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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Yeah... I'm going to get it for this one.

This review is also up at Channel 24 where I get a quick reminder that if you're going to trash a beloved fantasy series, you really should get your spelling write. 

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

What it's about

Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey and their group of dwarves continue on their way to reclaim their homeland, Erebor, from the dragon Smaug.

What we thought

With a 9.0 user rating on the Internet Movie Database (impressive since the film hasn't actually opened to the public anywhere) and a solid enough 72 Metacritic rating, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is one of the season's must-see movies. Well, you would be, from where I'm standing anyway, wrong. Really, really wrong.

Peter Jackson continues to be an exceptional filmmaker and The Hobbit Part Deux is as well put together as you can imagine with some nicely choreographed action scenes (it's always nice to be able to see what's going on in these moments) and plenty of striking visuals. All this is basically for naught though, because if ever there was solid, concrete proof that splitting the decidedly brief Tolkien novel into three long film was a colossally stupid idea then The Desolation of Smaug is definitely it.

The already very thin plot is stretched to breaking point here as each well done but overly long set piece crashes into the next to deadening and deafening effect, while any sense of real storytelling takes a distant back seat. That each set piece seems weirdly lacking in any sense of threat or menace is almost arbitrary in light of how much all of it desperately reeks of filler as our merry band of heroes effectively do little more than move from point A to not quite point B - point B presumably being, incidentally, the super duper long battle that will take up the vast majority of the Hobbit's third instalment.

The film's champions try to defend the film's narrative lightness by seeing it as a thrilling rollercoaster ride. That would be fine, of course, if it weren't for the fact that I can't imagine anyone wanting to be on the same rollercoaster for the better part of three hours. Sure, it could have been a decent enough “thrill ride” had it clocked in at 80-odd minutes, but as it is, it's simply monotonous and more than a little bit boring. And yes, there's way less endless walking here than there was in the Lord of the Rings trilogy but there's a lot less plot and characterization as well.

Now, granted, the simplicity of story is a staple of the quest-based fantasy genre (which is why it works so well in video games and why I am not its biggest fan) but a story-light quest that goes on for a couple of hours is a lot less unbearable than one that goes on for eight or nine combined hours. Even more problematic than the length though, is that the lack of narrative is compounded by some truly, wretchedly boring characters.

Actually, to be precise, the characters are less boring than entirely blank, with the only sense of personality that comes through being more a product of the actor playing them than the characters themselves. If I cared at all about Bilbo it had much less to do with the character himself than with how likeable a screen presence Martin Freeman always is. Similarly, I was drawn to Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel more because I am drawn to the supernaturally pretty actress playing her than to the character itself. Her counterpart, Orlando Bloom's Legolas, on the other hand, was every bit as wet and as boring as Bloom tends to be in almost everything.

This is a pattern that applies to every last character in the film. The dwarves? Boring to a fault. Stephen Fry's camp town Master? As enjoyable as you expect. As for Benedict Cumberbatch's Smaug, he's a fun, deliciously evil villain but, for all his talking and all his screen time, his character motivations can basically be summed up as “HISSSSSSSSSS”. The lack of Gollum is very, very much missed, in other words.

To sum up – and, oh yes, I'm definitely going to piss off a lot of Tolkien die-hards with this comparison – the reason why The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is such a failure is because it resolutely refused to listen to the lessons taught by the final Harry Potter films. When the final Potter book was split into two, it used basically the same formula as the Hobbit by making the final part the big showdown, with the earlier sections dealing with the build-up.

The difference though, is that while Potter used its extra screen time and its stretched out narrative to make sure its excellent cast of characters were perfectly defined and set up for its big finish, The Hobbit almost entirely ignores its characters for an overemphasis on (again, very well done) action scenes, limp humour and uninteresting world building that doesn't actually add all that much to the mythology of Middle Earth.

Sorry fanboys, but your emperor is hopelessly and embarrassingly naked.

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