Released ten years after Peter Jackson’s hugely successful adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the first film in the Hobbit trilogy An Unexpected Journey took the ambitious step of trying to transform a whimsical children’s book into a solemn epic whilst also popularising a new form of ultra-fast cinematography. The results were not exactly an unqualified success.
Mindful of the fact that they were adapting a very short book into three very long films, Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro decided to bulk out the contents of The Hobbit with additional subplots and character arcs that (inspired by the rest of Tolkien’s writings) would allow a film based on a children’s book to acquire the same solemn tone as the original trilogy. Aside from inviting the accusation that the writers had padded their film with what amounted to Lord of the Rings fan-fiction, these additions meshed quite poorly with scenes from the original novel resulting in radical changes in tone that dragged audiences from jokes about fat people falling over to scenes of brutal decapitation. The overall look of the film was equally uneven.
Jackson’s decision to shoot his films at double the standard frame rate meant that landscapes and human faces acquired a level of photographic realism that had seldom been seen on cinema screens. Though a wonderful way of showcasing the singular beauty of the New Zealand landscape, the higher frame rate put unexpected pressure on the costume, prop and make-up departments who struggled to meet the demands of the new technology. The comparative weakness of the film’s practical effects departments yielded an ugly and disjointed film whose aesthetic shifted uncomfortably between that of an animated action film, a documentary about New Zealand and a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the Lord of the Rings in which Ian McKellen could be seen standing in the middle of a set holding a lump of fiberglass.
Both of these problems are less evident in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which explains why many critics were quick to declare it an enormous improvement on its disappointing predecessor. However, in trying to solve these problems, Peter Jackson has only managed to create a batch of new ones that make this film even more ugly and boring than the first. It is baffling how a director with unlimited resources and unlimited good will could create a film as weak as The Desolation of Smaug.
The film opens with Bilbo and his friends being pursued by a band or orcs. After seeking refuge with a man who turns into a bear, the group head into Mirkwood where they are waylaid first by giant spiders and then by a company of warrior elves lead by Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel (a character created specifically for the film, doubtless to address its shocking lack of female characters) and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. Aside from providing an excuse for a series of action scenes, these sections are also used to build the characters by exploring Bilbo’s unnatural attachment to his magical ring, Thorin’s unwillingness to make the sort of compromises that might allow him to rule, Tauriel’s romantic interest in one of the younger dwarves and Gandalf’s inexplicable need to disappear off and investigate a set of ruins. This brings us to the first major problem with the film: Too many protagonists.
Much like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is a book with a single diminutive protagonist. Yes, the books also contain other characters but the core of both novels is the journey of their respective Hobbits and the themes of innocence, compromise and decay that both journeys evoke. An Unexpected Journey departed from this template by providing the book’s supporting characters with greater depth but while the tide of back-story and exposition may have distracted from Bilbo’s journey, they never completely overshadowed it as the group stayed mostly together and the focus remained squarely on Bilbo. The Desolation of Smaug breaks completely with the structure of the novel by splitting the group and transforming the various characters into the protagonists of their own little films. This proves disastrous as not only does it mean that Martin Freeman’s wonderfully sympathetic Bilbo gets shoved to one side, it also means that the film changes from a simple and relatively focused coming-of-age story to a coming-of-age story that is forced to compete for screen time with a couple of under-written heroes’ journeys and an entirely unbelievable romance.
Given that The Desolation of Smaug contains much less of The Hobbit than its predecessor, the joins between source and additional materials are far less noticeable. However, while this frees us from the first film’s bizarre tone changes, it does mean that the film comes to be dominated by an array of characters and sub-plots who owe a good deal less to Tolkien’s brilliance than they do to Peter Jackson’s fondness for fantasy clichés. The additional plotlines are not only thin and crippled with incredibly cheesy dialogue, they also feature a grand total of three lank-haired white dudes with soulful eyes, tragic backgrounds and a need for redemption when even one would have been too many. With so many unconnected characters and plotlines to follow, the film haemorrhages thematic focus and dramatic energy and so keeps relying on orc attacks to jump-start the plot and keep things moving.
After escaping the kingdom of the elves in a load of empty barrels, the group travel to Laketown where they discover a human society that has grown poor and corrupt following the collapse of the dwarf kingdom. Promising to share the dragon’s wealth in return for weapons and supplies, the group heads to the Lonely Mountain where they solve a riddle, gain access to the lost kingdom of Erebor and charge Bilbo with the mission of finding the jewel that has long obsessed Thorin’s family. However, while Bilbo does indeed find and pocket the enormous gemstone, he also wakes the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) that spends an eternity trying to kill the Dwarves before eventually getting bored and heading off to destroy Laketown. This brings us to the film’s second major problem: The grinding tedium of its action scenes.
The root of the problem lies in the first film’s revelation that traditional sets, effects and make-up tend to look absolutely terrible when shot at 48 frames-per-second. In an effort to stop his film from looking like something shot between takes with an old-fashioned camcorder, Jackson has taken to replacing sets and actors with CGI backgrounds and figures. When a scene cannot be done entirely in CGI, Jackson limits himself to superimposing CGI over the sets and actors in an effort to make them look less real and so provide a more even distribution of unreality. What this means in practice is that all the actors wind up with enormous bulbous noses but at least it doesn’t look like they’re being interviewed on the set. The real problem occurs when Jackson switches entirely to CGI and creates the kinds of figures and landscapes that only exist in videogames. Lacking the weight and reality of actors and practical effects, the CGI character bounce around the screen in a manner all to reminiscent of the Legolas sequences in the original trilogy and the monster fights in Jackson’s laughable remake of King Kong. Taken on their own and in small doses, these digital inserts are technically impressive and reasonably well choreographed but, taken in the context of an extremely long film where they are allowed to continue for upwards of twenty minutes, their cartoonish lack of realism rapidly devolves from unintentionally funny to downright excruciating.
Despite being a more even film, The Desolation of Smaug is certainly no improvement on its predecessor. Dull, ugly and tediously self-indulgent it makes many of the same mistakes as An Unexpected Journey but lacks the redemptive humanity that shone through in those rare sequences where Jackson chose to rely solely on his actors and their ability to perform Tolkien’s writing. Many critics have reacted to this film by comparing it to Jackson’s original trilogy but a far better point of comparison would be to the Star Wars prequels as this film is just as much of an ugly and hollow technical exercise as George Lucas at his absolute worst.