Monday, January 6, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Movie Review

Each of these dwarfs is just like the others...
As if the first chapter weren’t already interminable enough, the second part of The Hobbit has arrived. This one, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, is the insufferable middle section of a trilogy that had no business being, at most, a single three hour movie. Like The Two Towers a decade ago, it’s a movie without beginning or conclusion and so it just feels like you’re awash in stuff that happens to characters. Only it’s far worse than The Two Towers because that was at least based on a book of its own whereas this is from part of a single book with lots of additional crap thrown in.

This is so shamelessly a vanity project designed to placate salivating Tolkein fans that may end up alienating newcomers (like myself) who came to Middle Earth through Peter Jackson’s first trilogy of films. So many bones have been thrown to fans of The Lord of the Rings films that this feels so much like a reboot it’s hard to separate one trilogy from the other. There’s an errant king (Richard Armitage) on a quest to reclaim his throne. There’s a hobbit (Martin Freeman) on an adventure not of his choosing that begins to reveal his true inner courage and character. There’s a female elf (Evangeline Lilly) who incants and uses herbs to magically heal a mortal wound. There’s Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who wasn’t even in the novel The Hobbit, but was such a popular badass fighter in the first film trilogy that he’s back almost by fan demand. And orcs! Lots of big ugly orcs! Ah! This time there’s a dragon – Smaug of the title, voiced by the ineffable and supremely villainous Benedict Cumberbatch – who lays claim to the kingdom that Thorin should rightfully rule. The dragon is by far the best thing about this movie. It’s rendered in unbelievably detailed and lifelike CGI (that will probably looked dated in about 45 minutes) and the scenes involving him and Bilbo are among the most interesting, suspenseful, and best written (for this movie).

The biggest problem, apart from the film just being downright dull, is that Jackson never settles on an appropriate tone for the project. Because The Hobbit is a more whimsical and lighter tale, written with younger readers in mind, but Jackson wants this set of films to closely resemble The Lord of the Rings, there is a muddled mess of confusion in the battle sequences where it’s scary and dangerous at the same time it’s giddy and playful. Orcs attack the gaggle of indiscernible dwarfs (actually one of the few good things I can say about The Desolation of Smaug is that a couple of the individual dwarfs finally distinguish themselves, but I still don’t know their names) while at the same time there’s laughy-jokey Jackie Chain-like clowning around. I don’t want to see Legolas bounding along the heads of the dwarfs, who are floating in barrels, to get across a river in the middle of a high stakes battle. It just feels uncomfortable to see them angling for laughs at those moments. Also, every movement, every step, every swing of an axe or sword, every release of an arrow is so perfectly timed to coincide with the precise movements of the enemy orcs that it could have been orchestrated specifically to tie into the inevitable video game. Many movies are indistinguishable from video games these days and The Hobbit films are prime examples of this trend geared toward adolescent ADHD-addled minds.

Really, a movie like this is critic-proof. It has a huge built-in audience of people who will love it no matter what, another contingent who will see it no matter what, and a final group that may not care too much, but already feel invested enough to stick it out. And criticizing the decision to split the story in three seems pointless because the decision is transparently a financial one so how can I come at it as if it’s a poor artistic choice?

So what’s left is an overwritten screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro and a cast of characters played by fine actors including Ian McKellen (as Gandalf, of course) and Lee Pace, lost in a series of events that have no real connection either to each other or the larger picture. This is a movie where you feel like you’re watching a bunch of Big Cinematic Moments. But if you fall asleep during any one of them (and I very nearly did), you’ll wake not feeling like you missed very much. Can’t wait for the final chapter!

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