The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

What have we done?

la_ca_1016_the_hobbitI don’t know who’s paying reviewers to say that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is leaps and bounds better than the mediocre first film, but as they say, the money-hose runs long (actually, I just made that up).  I wrote a bit about narrative payoff in the newest Disney film, which seemed all well and validated until last night.  The Desolation of Smaug makes Frozen look like Pulp Fiction.

We joked all throughout the aughts about Peter Jackson’s love for All Things Orc, and when he shoehorned Orcs into the first Hobbit film (for the laymen: Orcs do not appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit novel), even that seemed somewhat okay, since yes, the novel did have an army of Goblins (later referred to as a type of Orc in The Lord of the Rings) led by Bolg, the sworn enemy of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage in the films), son of Azog, the sworn enemy of Thorin’s ancestors, and as we all know, the Boring Hero of a fantasy film must have an appropriate foil.  But in the first film, it wasn’t Bolg; it was Azog, who in Tolkien’s mythology is dead a century before the novel begins.  Alright, I thought.  Maybe PJ liked Azog’s name better.  Bolg didn’t do much other than get squished by Beorn off-page, so no harm done.  But then I remembered how many Orcs and Uruk-Hai received their own scenes in the first trilogy of films.  I recalled lines like “We ain’t had nothin’ but maggoty bread for three stinkin’ days!” Okay, okay, I thought.  This is all because they’re making a trilogy, and need to have a bad guy to knock off in a duel at the end, so let’s stick it out until Azog bites it and Bolg takes over the army in the next one.  And then Azog did not die, and what’s worse, I hadn’t brought anything to throw at the screen.

The new film is All Orcs All the Time (actually a better title than the one it has).  The wonder and magic are gone, as are all attempts to adapt the novel.  Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), one of the most interesting and important characters in the novel, and also the subject of one of the novel’s funniest and most involving scenes, receives two or three minutes onscreen, wherein he says and does nothing that makes any difference or sense, before being shoved aside for scenes of computer-generated Orcs saying corny bad guy crap to one another.  Remember Barrels Out of Bond?  That’s included, but it’s extended to about twenty minutes so that a thousand Orcs can be killed trying to stop the barrels from floating down the river while simultaneously battling other characters who are not in the novel, such as Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whose makeup so heavily tries to hide how much older and differently built than he was in the LotR films that his face might as well be animatronic – in fact, most of his fighting is done by a CG version of him, and it’s some of the most embarrassingly bad CG that I’ve ever seen onscreen.  Even the dwarves in the barrels appear as blobs of CG color.  Did they dump the entire animation budget into Smaug, spitball this stuff together, and just say “Fuck it; the Ringers won’t notice or care”?  If there’s a chase scene, there are Orcs involved.  If there’s a narrow or dark passage, an Orc is lurking somewhere.  If a new set is introduced, you can bet the Orcs will want to visit it.  If someone is eating a cake, an Orc will pop out.

The overt “prophecy” stuff about the dwarves takes a front seat.  Thorin is supposed to retake Erebor and become King Under the Mountain.  He believes and pursues this without question, even referring to people who might be sacrificed in the wake of this pursuit by their races instead of their names, absolving himself of all blame for their deaths.  He has a scene wherein he becomes not unlike Sean Bean’s Boromir in a fumbling attempt to snatch the Arkenstone.  Here’s the problem: no one in the theatre – and more importantly, not even the lens of the film itself – seems to realize that Thorin is the villain.  He’s the one making all of these bad things happen.  His adventure is putting everyone in danger and bringing back to life a dragon so steadfastly evil that he actually utters the phrase “I am death” – and not even to intimidate anyone; he says it to himself!  Thorin will not succeed in the end, of course, but none of Tolkien’s (nor Jackson’s) narrative remotely suggests that he gets what’s coming to him.

There’s an unbelievable amount of focus on material meant to raise the stakes, but the film falls victim to an ancient blunder: you cannot raise the stakes in a prequel by introducing stuff that has already been resolved in the originals.  Gandalf (Ian McKellan) goes head to head with the Necromancer (Sauron) before getting captured at the end.  Is anyone truly afraid for him?  Similarly, when the One Ring rolls away, is anyone afraid that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) will not retrieve it?  In further distractions, even the barely-relevant Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry, basically playing himself) has his own scenes with yet another Jackson-invented character, Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who essentially fills the “Wormtongue Lite” role.  Furthermore, an excruciating amount of screentime is devoted to Kili (Aidan Turner), who falls for the flawless Tauriel in much the same way that Gimli becomes infatuated with Galadriel.  But it’s different this time because none of this, including Tauriel, is in the book, and readers know that any nuance or depth concerning Kili’s character doesn’t matter much at the end of the next film anyway.

You’ll notice that I have barely mentioned Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit.  That’s because his role, the essential narrative voice of the novel (albeit told in vintage Tolkien third-person) is relegated to cameo status here.  There were times that the film lingered so long on Orcs and dwarves that I actually forgot about Martin Freeman’s involvement.  He saves the dwarves’ lives more than once, but the profoundness of these feats is never mentioned by anyone (Gandalf at one point chalks everything up to Bilbo not being “the same Hobbit who left the Shire,” and we’re left to accept him as a generic warrior character to go with the other thirteen).

If you’ve made it this far, I’ll say this: Bilbo’s scene with the Mirkwood spiders is very good, and even includes the twisted speech of the spiders, and the horrifying revelation (to those who pay attention) that Bilbo’s desire to keep the ring is more than fairly similar to the spiders’ blind desire to feast on living flesh.  But it’s soon punctuated by yet another unwelcome and noncanon arrival of the Elves, whom Jackson shoved into Helm’s Deep (where they did not belong), and now has them rescue our gang from spiders and Orcs using painfully choreographed bull-shitsu, most of which is animated and not performed by the actors or stuntmen.  The involvement of Gandalf is well done, despite the fact that his trek to Dol Guldur is not shown in the novel, because it’s simple: he wants to check out a suspicious magician whom he (correctly) presumes to be Sauron.  So he joins Radagast (Sylvester McCoy, still covered in bird shit) and heads to the center of the problem.  It’s straightforward and mostly relevant.  Take a guess at whether he fights Orcs, though.

And then there’s Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a creature so painstakingly created that he took the entire title of the film for himself.  The scene with Smaug is great in the novel not because we see a cool dragon or a battle, but because we see a genuine bit of characterization on the part of Bilbo: due to the Ring’s influence, he begins arrogantly taunting Smaug without even thinking about it.  In the film, he still refers to himself as Riddle Maker and Barrel Rider, but he does it all jittery-like, and both characters react to the other exactly as you’d expect characters in a fantasy movie, and not from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, to react.  The wordplay soon moves aside in favor of a film-invented battle with the dwarves, whom, again, readers know will not succeed in melting Smaug’s indestructible hide with molten gold (although it takes us a half hour to get there before the film abruptly drops us).  Wherever there arises the opportunity for a cliffhanger, there will be one.  Even Legolas’s lakeside duel with Bolg ends in a stalemate.  Smaug, though, is expertly animated and acted, albeit at the expense of the filmmakers’ one true love: the Orcs.  Evangeline Lilly’s involvement is also a welcome breath, adding a feminine energy and voice that the story desperately needs.

The biggest chip I carry is that ever since the original Rings films, I have continuously suspected that Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, reread as they might, have no idea what Tolkien’s books were actually about, and this was Tolkien’s biggest fear and pet peeve when it came to adaptations of his work.  It’s so easy for someone with the money and fanbase of New Line to say that a certain addition is “in the spirit of Tolkien,” when in fact, there was a reason he did not write penis jokes, ten-page battles with Orcs, and a wrestling match atop Mount Doom.  Tolkien’s cultural insensitivity aside, he knew the workings of his own universe.

All things considered, I can say with genuine honesty that I think the final chapter (which should have been this one, considering the amount of taffy-style narrative stretching seen here) will be better in all ways, if we can find our way back to even a single facet of what makes the story resonate – the smallness of it all, the deliberate and unique narrative, the characterization of Bilbo.  Is it an “enjoyable” film?  Yeah, sure.  But as I’ve said, spectacle and entertainment do not make quality art.  Leave the enjoyment to the Wargs.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013); based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Evangeline Lilly, and Richard Armitage.

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  1. […] a shorter-than-most-novellas-and-many-poetry-collections novel for children.  Remember PJEs from last time?  As sad as I am to see them go, I am not sad to see them […]


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