The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – 2013

Director Peter Jackson
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Aidan Turner
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro based on the book The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Who remembers this beautiful moment from Attack of the Clones?

I can remember when I first saw the movie Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.  For me it was to be an elixir for a tepid (read: bad) first installment.  They had promised more action, they promised a dark turn, and they promised less Jar Jar.  Somewhere around the point where Anakin called Padme “Milady” for the 12th time and then proceeded to try balancing on a poorly animated fattened cat of some sort, I realized the feeling of dread creeping over me.  Fighting every impulse to flee, I stuck out the garbage to the bitter end and boy did it make me bitter.  I knew at this point that the series was damaged beyond my hopes of restoration.  Even when the third installment ended up being not that bad, it was too late.  Even now, with a solid new director some new and good old ideas, the series has lost its luster.

The Hobbit reached this point for me right as they threw Bard in the clink.  We’d spent nearly a half hour there by this point, and Jackson was telling us that we were about to spend some more.  And what a boring time it was proving to be.  So many side stories over the first two films had taken liberties to the extreme, while, inexplicably cutting the charm out of some of the book’s best moments.

Among them, the meeting of Beorn, which mirrored in the most delightful way the original introduction of the Dwarves to Bilbo.  What had been one of the more colorful characters in the Tolkien mythical world abridged into a grouchy, hairy and lonely man-bear.  Even more appalling, the charming and lyrical showdown between Smaug and Bilbo (Cumberbatch and Freeman) is abbreviated painfully, turned instead into a keystone cops episode when the dwarves are drawn in for some wacky hi-jinks.  The story reaches low levels of absurdity as flames shoot everywhere but, like the A-Team, poor Smaug can’t hit anything.

Somehow and quite improbably, the lithe dragon loses his ability to avoid the most obvious calamity.  The makers to turn the dwarves into heroes that we are punished with the most ridiculous set of circumstances executed with the same penchant for ignoring the laws of physics as Jackson has shown since King Kong.  So inane is the last 20 minutes of the film, it almost undoes completely the even pacing and impressive action sequences of the first half of the film.

The better moments include the spider webs of Mirkwood forest, the subsequent capture of the party by the Wood Elves.  Their escape within the barrels on the water, and the heroism of Legolas and Tauriel (Bloom and Lily), while incredible is fun enough and close to the spirit of the novel.  Even the burgeoning romance of Tauriel and Kili (Turner) is somewhat of a delight, and to see how it turns out, gives one reason to see the third part.  Gandalf turns into a detective, taking on the mission of discovering the puzzling evidence of the Necromancer.  His findings seem a little premature, but overall, most of the Unfinished Tale called “The Quest of Erebor” is covered here to neutral effect.  Showing Radagast,  once more with his bird poop hair, turns it into a net negative.

Overall though, the second entry should have been a stronger than the mess it ends up being.  They have worked too hard on the dwarves, with Gimli’s model deemed not sufficient to base a film (or three) on.  There could be a few differences among them, but Thorin has gone from venerable old man in the source material to another version of Strider.  They’ve changed the tenor, and somewhat the true honor of the proud, stubborn race to the point when we see Legolas’ father (Pace) treat them cruelly, we wonder why he would, because they are all such nice guys.  The Orcs are everywhere yet again, and there still is no difference between them and the goblins, even if there was, slightly, in The Lord of the Rings films for a time.

A typical Thorin as Strider scene

At this point, the third film is an inevitability, just like The Revenge of the Sith.  Even if the film meets the source material closer in spirit, the damage is done psychically for those who saw the opportunity for Peter Jackson to carry out something on par with his original homage.  He took some liberties in the first series, but none of those took away from the essential spirit of the novels, and the quiet observation that the littlest, most insignificant things can make the biggest difference.

As with the first Hobbit film, Freeman is game to the challenge, and his performance is on par with the dignity that most ascribe to Bilbo.  It’s just a shame to see him watching the dwarves make asses of themselves avoiding massive jets of fire, not even needing to hope that Smaug will stay just right there so their clunky plan can work perfectly…or not.  The effectiveness of Cumberbatch as the great winged beast is muted the moment his standoff with Bilbo leaves the mental arena where it excelled originally and it becomes an all out party of pranks with the Dwarves, who really shouldn’t be there.  It’s at this point I begin to feel that its me who shouldn’t be here.  I hope I can shake this feeling before There and Back Again.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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