Yeah, Bilbo, sit there and think about what you did.
I was wrong last year when I wrote that An Unexpected Journey would improve with subsequent viewings. It doesn’t. Instead, it’s sort of like some leftovers that happen to biodegrade very slowly, if at all. They are there if you need them, and they are kinda nice, but mostly you can’t even taste them anymore. Watching An Unexpected Journey is exhausting. Sometimes a good, long movie should be exhausting. I’d put The Return of the King in that category. Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to Jackson’s personal prequel trilogy. Both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug are exhausting in the bad way.
I didn’t originate the comparison but I pretty much agree that the Hobbit films are Peter Jackson’s personal failure to meet the same tests once undergone by George Lucas to the detriment of all save Sam Jackson. Cuz, to be fair, that guy has survived worse than Mace Windu.
I went easy on An Unexpected Journey when I wrote about it. I’d be less charitable now. Doubling down on all the mistakes he made there, Jackson has created a slapstick cartoon full of so much “why in fuck?” that it erodes the sense of fun and whimsy that I was pretty much okay with going in. I mean, I understand that these are not as grimdark as The Lord of the Rings tended to be. That said, these Hobbit movies now feel almost like they take place in a different universe. There was a tangibility to the locations, costumes, and creatures in The Lord of the Rings that feels railroaded here. An over-reliance on unnecessary CG hampers the verisimilitude that made The Lord of the Rings so fucking influential and successful that it single handedly made high fantasy mainstream-viable. The Hobbit movies now feel like the lesser work of some other asshole who’s trying really hard to be Peter Jackson.
But it’s not all bad or anything. Obviously, this is an extension of the same flaws that have plagued all of these films. You’re probably going to enjoy Smaug. I enjoyed the majority of it. It’s just hard not to be super critical when there’s all that “why in fuck?”
In The Desolation of Smaug, the dial on fucking everything gets turned so much over the limit that it’s broken off. Nearly every reel of the film recalls the chaffy enormity and excess of the Pelennor Fields sequence from King and not one of them has built up the anticipation or emotional investment to earn that excess or at least mitigate it with catharsis. There will never be a “Last March of the Ents” or a “Rohirrim Charge” moment in the Hobbit films. So why all the impossible camera angles, badly composited establishing shots, and grandiose rehashing of lines from The Lord of the Rings? It’s a mystery.
You didn’t forget about this asshole, did you?
Without skipping a beat, it seems Azog (Manu Bennet) has tracked the Eagles hundreds of miles or whatever and caught up with Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) gang. They are mad on the run, yo, and wind up hanging out with Werebear Beorn for a few minutes (they do nothing with this shit, so they should have cut it… Jackson 2001 would have). After that, it’s off to Mirkwood where they meet Bizzarro Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his lady friend, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). And then Laketown and Smuggler Bard (Luke Evans). And then Erebor. And then nonsensical Pirates of the Caribbean style shit. And then cliffhanger.
Lots and lots of “and then”. This movie is relentlessly paced. There are few moments of respite, littler characterization, and the best character-based storyline is just an echo of the Aragon-Arwen romance. Jackson and friends really did use up every opportunity to call back to The Lord of the Rings that they could. Instead of coming off as pleasant, the fact that it’s only been ten years makes it feel like the cheap self-reference that it is. It puts Jackson in a bad light, making him come off much the same way George Lucas did when he set about over-exposing every bit of backstory, coincidence, and loose thread he could. It’s the same inclination. It’s so bad that the once-warm “we love Hobbits, everybody” moments (cue gentle Hobbit theme) could now be a fucking drinking game. Even characters like Balin (Ken Stott), for whom Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is the only experience, rehashes Gandalf’s (Ian McKellan) line about Hobbits always surprising him. There is tons of shit like that in this movie. When we go to Bree in an unnecessary flashback, there’s an obligatory shot of Peter Jackson eating a carrot again.
Why does this stuff matter? Because it’s distracting. Why is it distracting? Because it’s not in service to the story we’re watching, or the spirit of telling it. It’s in service to the people who brought the story to your screen, and a constant reminder that they are very proud of what they did. It’s obnoxious and insecure and just amateurish.
But still has its moments.
Speaking of Pirates of the Caribbean, that’s really what these films resemble once you get past the uncomfortable Star Wars prequels thing. The whimsy, slapstick, and successive levels of absurdity and flippant ignorance of physical laws served that series well. That’s what the Pirates films were: summaries of swashbuckling pirate mythology dressed up in absurdist humor, with every fucking dial broke off. The Lord of the Rings may have been a more serious, epic story with higher stakes, but Desolation still tries to have its “this is serious, guys” moments (the dead Dwarves in Erebor, including dead Dwarf babies) which it fails to earn by having action sequences predicated on impossible plans where all the characters must be telepathic and have perfect senses of timing. Not to mention the Radagast bits, cuz yes… he’s back.
This isn’t to say that the whimsy never works. The barrel escape is a great example of a great part from the book being elongated, mutated, and set to spin by Jackson. Except that it works, for a change. There’s a fine balance to shit like this. The Goblin Town sequence from Journey would have achieved it were it not for that bit with the broken scaffolding. The barrel escape achieves it not because it chooses a good moment to stop (it doesn’t, it goes on past the point of charm) but by ending with something so ridiculous that it punches the audience back into sheer, childlike glee. Bombur’s (Stephen Hunter) one badass scene is really that good. It alone saves the sequence from being a total misfire. As it is, it’s still like something out of Pirates.
About time Evangeline Lilly gets some big exposure.
Though her storyline with Fili (Aidan Turner) echoes Aragorn and Arwen, Tauriel is really the best character in the film. Stupidity and excess are not the only things that Jackson and his writing partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, doubled down on. They wanted to do what they were smart not to do in The Lord of the Rings and have a badass she-elf (shelf?) character that sticks around. Tauriel is always kicking ass and always saving motherfuckers. That she does it with a bow is a nice continuation of how the bow has become a symbol for nonstandard female characters in genre fiction. Lilly also infuses the character with longings and convictions that keep Tauriel from getting lost in all the noise and confusion of the film.
And that’s really something you could say about nearly every character and actor in it, with some exceptions. Freeman, Armitage, and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Smaug) all keep their scenes grounded and buoyant even when the writing isn’t exactly serving them. With them along, Thorin’s PTSD, history of mental illness stuff is not forgotten and the character still has audience sympathy even as he acts like a dickbag to everybody. Freeman makes Bilbo into an everyman hero, a very different kind of character than Frodo was. And Cumberbatch impresses as always as Smaug, infusing a CG character with grandeur, flamboyance, and even some sinister charm. Smaug’s scenes with Bilbo are probably some of the best in the film, really.
Faring less well are McKellan’s Gandalf, who spends most of the film following up on the apparent return of Sauron. Those scenes are a bit meh. Mostly they give him something to do, pad out the length, destroy any mystery from the source novel, and set up the third Hobbit movie which will undoubtedly make the Battle of Five Armies less a regional conflict predicated on power imbalances and old unsettled business (though this element is very much still there) and more a precursor to Sauron’s bigger plans. The way the Sauron shit is being handled here is troublesome because it calls into question what everybody’s been doing between the end of The Hobbit and Frodo’s inheritance of the Ring, some 60 years later. Here’s hoping they address that in Hobbit 3.
They choose entirely the wrong way to use Legolas.
Legolas has his share of fans. People like Elves. No one likes them, or him, more than Peter Jackson though. The characters in The Lord of the Rings who were in the Fellowship were like the the Avengers of Middle Earth. With the exception of the hobbits, every one of them was a world-class warrior. When Gandalf reassures someone, on the march to the Black Gate, that there are “names among them worth a thousand”, these are the types of dudes he means. In The Hobbit every fucking buddy is a superhero. Combat is perfunctory. Like in Goblin Town, the dwarves and the elves and everybody else just bats enemies away like they’re nothing. All the choreography and battles are coated with obvious CG stunts, ridiculous feats of strength and dexterity, and an altogether “fuck physics” attitude. It wouldn’t rankle so much if it didn’t make every battle feel weightless and threat-free. No one is gonna die, no amount of orcs is enough to take down Legolas, and so on.
Speaking of Legolas, cuz I forgot about him for a second there, he’s got characterization issues. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Legolas was a mouthy and hotblooded young Elf-prince who loved him some Aragorn and hated him some dwarves. In Desolation, he’s a cold and calculating veteran warrior who rides orcs like surfboards and goes toe-to-toe with the seven foot son of Azog with all the strength and endurance the script needs him to have to make the fight work. How did this guy become the guy we remember from movies that take place 60 years later?
I think they missed an opportunity. Legolas’s characterization, if he fucking had to have one in these movies (he didn’t, but Jackson always rolls Elf Ranger so there ya go), should have been about his father. By keeping their relationship clipped, they both float in their respective motivations and subplots barely attached, even when they’re supposed to be. Legolas, we’re told, likes Tauriel (but never acts like it or does anything about it), but Thranduil (Lee Pace) is like “ah hell naw” or something. Who knows. Because Thranduil is actually kind of cool in a male-Galadriel way, this bugs me. Also, the big conflict with the dwarves is about some goddamn jewels. See An Unexpected Journey: Extended Cut for very little more about this.
The best dragon in movies. Except for Toothless.
What this film does best is somewhat undermined by Jackson’s poorer instincts. The world-building, tangibility, and authority with which Middle Earth was depicted in The Lord of the Rings has been bludgeoned aside by the easy way. Make everything a cartoon, and soon enough you’ve got a cartoon. The thing about a cartoon is, it’s consistently what it is. A good cartoon has all the same merits as any film. A film that dabbles in the cartoonish soon mitigates its consistency and this is always to its detriment. A combination of elements, not just the stubborn insistence on animating everything, is what makes this so. Tonally, Desolation is a fucking mess.
Nowhere are these competing poor instincts more contained than in the dwarves’ astonishingly stupid, incoherent plan to chase Smaug out of Erebor. Thorin decides to light the ancient forges of the dwarves and use Smaug’s dragonfire against him. Fair enough, but we have no idea either before, during, or afterward why this is a thing. I guess Thorin may have remembered that there was an unused mould for a gold statue of Thror in one of the halls. Either way, this is the linchpin of his big plan to give Smaug a gold bath (shades of Game of Thrones, too… it’s actually a nice reference). The trouble with this sequence is in its logistics. For this to work, everything has to work out like magic and since there’s no “planning phase” scene (cut so we can watch a CG bee wake up Bilbo at Beorn’s), the audience is kept out in the cold as to what the fuck is happening in this sequence.
There’s entirely too much of that in this movie, guys.
There’s also that Bilbo is constantly the smartest guy in the room. He figures out everything. Every body else is too dumb or too ready to quit. It’s the misguided worship of hobbits that has ruined the “courage of hobbits” bits and turned them into self-parody instead of self-congratulation (ugh). Here, it’s in full swing. This is both good in the sense that it lets Bilbo be distinct from Frodo (he’s way more of a doer and an action-hero) but bad in the sense that it makes him the movies’ trump card to move a scene along or get to the next one. An obstacle, you say? Give Bilbo a second and he’ll fucking sort that out. Opportunities to give one of the umpteen under-developed dwarves a chance to do somthing are shunted aside so Bilbo can justify the religious fervor with which hobbits are treated by New Zealanders. Allegedly.
I am being so hard on this movie. Hilariously, I actually do predict that Desolation will seem less messy on subsequent viewings. Yes, Evan, but you said that about Journey. So I did. So I did. I even put Journey on the Honorable Mentions list for favorite films of 2012. I don’t think it actually deserves that but I can’t change it now! Desolation is nowhere near one of the best films of 2013, though. It’s been too good a year, where 2012 was a bit more sparse. That said, I don’t think I have the heart to put it on this year’s Naughty List. It satisfies all my usual criteria for that, though, so let that tell you what it tells you.
Is The Desolation of Smaug actually one of the worst movies of the year? Of course not.
Is The Desolation of Smaug one of the worst squanderings of potential in movies this year? Affirmative.
Did I write this entire review without even talking about Laketown or Bard? Yeah I did.
In this picture: why these movies even get made.