The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Peter Jackson must really love side-scrolling video games. The primary motif of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," the middle part of his 8-hour trilogy adaptation of a comparatively diminutive fantasy novel, is a simple one: Characters running from the left side of the screen to the right side of the screen, sliding down opportunely designed surfaces and slicing up bad guys while they do so.
You feel like you’re watching an off-screen player button-mash his way through scene after scene, which is actually a fitting approach for this series. Through every moment of both movies released thus far, it’s been near-impossible not to be conscious of the fact that Peter Jackson surely had a lot more fun making them than we’re having watching them. We’re the disengaged friends off to the side of the couch, watching him play his games, indulging his fandom.
For those reasons, "Desolation of Smaug" isn’t entirely boring. After all, there’s a hell of a lot going on in the frames of a video game. It’s more of a numbing experience than an interminable one. After an opening prologue at the Prancing Pony, where Gandalf and the would-be dwarf king Thorin essentially recap the events of the prior film, we catch up with Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman with many-a 2000s-era affect, using contemporary gestures and sarcastic responses aplenty) and the whole team of dwarves -- and it’s off to the races, toward a succession of shiny-surfaced set pieces.
The crew runs through elves’ prisons, through backwoods patrolled by Orcs, through mountains and fields and Laketowns, rolling across minutely laid-out slides, sometimes even in barrels. There’s a Rube Goldberg-sense to the action sequences, akin to video games and also not unlike what Spielberg did with "Tintin," yet it’s all so plainly shot (as mentioned, as if it were a side-scroller) and so blatantly digital (even the bumblebees here are fake) that the film almost entirely fails to evoke a sense of wonder in the viewer. Only a chase sequence involving those barrels is kinetic enough, and a showdown between Bilbo and the titular dragon tense enough, to stand out against the endless bombardment of computer generated effects. They’re the only moments here where characters stands beside SFX, and they work. Unfortunately, they make up a small portion of this 156-minute film.
To explain how things could go so very wrong, look to how Jackson leans so heavily on the elf prince Legolas, absent in "The Hobbit" novel but understandably included here. It’s not his appearance that’s cheap -- it’s what Jackson does with it. A majority of the character’s screen time is devoted to him swinging from left to right, shooting arrows, stabbing bad guys, and then -- I do not exaggerate -- giving the camera a sly, "Wasn’t that cool?" glance after he finishes the process. Repeatedly.
When he’s not looking cool while stabbing creatures to death, Legolas gets involved in a love triangle, something also absent from the source novel. Tauriel, a bad-ass warrior-lady elf played by Evangeline Lily, has eyes for Legolas, but also for Kili, the handsomest of the dwarves. Legolas’ father disapproves of his tenderness toward Tauriel, confusing matters further -- and giving us a "doomed lovers plus ruggedly handsome outsider" angle, played out just like a young adult novel (I’m still not exaggerating) within an adaptation of a Tolkien text that would never have stood for such things. It’s hard to tell if Jackson is actively pandering with this plotline, or if he’s just trying to pad things out; either way, these conventional developments protrude like the proverbial wounded thumb when compared to the chaste text of Tolkien’s novel.
This picture needed the old Peter Jackson, the one with energy behind the camera and a sense of the exhilaration that comes with making the best use of do-it-yourself effects and aesthetics. He shows up for a few moments here: The first scene in the Prancing Pony kicks off with an exhilarating faux-Leone would-be stand-off, the camera cutting breathlessly from close-up to close-up, the score swelling. In another, Gandolf approaches a menacing forest, and the camera begins to swoop up on him in dutch angles, "Evil Dead"-style. These moments have a cinematic energy, an ecstatic liveliness to them -- something that all the computer effects and languid young-adult-style plotlines sap out of the rest of the film.
Hollywood films like "The Hobbit" and "The Avengers" and so many more are re-appropriating the standards and structure of old-school serials, always building toward the next chapter, but they stretch on for three times as long. It’s exhausting. We’re watching colorful chaos, devoid of nuance. It reminds me of that line from "Kill Bill," where David Carradine surmises that a group has done something illogical "because it sounded cool." That’s what Jackson’s done with this second-act-only entry of "The Hobbit" -- it’s not a standalone narrative, nor a character piece, nor a slam-bang non-stop action spectacle (there’s far too much exposition for that). It’s fandom for fandom’s sake.
"The Hobbit" is being made in the wrong format, and I’m not talking about 48 frames per second (that "high frame rate" version -- representing the way that film will play in many theaters -- was not shown to critics.) This should be a miniseries, running for two hours per night on some pay cable channel for a full week. It would allow Jackson the time to delve into character development alongside the Mario-Bros.-go-Tolkien action sequences he loves so much -- and it would prevent us viewers from having to wait two full years between the opening and closing of this narrative.
On that note, I can’t really finish this review, because Peter Jackson hasn’t really finished his film. Check back in another 12 months; I’ll let you know how this all wraps up.