The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is guilty of many sins, but chief among them may be the bizarre backgrounding of Martin Freeman, the guy who plays Bilbo Baggins… you know The Hobbit. The guy in the title.
Instead of being the continuing adventures of Bilbo Baggins the middle film in this distended trilogy ends up being about Thorin Oakenshield and Legolas, who has been given a major role instead of what should have been a cameo. In fact the argument could be made that the film is about - in this order - Thorin, Taariel (a new elf made up whole cloth in order to pad out the trilogy), Gandalf, Legolas and eventually Bilbo. Some might take exception to this and say that Bard of Laketown gets more character development and focus time than Bilbo; I think this is a good argument. I could be swayed.
That Peter Jackson backgrounds Freeman comes as no surprise when you see what he has foregrounded - lengthy, overblown CGI set pieces that feel like the spiritual successor to his dinosaur stampede in King Kong. If the gold standard for exciting, engaging, fun and propulsive action set pieces in modern movies is the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and that’s a perfectly executed set piece, so it should be), the sequences in The Hobbit are lead. Where the truck chase is about small moments that build and climax within a larger action narrative that continues to build in the background, the action in Desolation of Smaug is just a boulder rolling down a hill, all momentum and no nuance or variation of pacing. Busy, jumbled and reliant on an escalation of cartoony gags, the major set pieces in The Desolation of Smaug (ie, the ones that seem to last 20 fucking minutes) become that gross old cliche of being full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Let’s take a look at the barrel chase sequence; Bilbo and the dwarves escape from the hall of the Woodland Elves in empty wine barrels. This much is in JRR Tolkien’s original story, but this being a Peter Jackson movie the characters are further pursued not just by elf guards but also by a veritable army of orcs. As the dwarves - already a mob of hard-to-care-about characters - float down the river they are the center of a constant battle between the orcs and the elves. Occasionally the dwarves get in on the action, but it’s mostly the Legolas and Tauriel show. The camera, unhinged from any earthly reality, swarms around background plates and across the faces of dwarf actors standing plainly on a green screen stage. Around them the pixelated digital stunt people shatter the laws of physics and, along the way, my chance of giving a fuck. Every time Legolas appears onscreen in this sequence he is performing yet another miraculous bow and arrow trick to kill orcs in weird, silly, cool ways each ‘topping’ the other. The effect, though, ends up being numbing - nobody’s getting hurt here, that much is clear, and Legolas can do ANYTHING, including almost fly.
You might argue that this is what Legolas did in the original trilogy, but the difference in The Desolation of Smaug is that this is ALL Legolas does. In Lord of the Rings he’s used sparingly, but in Desolation of Smaug he’s just hopping about like a rubber ball, depositing CG arrows into the heads of orcs who may be practical or CG, depending on the whims of the film in that moment. This film reminds me of the Battle of Pellenor Fields in Return of the King; in that sequence Jackson’s tendency for set piece bloat and reliance on bizarrely dodgy CGI got the better of him, but it worked because we had spent years getting there. We were invested in that battle, and having it be too big was part of the power of it. On top of that each character has an arc within the battle, and if you find Legolas constantly surfing down things (he does it in this movie too, of course), you just have to wait for Merry to pop up again in a mini-story of epic heroism or Pippin’s tragic story within the walls of Gondor. The baroque nature of that sequence works and is earned. The barrel chase… not even close.
There’s an action sequence at the end that is even more incoherent and even more pointless, as the dwarves run from/attempt to battle Smaug beneath the Lonely Mountain. I often wasn’t quite sure what was going on in the barrel chase - the dwarves would suddenly have weapons despite losing them previously, and I’m sure that was set up somewhere, just not well - but in the Lonely Mountain sequence there’s no way to know what’s happening. It’s a video game sequence - escape the dragon in the halls, get to the dwarf forges, light the dwarf forges, go to different rooms and Press X to do different aspects of lighting the forges/fighting off Smaug, get a cut scene reward. It’s awful. Within the context of the movie it makes no sense; Thorin has a plan to light the forges, but never explains why or what it will take to make it happen. It’s a sequence that keeps throwing meaningless action upon meaningless action, climaxing in a moment of stunning meaninglessness. It’s bad storytelling; the audience needs to be in on what the dwarves are doing, or to understand the geography of the Lonely Mountain, or to have at least a sense of what the goals are. We don’t. It’s sound, fury, etc.
If the action set pieces are empty and bad, the rest of the movie is slightly less terrible. The film assumes you’re very, very interested in Thorin and the burgeoning romance between Tauriel and Kili (or Fili. One of the pretty dwarves) and that Gandalf investigating stuff we already know will be what drew you to the theater. Maybe it is. I wanted more Bilbo, and I wanted more whimsy and fewer references to Lord of the Rings. The film has the Prancing Pony, someone gets stabbed with a Morgul weapon, too much Legolas, Sauron shows up as full on Sauron, a Gimli reference and Gandalf investigates the tombs of the Ringwraiths, all stuff that is secondary to the main story - which is already overblown and overstuffed.
How overstuffed? When the movie gets to Laketown it stops to explain the local politics - exactly the sort of stuff that would feel nice in an extended edition but which is nothing but padding in the theatrical release. It’s all ways that Jackson finds to make everything in this film be twice as complicated, take three times as long, as it should. There’s a moment where Bilbo almost kicks the dwarf key to Erebor off Lonely Mountain and my heart shrank, convinced we were in for a ten minute sequence of dwarves hanging off cliffs trying to get the key. Instead Thorin picks it up; it’s a moment of supreme restraint amidst an orgy of gluttonous excess.
The best stuff in the movie is taken right from the book and, as a result, feels out of place. Bilbo’s talk with Smaug is great, but the language Bilbo uses is so unlike anything we’ve been hearing that it’s bizarre. Where did this sweet-talking hobbit come from? He’s spent the whole movie in the background of action scenes, so all of his talk of being a ‘Barrel Rider’ comes out of nowhere. It works in the book because of the way that Tolkien luxuriates in language, but this film doesn’t. I like the scene, but the fact that it is good only brings the badness of everything else to light.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels like Peter Jackson in crisis. He’s lost in the CGI and story padding, no longer grasping the storytelling basics that made Lord of the Rings work. That trilogy was all about making things fit, and it was a magnificent work of adaptation that pared down and focused a huge story with immense emotional resonance. This is a movie that takes a small story and blows it up like a cartoon character with a bicycle pump in his mouth. Of course it can’t maintain its form. Of course it comes apart.
But how does Peter Jackson not see this? When he’s including the pointless visit to Beorn’s house and he has a sequence where the camera floats behind a big CGI bumblebee, did he ever question what the point was? Did he ever wonder why, in a film that was almost three hours long, he was going to throw in this needless CG shot that tells nothing, that adds nothing, that serves only to give a slight respite from a lame chase story that he shoehorned into the film in the first place?
Congratulations, Millenials - you have your own disappointing Prequel Trilogy. Like the work of Lucas, the Hobbit films have lost sight of what made the originals work as they drown in computer graphics. The tactile world of Middle Earth has become a cartoon; there’s a scene in Desolation of Smaug where one dumb looking CGI superorc is talking to another dumb looking CGI superorc in what appears to be either a CGI room or a space so color corrected as to be essentially painted and I wondered why the hell I was even looking at this cartoon. I felt like I could go to Middle Earth when I watched Lord of the Rings; maybe I could plug in a controller and play The Hobbit, but it would likely be the kind of game where I button-mashed my way through the cut scenes because, honestly, who gives a shit about the story? Not the people who made it.