Friday, December 13, 2013


The titular dragon in THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG has been one of the great movie monsters waiting to happen for more than 70 years. The creature is pretty much the great dragon of modern literature and manages to define and nearly overshadow the book he was created for, even though he only  actually appears for two chapters of it.

And the dragon is absolutely one of the best things about the film. That's the good news.

The bad news? Smaug really deserved a better movie.

While I didn't fall in love with Jackson's previous HOBBIT film, I did find AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY to be a surprisingly charming and enjoyable embellishment of the first third of J.R.R. Tolkien's landmark fairy tale. That was largely because, while the movie made several diversions into "set up the main conflict for THE LORD OF THE RINGS Triloy" territory, it still kept a large part of the charm of the book intact, with a nice sense of fun, song, and a welcome focus on the relationship between Thorin and Bilbo and the intrepid hobbit's growth from reluctant tag-along to unlikely hero.

Unfortunately, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG loses what little focus its predecessor had, does even more to lose focus on the title character of THE HOBBIT Trilogy, and features some of the most questionable decisions that Jackson has ever made both in terms of adapting Tolkien and in terms of basic filmmaking. And while there are swathes of this movie that definitely work and most of it ends up being surface-level enjoyable, this movie is very much the let-down I was afraid the last one would be.

DESOLATION finds Thorin and Company on the run from Azog as they head for the Lonely Mountain, and follows them through spider-infested woods, elven dungeons, a floating lake town, and into the heart of a dragon's lair. You would think that this party of 15 adventurers, including dwarven nephews, cousins, brothers, commoners and royalty as well as a wizard and a hobbit into the mix, would provide some interesting group dynamics and pre-existing/developing relationships to dig into. But this is never allowed to fully develop, because the film keeps cutting back to Gandalf's quest to discover the identity of The Necromancer (Spoilers: it's Sauron) and find reasons to cram as much awkward action and LOTR fan-service - and go-nowhere plot diversions - into the film as possible.

Central to many of these issues are just about any scene involving Tauriel, an invented-for-the-films female elf who leads the guard of King Thranduil of Mirkwood. Tauriel is a poster example of the road to disaster being paved with the best of intentions. Tolkien's books, particularly THE HOBBIT, are rather barren of female characters of any stripe (which is why we saw Galadriel feature in the last film), but here we see a cringe-worthy over-correction of the legitimate problem of female representation in Hollywood in general and Middle-earth in particular. Tauriel isn't really a character, she's a collection of focus-tested bullet points for how to make "strong" female characters, and a terrible Mary Sue to boot.

Not only does Tauriel show off at every opportunity how adept she is at murdering CGI creatures ('cause that's how you show girls are STRONG), but she's totally beautiful. So pretty that she gets to be in a love triangle with Prince Legolas of Mirkwood and young Kili, Thorin Okenshield's nephew (complete with "humorous" banter and penis jokes - yes, penis jokes). But that's not all - she has healing magic that can counteract the poison of a Morgul weapon (yeah, that happens), even though the daughter of Elrond didn't have that skill in FELLOWSHIP. So that makes sense.

I hate to sound so negative about the film in general and Tauriel in particular because she does get some "cool" moments and could have been a really worthwhile addition to the story, but in a year with characters like Emily Cale, Mako MoriRyan Stone, and Queen Elsa she really comes off as pandering and, worse still, superfluous. If you took out her character (and the related go-nowhere mini-plots with her a Kili), nothing about the film would be different. She instills no noticeable change in any of the characters or their journeys, serving only to give more reasons for Orlando Bloom to show off how awesome Legolas is at killing CGI monsters in as many locations and using as many effects-aided stunts as possible.

Speaking of which, you have to wonder about the people of Lake Town who can recognize a party of dwarves from half-glimpses and spread rumors of their presence and portent like wildfire, but when a war band of orcs starts tearing up their town, they don't seem to notice at all. Perhaps it's a common occurrence?

Which is another problem - Jackson was so concerned with turning EVERY event in the film into an effects-filled chase/action sequence that the set pieces in the movie lose the weight and grounding in character and narrative that drove the action the RINGS films. It's the classic problem that runs through Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS movies - when the setting is always turned up to 11, the impact on the audience is lost. And because the action beats love finding new ways to creatively kill orcs, they work more as a gruesome collection of kill gags that severely undermine the otherwise-whimsical tone of the film. Where the RINGS movies grounded the action in building emotion, narrative escalation, and character beats, THE HOBBIT, particularly DESOLATION builds these scenes around sight gags and little else.

Which is a real shame, because there's a lot of material here worthy of hanging memorable sequences upon. Gandalf's sojourn into Dol Guldor provides some genuinely harrowing moments, and Bilbo's initial encounter with Smaug is truly one of the highlights of the films so far, proving with the "Inside Information" sequence here and the "Riddles in the Dark" scene from last time that Martin Freeman having a one-on-one conversation with a computer-generated character is solid gold (sorry, couldn't help it).

Unfortunately, this parlay is followed by an action scene that not only breaks every law of physics in both Middle-earth and this one, but also manages to rob Smaug of most of his terrifying magnificence. And then as if to add insult to injury, the movie doesn't even try for the "semi-ending" that FELLOWSHIP, TOWERS, and JOURNEY attempted, instead simply stopping on a cliff-hanger (on multiple character fronts) all but mocking the audience with a "see you next year!" It's "middle chapter syndrome" at its worst.

It's odd feeling so negative about this film. Much like MAN OF STEEL earlier this year, DESOLATION is full of scenes that work just fine on their own, some of them even managing to be downright fantastic. But the narrative that connects them simply doesn't hang together. Stakes are constantly changing, from a personal "reclaim our homeland" quest to a "save the world" B-story (which is hard to invest in since the movie is so determined to make most of the characters the adventurers encounter total jackasses). Focus jumps back and forth between different characters with no regard for how to maintain dramatic connections between motivations (something RINGS excelled at), and the tone that felt fairly consistent in the last film can't find any balance here, jumping from serious peril to cartoonish action to comic buffoonery to grisly violence within a single scene.

It's a shame Jackson felt such a need to "improve" upon the source material here. There are times when it legitimately worked last time (Bilbo's expanded arc), but here it mostly just becomes a mess. For all that I'm a life-long Tolkien fanatic, I can still recognize when a change in an adaptation can make for a better result in a different medium. I'd have been fine with a HOBBIT movie that diverted into different narratives if said storylines were compelling and reinforced the central narrative (again, this is what LOTR did constantly). The problem is, the movie gives me no reason to invest in these diversions.

In fairness, some of them might all pay off in some powerful way in Part 3, but it'd take a movie miracle for them to redeem all of this film's faults. For now, what we have is the most expensive fan fiction ever made as well as what is quickly becoming yet another disappointing Prequel Trilogy.

And this story, and movie audiences, deserve better than that.

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