Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Director: Peter Jackson
Reviewed: 10 September 2014
"I feel like butter scraped over too much bread," utters a haunted Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings trilogy before bestowing the one ring to rule them all to his nephew Frodo Baggins. It is a sentiment that I kept coming back to as I watched the second part of the second trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. With its slender but satisfying source material, Jackson has disappeared down the rabbit hole of his own hubris, following George Lucas before him as an artist whose tinkering has led to diminishing returns. The dragon not withstanding, this film offers little joy, humor, or wonder, and I am left with a sense of an inflated story which is still not finished. But, oh, that dragon!
The story picks up quickly with Bilbo carrying the ring (Martin Freeman), its excessive dwarves who cannot seem to be killed, and stoic Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). They are being chased by CGI bad guys with oozing deformations. An early sequence through the Mirkwood leads to some exciting spider fights, but again, nothing compared to the slow burn and reveal of Shelob in The Return of The King. As the hobbits ride barrels, make friendships, and claw their way to Erebor and the Misty Mountain, another story opens up with a thread about elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom with digitally enhanced eyes) and possible love interest Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). And Gandalf (Ian McKellen) seeks out the Necromancer in shadowy places, setting up the inevitable conflict in the third film. The touchstones of the book are all here: the locating of the secret door, the mountains of shimmering gold, Smaug himself, and the town not far from his door. Yet, very little of it is compelling or interesting. The film is at its worst in the nearby town with its thin characterizations.
What does work is the incredible cavernous halls of gold occupied by the glowing, pensive Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). The conversations between Smaug and Bilbo here are the highlight, albeit not as much fun as the riddling and wordplay between Gollum and Bilbo in the first film. But it does say something if Jackson manages to make those conversations the highlights in both films. Smaug's body and silky voice captivate, though there are so many opportunities to barbecue a hobbit or dwarf that one wonders if the film would not have been better sacrificing one or two of its leads. To see Smaug launch to the sky in search of ruin is a marvel, and the abruptness of the final cut means I will see the third film, but I was left, again, with the sense that one amazing film of an amazing book has been stretched out to cover seven or more hours of storytelling. On some level, it stinks of making more money from an audience, and on another level, it is just butter scraped over too much bread.
What could have been!