intrigue or second guessing. You know certain characters are going to survive because you’ve seen them as older people. It all gets a bit plodding at times too, especially when we spend a good 40 minutes or so at the start in boring old Hobbiton. Jackson was very smart when it came to trimming bits of the Rings books for the screen, but here he’s got no choice but to cram every single character and every single little event in to stretch the runtime out. Fucking studios will be the death of film.

Having just vomited all that bile above, you may think I hated The Hobbit. I really didn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The writing’s great. The acting is top notch. The special effects (for the most part) are astounding. Nobody does a big old quest film quite like Jackson and I had a hell of a lot of fun with it. One of my favourite bits was an (alluded to in Fellowship) encounter with three hungry, thick trolls . I just love that they give these lumbering mythical creatures a rough approximation of a Cockney accent. The wonderful vistas and locations are back too, the most impressive of which undoubtedly being the huge room of gold in the Lonely Mountain. As I said before, the meeting of Gollum and Bilbo was also a huge highlight for me with Andy Serkis giving another incredible performance as everyone’s favourite schizophrenic. All the action works well and it’s fun to sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a proper event movie and there’s nothing wrong with that.

“Home is now behind you. The world is ahead.”

The Hobbit is really good, there are just a few major things that stop it from achieving true greatness- most of which, annoyingly, seem to be outside studio problems like the whole “two into three” decision and the fact it’s in underwhelming 3D. It’s too long and a bit too padded, the latter of which I forsee will become a big problem during the second film as they’re pretty much halfway through the book at the end of the film by my calculations. It’s not nearly as bad as I had braced myself for though. It’s actually very good. Lord of the Rings fans will lap it up as it is very much a Lord of the Rings take on The Hobbit, rather than a shared universe film. I realise this is a very negative sounding review, but the things I haven’t mentioned are fine as they are. It’s a good old fashioned family adventure that we haven’t had for about a decade. I just hope The Desolation of Smaug moves away from its older brothers and starts showing off what it can do.

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