The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

2014 #17
Peter Jackson | 161 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: An Desolation of SmaugThe Desolation of Smowg-not-Smorg begins in the same way the preceding part of the Hobbit trilogy ended: with a glaring logic hole. After the giant eagles carried our band of heroes many miles away from the party of orcs that have been stalking them — but not all the way to Erebor because… um… — we begin Part 2 with our heroes being chased by… that party of orcs that had been stalking them. You what now?

Unfortunately this is a sign of what’s to come: the ensuing 160 minutes (shorter than An Unexpected Journey, but feeling far longer) are littered with odd and borderline-nonsensical decisions. Thus we have a film that skips briskly past some parts of the novel it’s adapting, but later throws in massive new subplots all of its own. Unlike some audience members, I don’t have a problem with the very idea of Jackson embellishing this tale in its telling, but rushing parts of Tolkien only to find room for new asides strikes me as an odd choice.

And there is an awful lot of stuff in the film. If the first instalment was indulgent in setting up the adventure we were about to embark on, this middle part is restless to the point of distraction. It buffets us from action sequence to action sequence with barely a chance to catch our breath. Rather than making time fly, however, this has the unfortunate side effect of making everything feel much longer than it actually is. However, I accept that this may be “Two Towers syndrome”: a film that left me clock-watching the first couple of times, but which I eventually came to accept and enjoy on its own merits.

Sting in the taleIt’s my understanding that the originally-planned (and shot) two-part version of Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation was transformed into a trilogy by, essentially, taking what was to be film #2 and splitting it in half. That might explain why individual sections are allowed to go on so long here: to bulk up the running time to the kind of epic proportions audiences expect from a Middle-earth movie. Anything less than two-and-a-half hours isn’t going to cut it. But when your climax is a battle between a giant dragon (cool!) and a small army of dwarves (kick ass!) around a deserted underground city (hell yeah!), but my main thought afterwards is, “God that went on a bit”, then you’ve failed at something.

The other headline action scene is the dwarves’ river-based escape from an elf city, pursued by both elves and orcs, who fight each other over and around the river even as they chase our heroes. It’s a visual cacophony; a whirling dervish of elements that becomes hard to follow, much less enjoy. We’ve come a long way from the grounded realism of Helm’s Deep — this is full-on, cartoon-style, obviously-computer-generated bluster. This extends right to the climax: while most of the dwarves are having a runaround with Smowg-not-Smorg, Legolas fights some orcs — well, quite a few orcs; which is rather my point: it gets numbingly repetitive. Less can definitely be more, a lesson the filmmakers must have forgotten by this point.

The already hefty cast is padded out further here, several of the additions battling against strange new accents, particularly Evangeline Lilly’s elf warrior(ess) Tauriel, though at least Lee Pace’s elven king is supposed to be haughty. It ain't 'elfyMeanwhile, Luke Evans’ Bard is as Welsh as the actor’s name suggests, which is a little bit of a surprise. But then the dwarves’ accents have all the rest of the UK covered, so why not. Benedict Cumberbatch sounds like Benedict Cumberbatch playing ‘big’ as Smowg-not-Smorg. It feels like this should be an iconic villain performance but, while good, I found it somehow lacking. Expectation may be scuppering him; maybe I’ll warm to it on future viewings.

Yet for all that, the most surprising thing, at least to anyone not versed in the original story, is where the film ends. Clearly there’s more tale to get through, but not two-and-a-half-hours’ worth, surely? Co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens has said she “got a shock when the audience got a shock” about where this part ended, adding that “if you can imagine what transpires next and what’s coming, it’s quite a huge chunk of storytelling.” I’ll take her word for it for now.

One thing you can’t fault these films on is their production design and the craft in bringing it to life. During production the studios were a 24/7 operation, dismantling, building and re-arranging sets overnight to be ready for the next day’s shooting; while the prosthetics department had to work continuously, and at a 98% success rate too, just to keep up with demand. I suppose that’s what happens when every actor in a large ensemble cast has at least some small thing stuck on them. As with Lord of the Rings before it, this is a fully-realised world, with Laketown being perhaps the most impressive setting… but then maybe that’s because I know they essentially built it for real, and I alway feel that’s more impressive than rendering a ginormous hall in a computer.

I'm Grey da ba dee da ba diI haven’t picked apart everything that’s wrong with the film (what purpose is there switching from one made-up-for-the-film orc general to another?!), but then nor have I praised everything that works (there are some quality actors in amongst all that crashing and banging). It seems a fair few people liked this Hobbit instalment more than the first; the best explanation I can find is, “because it’s got more action”. Far be it from me to accuse other film viewers of being shallow, but… really? I genuinely enjoyed An Unexpected Journey as a return to the beloved realms and peoples of Middle-earth. The Desolation of Smowg-not-Smaug has some of that, and the charm of introducing us to new parts of the world too, but it’s drowned out by so much aimless noise. Here’s hoping it improves with repeat viewings and/or the inevitable extended edition, because this time I nearly slipped down to a lowly 3 stars.

4 out of 5

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, Monday 7th April, and in the US tomorrow.

My review of the Extended Edition can now be read here.

The concluding film, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is in cinemas from December 12th in the UK, December 17th in the US, and a whole host of random dates everywhere else.

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