Unless you’ve been chained up in the dungeons of Barad-dûr for the majority of the year, you’ve no doubt been assaulted by ads for the newest entry into The Hobbit franchise, The Desolation of Smaug. After an exhaustive press tour, a myriad of online fan events, and carefully timed sneak peeks, the film was released in December, becoming one of the 50 highest-grossing films of all time. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.
Peter Jackson returns to helm this second installment of the trilogy, along with an ensemble cast including Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, and Richard Armitage. Jackson wants The Hobbit in it’s entirety to be an epic on a grand scale, but all he seems to be able to accomplish is the visual aspect of that goal. When An Unexpected Journey was released in 2012, a big hubbub was made about it having been shot at 42 frames per second as opposed to the more mainstream 24 frames per second. From the instant that fact was announced, we all should have known that The Hobbit, as a franchise, would be one when emphasized style over substance. But more on that in a moment.
Joining the fray this time around are Orlando Bloom, reprising his role as Legolas from the original Lord of the Rings films, and Evangeline Lilly as willowy Elven warrior, Tauriel. As far as the acting is concerned, if you’ve seen one of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, you’ve seen them all. Elves do the typical Elven thing; that is, communing with the forest and delivering noble monologues while staring wistfully into the camera. Dwarves, conversely, are all gruff manly-men who hate the Elves. The only real sign of newness that we’ve got here is a budding romance between Tauriel and Kili, played by Aidan Turner, though it’s hard to get invested when both characters have the charisma of kitchen appliances and share a tiny amount of screen time.
I said a moment ago that The Desolation of Smaug is a film more concerned with flashy visuals than engagement on a narrative level, and that sentiment becomes abundantly clear in this movie, even more so than its predecessor. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the CGI gets downright embarrassing in parts, and more importantly, it’s pretty distracting. I feel kind of insulted, really. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was nothing short of a visual masterpiece, and I can’t imagine what would compel Jackson change up his tried and true formula in favor of something vastly worse. Absolutely no one was chomping at the bit for 42 FPS and the apparently shitty CG that comes with it. Now, while I can appreciate Jackson’s desire to innovate, I can’t help but feel that that innovation was added solely so he could skimp on content while still delivering a debatably engaging final product. You know what this movie is? It’s a sightseeing tour of all the wonderful places in Middle-Earth with a sign at each one which reads “The ensuing battle must be *this* exciting to continue.”
Speaking of engaging, that’s really my main problem with The Desolation of Smaug. There’s not nearly enough substantive content to fill this two-and-a-half hour long movie. Instead, Jackson chose to fill the intervening time with battle scenes that are drawn out mercilessly. Ultimately, they end up fading into an incomprehensible miasma amid all the samey, frenetic action that’s crammed into the film. What this essentially means is that about 45 minutes of every hour could be removed and the plot would have progressed just as far.
Bizarrely, Jackson tries to splice a completely unrelated storyline into the already flat narrative in the hopes of padding out the movie even more. I’ll provide a warning for SPOILERS here, if the review thus far has convinced you how badly this movie needs to be a part of your life. In Tolkien’s appendices to his novel, Return of the King, he explains that Gandalf left Bilbo and the Dwarves to travel alone and unaided through the forest of Mirkwoord while he himself investigated a growing threat at the ancient fortress, Dol Guldur. The film diverges into a completely irrelevant and tedious descent into the fortress, where Gandalf is confronted by the Necromancer, whereupon another interminable, prosaic action sequence takes place. But to what end? We know that eventually Gandalf must eventually rejoin the Dwarves’ party and we’ve get very little payoff for that particular story arc. To me, it’s all such a blatant attempt at padding an otherwise emaciated story that I feel a little taken advantage of.
It seems to me that Jackson takes for granted that we’re invested in The Hobbit franchise for the long haul- and to a certain extent he’s right. That does not, however, give him a legitimate excuse to make a flashy but ultimately hollow film. Jackson is no doubt waiting for the final installment to bring out the big guns, and maybe the final installment, There And Back Again, will finally be the Hobbit film we’ve all been waiting for.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5