"We're going 'round in circles. We're lost."
It's no secret that I flat out hated last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As a fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (but by no means a fanatic), I was disappointed by how much filler Jackson seemed to put in the film in an attempt to inflate a slim and jaunty novel into the epic beginning of a brand new trilogy. It felt like five pounds of sausage in a ten pound casing. While I haven't come around fully on the film, I enjoyed it more on home video, finding it's leisurely pace to play better at home than it did on the big screen. So would the second (or fifth) trip to Middle Earth, The Desolation of Smaug, bring things back into focus, and get down to the business of telling a story worth telling, or would it be more of the same? Read on to find out...
The Desolation of Smaug begins with a scene that attempts to bolster the background for the character of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and it feels like Jackson is attempting to set things right from the onset. The major complaint about this secondary hero in the first film is that he just came across as an arrogant, single-minded jerk that didn't have the same qualities that made Aragorn such a popular co-protagonist in The Lord of the Rings. And for the first forty five minutes or so, the film continues in this vein, keeping a firm focus on the story of this company of dwarves and their quest to reclaim their home. The first portion of the film culminates in a fantastic sequence with the dwarves in barrels, hurtling down river and fending off a band of orcs, that rivals any of the best action sequences in Jackson's original trilogy.
Then everything goes to hell almost instantaneously. The constant fracturing of this group and the almost non-stop introduction of additional characters from the various Tolkien ephemera divides the audience's focus and makes this quest so unwieldy that it's hard to care about anything that happens to anyone. Someone needs to sit Peter Jackson down and point to the first two words in this film's title, because he seems to have lost any semblance of where this series started out. Bilbo Baggins becomes a supporting character in his own story for so much of this film's running time, it really shouldn't be called The Hobbit, it should be called Middle Earth's Greatest Hits: The Hobbit and Other Assorted Nonsense. Even bringing the focus back onto Baggins, in the film's first of several climaxes, and his encounter with the dragon Smaug ends up looking like a weak attempt to recreate the first film's best sequence where Bilbo and Gollum faced off.
So much of what made The Lord of the Rings an instant classic is that it kept the focus small enough, and the stakes of the heroes' journey ever present, making it easily digestible and a breeze to follow. This series, and this film in particular, is all over the map, and it's never clear whose quest is the most important. The introduction of Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and an absolutely interminable sequence set in Laketown only further prove this point. Whose story is this anyway? Jackson's attention to detail in his original trilogy has turned into attention deficit disorder, and every character speaks in platitudes and stands around spouting off information about how they fit into the narrative arc of this series that it becomes exhausting after a while.
It's hard to critique the performances in a film like this when they're in service of such a messy and diluted narrative, other than to say that everyone is perfectly serviceable and there are no stand outs on either side of that line. Ian McKellen is barely present in this film, but I actively worried for his safety at times as he looks like he's well past the point of being too old for this shit. Jackson has become so reliant on cgi at this point in his career that I was surprised by the number of orcs and various other characters that appeared to be fully made-up human actors, which was a pleasant diversion from the first film. The cg continues to be a mixed bag of decent looking creature designs, like Smaug, and half-assed attempts to finish things off and get the film into theaters by the deadline, which would consist of virtually every scene where a human character is morphed into cg for some impossible stunt.
The design elements are more or less the only things to write home about at this point. Thank goodness they spent top dollar on realizing these worlds, otherwise it would be a long, slow slog to the Lonely Mountain. Homes, costumes, weapons, etc all look appropriately lived in and fully realized, and as I mentioned earlier, the make up effects are top notch. But none of it is in service of a story worth telling, and that's where the real problem with this film, and this series, comes into play. I don't mind the extended versions of the original films, but I never saw them in the theater, where they likely would have felt like the bloated messes that they actually are. These films already feel like they've been extended past the point of human consumption, and they're only weaker as a result.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was not the turnaround I had hoped it would be going in, or even that the first forty five minutes lead me to believe it would be. It's just more of the same, more shuffling of feet, more cramming in things that either don't matter or don't belong, and it's beginning to feel like there's no end in sight. I'm not even sure it would've worked as the original two films that were promised as it features so many diversions, subplots and side quests that it would have still felt like a bloated mess at six hours. As such, my thought process has changed from will this series transcend mediocrity to will it ever end?
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]