The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Directed by Peter Jackson, U.S./New Zealand, 2013
Middle chapters of series can be troublesome creatures. When done well, they can be the best chapter of the series. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is often cited as the best of the original Star Wars trilogy due to its escalation of the plot, its character development, and legendary plot twist. When done poorly, they feel drawn out and without focus. The inconsistent and convoluted Back to the Future Part II (1989) comes to mind as an example. Unfortunately, the second chapter of the Hobbit trilogy falls squarely into the second category.
The Desolation of Smaug certainly has its moments. The dragon himself (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is terrifying, and Martin Freeman continues to impress me with his likeable portrayal of the title character, Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellen is fantastic as always, and so are Richard Armitage, Evageline Lilly, and Orlando Bloom.
The best cast in the world wouldn’t be able to solve the Hobbit’s core creative problem, which is obvious to fans and critics alike. To paraphrase Bilbo, “Oh the Hobbit movies, the unnecessarily lengthy.”
From a business perspective, Jackson’s decision to split a 300 page children’s novella into three long movies makes perfect sense. Warner Brothers is making a billion dollars a piece on these films, and three billion is a bigger number than two billion. Creatively, Jackson probably thought he could do pull it off. After all, the climactic battle of Helm’s Deep in Two Towers (2002) is only one relatively short chapter in the book.
He’s not pulling it off – and here’s why. There is no balance between the first two films from a storytelling perspective. The first film is so heavily focused on establishing characters, setting, and background that it sometimes loses track of its own story. The second film is the opposite. It is long series of action sequences separated by occasional breaks, but even the breaks are usually plot devices that lend little depth to the story.
The first film’s best asset, Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo, is mostly wasted in this second chapter. He far too often fades into the background. Other than the scene where he confronts the dragon, Freeman is mostly deprived of any memorable lines or scenes.
The Hobbit series was never going to be as good as The Lord of the Rings (as I pointed out before). The story doesn’t have the same depth and The Lord of the Rings films are some of the best ever made in any genre. I don’t necessarily think that Jackson is doing a bad job with it either – the films are still better than most fantasy films and most films in general. Where The Lord of the Rings brought in new converts to Tolkien and the fantasy genre, however, The Hobbit films will mostly satisfy current fans without making anyone else interested.
You might like The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug if: You enjoyed the first film or fantasy films in general, and you have a good amount of patience.
You might not like The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug if: You are not a fan of fantasy films or you find it ridiculous that they split up such a short story into such long movies.
(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe