Of Dwarfs and Men (But Where’s The Hobbit?)

desolation-of-smaug-dragon

If you thought Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into its own, Lord of the Rings-length trilogy (despite being the lightest, thinnest entry in the author’s Middle-Earth books) was absurd…well…The Desolation of Smaug more than confirms it. Tedious, rudderless, and self-indulgent, this is Jackson at his most George Lucas, discarding anything resembling pacing or theme in favor of a sequence of events with little to no bearing upon each other.

Still being chased by orcs from the last movie, Bilbo Baggins (the Hobbit, played by Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen, looking haggardly), and the company of dwarfs led by would-be king Thorin (Richard Armitage channeling both Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean in the glowering department) run into more isolationist elves (Orlando Bloom back from the Rings trilogy, with newcomer Evangeline Lilly as his partner in arrow-slinging acrobatics), giant spiders, a fishing town hit by economic troubles and unrest amongst the peasant-class (led by Luke Evans), and the mighty dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), proclaiming himself “Fire and Death.” Each of these scenes show some measure of charm, only to be strangled by excessive length: Cumberbatch, especially, gets to use his booming voice to revel in Disney-movie villainy (really, the only role he fits), but spends his entire time hamming up repetitive lines, while his CG character stomps around after Bilbo and the dwarfs.

Similarly, Jackson shows the affect of having fun with this material: employing Raimi-esque flying Dutch angles while Gandalf investigates the rise of Rings villain Sauron, engaging in literal toilet humor (one of few moments where the movie garnered any sort of emotional response), or giving Evangeline Lilly’s elf Tauriel an angelic glow when she saves the life of smitten dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Yet the way he drags feet on a number of scenes (a whitewater rapids fight scene which looks like a bonus scene from the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer), and the way moments of actual storytelling (Bilbo proclaiming “Mine” when snatching the one ring from a dead spider) are glossed over or forgotten about for long stretches suggests he’s more infatuated with himself and his tech than he is the story he’s telling. There is no buildup to these events, no anticipation, even when Jackson throws in the occasional glance towards the mountain Smaug dwells in (the kingdom Thorin seeks to reclaim). Even a half-assed mention of a prophecy barely has consequence. The only time Thorin’s crew does anything but pass through the setting is when they get mixed into the fishing town’s politics, which they exploit to get themselves out of a jam.

This conflict, the desires of dwarfs and men, could have been a compelling movie itself, especially if cutting out the chunks of this trilogy devoted to Gandal’s side quest. This could’ve left us with one movie, detailing Thorin’s ambition, Bilbo’s transformation from meek country bumpkin to Campbellian mono-hero, and the fate of human peasants threatened by the consequences of this quest the focal point. Instead, Occupy Middle-Earth is shoved into the cracks of overlong action scenes and convoluted side plots. This is the opposite of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings effort, which pared Tolkien’s excesses (which were more intellectual exercise than anything) into three, largely-functional adventure movies. It was the work of a hungry filmmaker going for broke, where Desolation of Smaug is a successful businessman relying on brand recognition.
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