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New film: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Directed by Peter Jackson

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” surprised me, because I enjoyed it. Which may seem like a back-handed compliment, but the surprise element was present because there are just so many things to dislike about this movie and this adaptation and yet I still enjoyed watching this installment in the over-extended series.

A year ago, I wrote a very long column explaining assorted aspects of the first film, including both the “high frame rate” that Jackson used to shoot the film and the bloated adaptation that took a short novel and stretched it out to three films. However, a year later with those concerns having been voiced by many critics a great many times, it seems silly to dwell on them too much. And the studio sidestepped at least some of them by deciding, in our market at least, to screen the film for the press in the regular frame rate. (See last year’s column for an explanation of frame rates and why they look so different.)

Of course, it’s easy to have written 2,500 words on those topics, secure in the knowledge that had Peter Jackson written the same explanation, he would have written 7,500 words and divided it into three columns. This film is, after all, still just the middle six chapters of fairly simply written book, padded out to one of the longest running times of the year. But somehow it worked for me.

And there was so much else to be annoyed by:

As I remarked a couple of week ago, with respect to the second “Hunger Games” movie, it’s often hard to get fully engaged in the middle installment of a trilogy, as it suffers the fate of not really having either a beginning or an end. And “Desolation of Smaug” has one of the most abrupt cutoff points of any movie I’ve seen, perhaps since “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” broke for its theatrical intermission with the car driving off a cliff.

It brings back Legolas (Orlando Bloom) – and if the scene at Helm’s Deep in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, in which he slid down a staircase on a shield, annoyed you (as it did me), then there’s much content here to dislike. But it’s all so light and brief and suddenly consistent with what we’ve been shown before that it isn’t as jarring.

Legolas seems to be there as much as anything for some visual and character continuity and in order to inject a love triangle with the added character of Tauriel – a female woodland elf that Legolas fancies but who has her eyes angled a little lower, on one of the traveling dwarves.

Tauriel also reinforces another aspect of the film, that Tolkein was thinking in terms of a Germanic root for some of his spellings and pronunciations (along with many other linguistic influences for other Middle Earth tongues), with “au” producing an “ow” sound, rather than the sound heard in a word like auxiliary. Thus “Smaug” is pronounced “Smowg” and not “Smorg” – which is a little disorienting when you’ve been wrong about that your whole life (as I have been – I blame the 12 year old me).

There’s also an extended sequence in which Bilbo and the dwarves escape capture by riding down river rapids in a set of impossibly stable barrels. It’s exactly the kind of scene that would normally make me feel like it had seriously overstayed its welcome, as with the two-track train sequence in “Lone Ranger” or the sequence on the world’s longest runway (and then some) at the end of the last “Fast and Furious” movie. It feels like a video game or ride prototype, it has all of the aforementioned Legolas-sliding and jumping, and yet it was simply fun.

So what made it work for me?

The pacing is much improved over the first film, without having to wait almost an hour for the journey to start and without the awfulness of musical dwarves singing while washing dishes – a scene which made the first film seem more like an adaptation of “Snow White” than “The Hobbit.”

The new film also has a more substantial feel to it – it just feels weightier in general. Much of this is helped as multiple key moments are more dependent on Bilbo stepping up, and with his developing relationship with the One Ring – and his slow realization that it is affecting him in a dependent/addictive fashion. In this sense, Martin Freeman is given more to do than in the first film.

The film is also heavily dependent on the full reveal of Smaug and the scenes between the dragon and Bilbo. And they work, delivering a far more interesting and tense exchange than the prior scenes between Bilbo and Gollum, which seemed to carry very little weight in the first film. This is helped by the voicework of Benedict Cumberbatch who does double-duty in the movie as two dark and brooding charcaters.

There’s so much going on that’s different from or added to the book, that at times it feels more like an “inspired by” rather than an “adapted from” project – but if one can let that go and just sit back and watch what’s on the screen, it’s a fun experience. For me, it makes sense that this would happen in the second film as the experience of watching and dissecting the first film was almost cathartic. I had the same experience, at some level, with the “Hunger Games” films, in which the idiotic politics of the first film/book were largely forgotten by the second (although that second film was disappointing for reasons of its own).

The stretching of the content into three installments still bothers me and this film ends at a point that wouldn’t otherwise make any sense – and many will still think it doesn’t. In that context alone, it feels like “The Desperation of Smaug” rather than the “Desolation” as the production team scramble to milk as much box office out of the project as possible. But I can’t deny that I still had a good time (albeit without paying to see the film).

One extra little bonus moment, is a wink of an eye length cameo by Stephen Colbert, uber-nerd and Tolkein fanatic who, along with his two sons, has a tiny part in the film. I won’t tell you where he appears – that’s half the fun of stunt casting like that – just as it’s fun to find Peter Jackson himself (or Stan Lee in a Marvel adaptation).

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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