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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Much like Peter Jackson’s film series “The Hobbit”, this review takes the form of a sprawling, rambling trilogy. Make sure you’ve packed your Lembas and donned your Mithril shirt and let’s get started.  As ever, here there be spoilers…

I. Tolkien & Me

Skip this chapter if you’re not interested in my Tolkien bona fides; the actual review starts in Chapter II. As a kid, Tolkien was everything to me. I was six when the Rankin-Bass produced TV movie The Hobbit premiered and I instantly fell in love with Tolkien’s world—the experience profoundly shaped my tastes. I remember very little from that age, but even today that cartoon stimulates my sense memory and evokes a deep wistful nostalgia. Months after my seventh birthday Ralph Bakshi’s released his ambitiously muddy Lord of the Rings into theaters and I begged my mom to take me to see it. That same year I was a Nazghul for Halloween and that Christmas Frodo, Samwise, the Nazghul and other toys from the film lined my playroom walls alongside Batman, Robin, Captain Kirk and Spock.

Yup.  Owned this Frodo Baggins.  He got beat up a lot by the Micronauts.

Yup. Owned this Frodo Baggins. He got beat up a lot by the Micronauts.

I was fated to adore Middle-earth. One of the first “big” books I learned to read was The Hobbit and by the time I was in high school I had much of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy committed to memory. The classic map of Middle-earth adorned my wall alongside Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols and U2 posters. I was steeped in Tolkien lore and spoiled by it; the very reason my “fantasy genre” portfolio is very slight (Moorcock’s “Elric” saga, Zelazny’s “Amber” books, Eddings’ “Belgaraid” cycle, Brooks’s “Kingdom For Sale” series) is because I tended to measure everything I read against Middle-earth. Unfair and intellectually crippling to an degree, but there it is. By the time I graduated from college I had bought, read, and sold my copies of the Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP) system; I own Humphries biography on Tolkien and I cherish my copies of Tolkien’s classic The Monsters and The Critics and my Harvard Lampoons’ Bored of The Rings.

To put it mildly, I was and will forever be a fan. I was primed since childhood to receive Peter Jackson’s films warmly and eagerly.

II. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

In my lifetime the American moviegoer has been conditioned to accept as normal watching 2-3 hour films, typically in the form of extravagant blockbusters and very rarely with intermission.  Film studios pour their resources into these epic spectacles, intent on dazzling an ever-younger audience into emptying its pocketbooks. To this end every green-lighted blockbuster, no matter how thin the premise, aims for a trilogy at the very least and to ultimately become a franchise. And so our screens—and our local big-box stores—are glutted with the merchandise of these episodic series: five of Twilight, six of Star Wars (and more to come), eight of Harry Potter, and so on. This era was ushered in by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the mid 1970’s, and only recently have they noticed what it has done to the landscape of American cinema.

It is into this format that the Lord of The Rings (LOTR) trilogy arrived to much-deserved accolades, and it is this format in which The Hobbit is most maligned. There can be no other way to put it: The Hobbit should stand on its own as a single movie.  The book is a straight-forward picaresque-style venture through a fantasy realm, an enterprise from point A (The Shire) to point B (Erebor) with incidental mishaps all along the way, whereas the LOTR is a complex and sprawling tale told in multiple acts, necessitating the modern blockbuster structure of separate episodic features. Stretching out The Hobbit to conform to a trilogy, as Peter Jackson has done, does the classic story a disservice.

His failing is not one of fidelity; I don’t believe any film-to-book version need concern itself with unrealistic task of translation verbatim. Film is unto itself a restricted medium for such an endeavor, and  the best one hopes for is that cinema captures the essence of the literary work. In this regard Jackson has  captured the elements of fancy, awe and spirited adventure contained in Tolkien’s book. His failing however is the lack of a strong and cohesive structure: the direct result of drawing out the tale over three movies.

One of the constituent dilemmas in the source material is that the Hobbit’s characters aren’t entirely well-rounded, and to devote more time to them exposes this flaw.  In The Lord of The Rings (LOTR) Middle-earth’s world—and to a greater extent the collective worldview of early epic fantasy–is arguably Manichean, with opposing forces of good and evil gathering armies to one side or the other, and there isn’t much wriggle room for gray areas or moral complexities—every choice is ultimately distilled into a decision towards darkness or light. This dynamic isn’t at the fore in the book but, in his attempt to tie it in with LOTR, Jackson employs it and the results completely overwhelm the quaint feel of the original work.  As a consequence there is an exaggerated solemnity that I think undermines the film.

The rare moments that the action ceases and the attention lingers on Bilbo are the finest parts of the films. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as the reluctant, put-upon Baggins and he has a natural comedic timing combined with, like Elijah Wood before him, an appealing pensiveness. He is our “in” to this world—it is through his eyes we learn about the great big dangerous world outside—and when focus pulls away from him the movie falters. The Hobbit is, above all else, a story about a simple, resourceful individual who finds inner resolve and becomes a hero. What should be ancillary (or left unmentioned) are all the parts Jackson expands to shoehorn the Hobbit movies into the LOTR framework. This would not be half as problematic had not the connective tissue, those moments when we are removed from Bilbo, been so superfluous to the bones of the story—the most glaring of these superficialities is the Fili/Tauriel/Legolas segment.

Oh yeah, Tauriel?  Well I'll find a man-dwarf too,  and *our* love will be the stuff of legend!

Oh yeah, Tauriel? Well I’ll find a man-dwarf too, and *our* love will be the stuff of legend!

I liked Tauriel, but I did not like how she was handled as a character.  Her inclusion seems a nod to audience members who might want (1.) a love story amid all this CGI and (2.) a Tolkien female (disproportionately represented in his works) who is as bad-ass as Eowyn, but because the story isn’t truly about her and Fili their possible romance is hastily developed and therefore emotionally unimpressive; the payoff at the end—Tauriel’s decision to rescue Fili instead of accompany Legolas—doesn’t feel earned.  Orlando Bloom’s Legolas is, as ever, an enigma, but that’s no knock on Jackson…the character was barely sketched-out in the books.  The scenes where Tauriel and Legolas appear that aren’t burdened with their slight love story are engaging, specifically the effects-heavy barrel scene along the river to Esgaroth (Lake-town).

For those who don’t care for CGI, I’m afraid the technology isn’t going anywhere.  The ubiquity of CGI indicates its cost effectiveness and popularity.  I won’t wade into the thicket of arguments over computer-generated imagery vs. traditional SFX, but I’ll note that few things surpass the visceral  impact of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the clunky wonder of George Lucas’s Star Wars, or the outlandish charm of Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal—three films with little to no computer effects.  A heavy suspension of disbelief is required for these genre films and, as in early episodes of Star Trek or Doctor Who, special effects are integral to the appeal of the sci-fi and fantasy genres.  As the technology improves (as it does by leaps and bounds) I’m certain we’ll look fondly at the effects much like we do those shows of old.

The centerpiece of the film is supposed to be Bilbo Baggins, but the real draw turns out to be Smaug.  We know this moment is coming and the reveal is nothing short of magnificent.  The book hinges on this chapter and much of the original dialogue is intact, which makes for a splendid scene.  Freeman deftly plays Bilbo as awestruck and their cat-and-mouse game is engaging in its perilous dimensions.  I enjoyed this aspect of the films: if it wasn’t already made clear by his run-ins with the Trolls (Tom, Bert and William), the Giant Spiders of Mirkwood, Gollum and others, here is a hobbit who is clearly in over his head, and this time Gandalf is nowhere to be the trusty Baggins deus ex machina. Bilbo’s strengths are his stealth and resourcefulness, which he utilizes in delightful turns, but the audacity of naming himself Barrel-rider proves to be the undoing of Esgaroth.

One final feature of the ill-advised lengthening of the movie is the near-overplaying of Smaug.  Because Smaug is the draw, and because Jackson has to fill time, we come perilously close to extending the dragon’s welcome on screen.  The longer we are exposed to a monster, the less novel he becomes, and the more our familiarity reduces its impact.  The lengthy chase scene in the halls of Erebor was, for the most part, thrilling, but it rode the line and came close to farce (I’m thinking of the scene where Thorin balances on the dragon’s nose); I think it reclaimed its power the moment Smaug emerged from Erebor sheathed in gold.

III. Return of the Thing.

In the main I find many of the complaints about Jackson’s newest trilogy justified: interminable length, weak plot points, story bloat.  One of my biggest gripes was the perpetually-moving camera.  I’m a sucker for sweeping grandeur, but there were a few dizzying moments I felt I was watching a First-Person Shooter that someone else was playing.  In a lot of films (see: Michael Bay) constant movement is a lazy technique for evoking a sense of action without actual action, and in others it unites immediacy with a frenetic pace (see: Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films); for me Jackson’s best moments come in the slow or still shots where we’re allowed to drink in the visuals and experience the actors doing their job.

I’ve watched LOTR multiple times with all of the commentary tracks.  I am convinced that Jackson is as much in love with the subject matter as I am.  In his interviews and blogs he notes how important and influential Tolkien was…is…to him, and how honored he is to have the opportunity direct these films; this shows in the attention to detail he gives to every material feature of his films.  For me his reverence for the subject matter was certified the moment he brought on as conceptual designers John Howe and the reclusive Alan Lee, two artists renowned among Tolkien fans for their visionary artwork of Middle-earth.  Thanks to his attention and the excellent craftsmanship of his crew, the world as we see it on screen feels lived-in and enduring.  It feels like a labor of love, and I cannot fault that.

And here is why I don’t agree with any cynical condemnation of this new trilogy as a cash-grab: I personally understand Jackson’s reluctance to leave Middle-earth once and for all.  I understand that due to the financial constraints of the film industry, it is likely there will be no more of Tolkien’s world on the big screen for another generation.  As a fan, I want every moment to linger; I don’t want it to leave the silver screen.  It is a world I have loved profoundly since I was a curious, timid little boy and I have roamed its enchanted lands in my better dreams—my better judgement pales before my childhood thrill at experiencing this place made real and briefly, all to briefly, I am seven again.

Grade: 4 out of 5 Silmarils

 Bonus treats:

  • Stephen Fry as the oily Master of Lake-town.
  • In their great movie review series “Half in The Bag” Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman briefly muse about whether there might eventually be a Phantom Edit scenario, where a fan will edit down all three Hobbit movies into a version more like the book.  That sounds fantastic.
  • Radagast the Brown has always appealed to me; I love Sylvester McCoy’s interpretation and I wonder if there are any hidden Doctor Who references in the film…

    Radagast the Brown, son!

    Radagast the Brown, son!

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