For over seventy five years, The Hobbit has been one of the most beloved books of children’s literature, a quest across a fantastical land populated by trolls, goblins, dwarves, elves, wizards, shape shifting men and a fire breathing dragon who sleeps inside the caverns of a mountain atop a mound of gold and jewels. Revised following the publication of sequel trilogy The Lord of the Rings to reduce discrepancies between the two, the novel was caught up in complicated rights issues which delayed production of the adaptation with the first part released a full nine years after the multi-Oscar winning Return of the King.
While all three parts of The Lord of the Rings were greeted with critical acclaim, audience adoration and enormous financial success, the decision to split the proposed two films into a trilogy in their own right causing concern that additional scenes filmed to bridge the gaps would be padding, an accusation which seemed justified when An Unexpected Journey was released featuring an opening chapter tea party which lasted almost a full hour followed by interminable scenes of interchangeable characters trudging through countryside with only a single glimpse of the supposed destination in the final scene.
Now beyond the Misty Mountains, we are once again in the company of the thirteen dwarfs, one wizard and the hobbit they have appointed as their burglar, Bilbo Baggins, who in order to ensure that they reach the Lonely Mountain before the end of Durin’s Day are forced to travel through dark and mysterious forest of Mirkwood. Disoriented, they are captured by spiders and find themselves on the borders of the kingdom of wood elves where the dwarves find themselves subjected to the anger of the Elvenking Thranduil. Elsewhere, things are not going well in the Middle-Earth, as the ancient enemy is waking up from his three thousand year slumber and soon the fires of war will roll through the unsuspecting lands.
In this second part, Peter Jackson repeats the mistakes of An Unexpected Journey and as befits the nature of a quest, takes them even further. The Desolation of Smaug cost $225 million, a treasure which even Smaug the Magnificent would be proud of and that vast sum is clearly visible onscreen but doesn’t make this in any way a better film than could have been crafted with less resources and creative restraint, instead allowing Peter Jackson to inflate the story and special effects to their limits but losing the essence and beauty of Tolkien’s story.
Filming the three films of The Lord of the Rings back to back without assurance of success, Jackson focused on the storytelling, moving the characters to their destinations in the most expedient fashion and hinting at the greater realms and histories without drowning the viewer in superfluous detail, but following the global achievement of those he now has the opportunity to indulge himself unfettered in the same manner which resulted in his justly derided remake of King Kong, which everybody but the director felt should have had a full third of its running time cut.
Rather than learning from that mistake and behaving as the more experienced and mature filmmaker he should have become, he continues to take egregious liberty with the source material to make it his own, almost becoming a parody of himself as he channels the worst aspects of a fan writer, squeezing in every conceivable diversion regardless of relevance or importance.
Jackson has expanded the original story with elements which were not included in Tolkien’s book, most specifically the return of the Necromancer, the pursuit of the dwarves by the goblin Azog and the wood elves and Legolas and Tauriel. While the Necromancer is an acknowledged part of the story, it is ninety years prior to the events of this story and is merely a prelude to what has already been told elsewhere, and here it only serves to distract from what should be the primary narrative, the quest of Bilbo Baggins.
Azog is a genuine Tolkien character, though one who died one hundred and fifty years before Thorin Oakenshield attempted to reclaim Erebor, his son Bolg being the leader of the Misty Mountain goblins in the source material. Legolas is the son of Thranduil, the Lord of Mirkwood, and his inclusion, while in principle not in violation of continuity, seems more an attempt to ensure the attention of the many fans of Orlando Bloom than a genuine innovation to enhance the story.
That the story lacks female characters is inarguable; that Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens decided to actively address that is admirable, and the scenes between Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner’s Kíli are among the best in the film yet do little to enhance it. Having been entirely filmed as pick up shots following principal photography when the decision was made to expand the two intended films to three, it may add colour to the background, but does little to move the story forward.
Often, what should energise the adaptation instead feels unnecessary and intrusive, further diluting an already overstretched plot. As the Mayor of Laketown Stephen Fry fills the same role as Denethor did in The Return of the King, pompous and obstructive and slowing up the plot but with the added burden of inheriting the buffoonery of Radagast, while his conniving servant is such a stock henchman it’s an insult to the audience. Fortunately the expansion of the role of Bard the Bowman, played by Luke Evans, often the only redeeming feature in many of his films, does serve a purpose within the plot.
Peter Jackson’s ego has expanded so frighteningly that his cameo, which expanded in each of the three films of Lord of the Rings, is now the opening shot of the film, apparently playing the same character, relatively unchanged, who resided in Bree sixty years later when Frodo and his companions passed through the town.
The Hobbit is a children’s book, but by forcing it to tie directly into the world of The Lord of the Rings the tone has been darkened substantially, and rather than balancing that with the lighter tone of some of the dwarves, they just feel out of place, embarrassing, defined more by their comedy beards and comedy noses than their character or performance, and the fact that captions now inform of location and the passage of time indicates a terrible underestimation of the audience.
Indeed, in his determination to market The Hobbit as a prequel to the global success of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson has taken a simple and uplifting children’s story about a treasure hunt told from the perspective of a hobbit who is torn between his spirit of adventure and his love of his home, and has actually in many ways remade The Lord of the Rings, abandoning the fairytale nature of the book with his urge to make it more overblown, more spectacular, more epic with the ring emphasised as a portent of doom in a way it never was in the text, more powerful now than sixty years later when Frodo took possession of it in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Already unbalanced by the unwieldy three film structure, this second part of The Hobbit rapidly becomes weary and while the principal reason is that it is overlong, paradoxically it is too filled with action. While in the first part the company were walking through Middle-Earth for almost three hours here they are fighting for the same length of time, and though some of the moments are impressively done, even those are compromised, the superb escape down the Forest River to Long Lake becoming a comedy scene of flying barrels knocking over orcs, more Asterix and Obelix than Tolkien and effectively destroying any attempt to create an atmosphere of peril.
For Peter Jackson storytelling has become a pretext to demonstrate the newest capabilities in the domain of computer generated special effects. The duel between Gandalf and the Necromancer, while finally allowing the audience to witness his full strength which he was forbidden from revealing before the lesser races by the Powers of Arda, more resembles a computer game than the world previously built so carefully. Throughout the film, the restless camera moves continuously as insects, flames, explosions and magical spells fly out of the screen endlessly so that by the time the third hour begins the audience are already dazed and restless.
The moment at Dol Guldur where Azog confers with the vaporous apparition of the Necromancer, a scene almost if not entirely computer rendered, is particularly reminiscent of a cut scene from a videogame rather than a major film, the artificiality undermining Jackson’s previous adherence to veracity, the dirt under the fingernails of his actors and the wear on their garments.
In The Lord of The Rings the majority of the foreground orcs, especially Saruman’s Uruk-Hai, were actors wearing prosthetics, yet here they are computer generated, as are several of the travelling shots of the company on horseback crossing Middle Earth on the way to Mirkwood, and it makes the film feel artificial, immediately less authentic than its predecessors. Wherever possible everything seems to have been done digitally rather than actually going on location.
Only the emergence of Smaug in an avalanche of gold and dread is played without winking to the audience, and the dragon’s conversation with Bilbo is the only scene where Jackson is focusing on creating psychological bonds between his characters and explaining the complexity of their motivations, a brilliant scene which is then squandered with the following sequence where the dwarves fight Smaug in the chambers under the mountain.
A fairground ride in the same style as the escape from the goblins of the Misty Mountains, antics expected in a Stephen Sommers rather than a Peter Jackson film, and with Smaug stomping about it becomes as tiresome as Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla whether voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch or not, the whole scene adding nothing except thirty minutes to the running time.
Where the first film took too long to start, this takes too long to finish then halts the action without any attempt at a resolution, once again proving that the decision to break the film into three was solely a financial consideration. Unlike The Two Towers which was narratively complete with the battle of Helm’s Deep yet set up Frodo and Sam‘s journey into Mordor, this leaves everything hanging; it is fundamentally unsatisfactory.
Where the starting point of The Lord Of The Rings was the characters and the story, in The Desolation of Smaug they have been reduced to action figures played by the director, and Peter Jackson has allowed this hobbit to be devoured by technology in the same way a snake handler throws a mouse to his pet.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX