The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Starring: Martin Freeman (Nativity, Sherlock, The Office)
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Family, Action
In this second outing of three in the Hobbit trilogy, Bilbo has ownership of the one ring (to rule them all, one ring to…you know the one), and is continuing on his quest with Gandalf and 13 dwarves to a mountain, inside which is a mountainous dragon sitting on a stone very precious to the dwarves.
It was clear in the first installment (An Unexpected Journey) that the material of the original (relatively small) book had been stretched as tightly and as thinly as possible over three hours, along with some material from affiliated books in the same universe from J.R.R. Tolkein. It didn’t seem too much of a problem, as it only served to get to know our characters more (all fifteen of them) and thus care for them more. That strength is retained in this installment however there is a difference in that the beefed-up material is no longer exposition but action. In fact, pretty much the entire second half of this film is full-on action, similar to The Return of the King.
Director Peter Jackson, who, by this time next year, will have commanded the production of all six epic Tolkein adaptations stretching all the way back to Fellowship of the Ring, has stated that he sees The Hobbit novel, contrary to The Lord of the Ring’s trilogy, as a children’s book, and that the style of the film must change accordingly. However, there is a case to say that with these changes, there has been some magic and sparkle lost from the original trilogy. While An Unexpected Journey ultimately survived any threat of crumbling under these differences, there’s an argument to say that The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t quite hold up so well.
To elaborate, first of all we have the special effects. In the original trilogy, despite all the ginormous elephants, mutated wolves and grand locations being computer generated, the spectacle was grounded in reality with the hand-made, makeup effect that was used to create the look of the Orcs and Urak-Hai, among other things. Peter Jackson retained his gritty, grimy, slimy horror film roots with this, as well as the severity of battle. In this Hobbit trilogy, however, this has been lost. Computer generated effects are abundant, too abundant, with them bouncing around every scene like balls of candy floss. Although this may be aiming to work for a younger audience, it ultimately takes away from the effect of the whole piece.
The main antagonist, for instance, or antagonists, are all computer generated. While in the Lord of the Rings trilogy the Orcs were tangible, real, and delightfully disgusting, here we don’t get the same effect from the detachment that CGI brings. It’s hard to be scared about something that clearly isn’t real. And as a side note, they clearly aren’t real. For all the money that has surely been spent on these films, it doesn’t seem to have been pumped into perfecting the look of these effects; they all seem plastic, shiny and polished (or un-polished for that matter).
Another problem with the change to a younger audience is the battle scenes. Take the barrel sequence for example, just under midway through this film. In this sequence, all 13 dwarves plus Bilbo ride the river rapids sat in barrels while being chased by a pack of bad-guys and helped by a pack of elves. Legolas (who has dreadfully been doctored to make look younger, leaving him also looking like a doll), stands on dwarves’ heads, jumps from one to the other, flips and spins, all while dismantling a group of seemingly endless antagonists. Where is the threat? Where is the danger? Not only do these said antagonists look like they are from a video game, but so does Legolas, and the way they go about the fight is so utterly cartoonish and unrealistic that all threat has dissipated. This is a sense of threat that permeated all three Lord of the Ring’s films, even when involved in the largest of CGI battles. It could be that the laws of physics seem to be irrelevant. Although it may sound silly, the way fights like this play out it is almost literally like it is being fought on another planet, with people being able to bounce off others heads, jump higher, skid further, and generally look like the Hulk leaping around.
This isn’t to say there isn’t some good action. The climactic scenes with Smaug are certainly grand, and probably great, but not a patch even on the climactic scenes of Fellowship of the ring, where the Fellowship battle a pack of real Urak-Hai in a real forest with real danger and real death. While the scale of this film’s action may be ten times larger than that of Fellowship, the scale of it’s emotional clout, it’s weight, is probably ten times smaller.
One thing that is constant so far in this trilogy, one thing that is the trilogy’s guiding light, and without which it would already have lost audience interest way back, is Martin Freeman. The performance of Martin Freeman is so spot-on, so intrinsically right, with the perfect levels of charm, corruption and naivety, that any scene with him is just a joy, despite any peripheral problems with the film. This installment is at its best when Freeman’s Bilbo is taken aback by his new-found ruthlessness, or overwhelmed by the enormity of the dragon, Smaug.
With this in mind, it can be argued that the first episode, An Unexpected Journey, is the strongest of the trilogy so far, as it contains more of Bilbo and less of the cartoon fighting.
Summary: Fan’s will range from thinking it’s the best thing since sliced bread to thinking it’s just ok, but no less than ok – there are enough positives to at least warrant an ‘ok’. People new to the universe – who are you? How was Mars? – should probably not dive in at this stage, as they will only come out feeling confused, mangled and underwhelmed.
The rating below isn’t a rating compared to every other film ever made, but a rating compared to the previous four Jackson films in this universe.
Rating: 2 out of 5