I loved the first Peter Jackson Hobbit film, and if I am cooler now towards his three amazing Lord of the Rings films it is only because my oldest child watched them incessantly for about a year (but only after finishing the books—I’m a good father). Yet, like many, I was underwhelmed by “The Desolation of Smaug.” Although I felt captivated by, immersed in the first Hobbit film, the new installment left me bored, indifferent. So, what changed?
One answer is: not enough. The frenetic action sequences in “An Unexpected Journey” were something to marvel at, especially the chase in the halls of the Goblin King. But now it’s clear that we will have one of these amusement park rides for every hour of film time, like clockwork, whether we want it or not. I still enjoyed the barrel-ride in the new film, but by the time we got to the scene in the Lonely Mountain in which the dwarves race to operate a forge in hopes of defeating the dragon I just felt mildly bludgeoned. Between that scene and the fight with the spiders from Mirkwood, we are getting disturbingly close to George Lucas territory, with elaborate CGI sequences that are meant to provide thrills but are about as emotionally involving as Disneyland’s Space Mountain. (Nod to Red Letter Media’s brilliant epic dissection of those godawful Star Wars prequels.)
Other elements in “Desolation” also seem overly familiar or ineffective: the usual massing orc-and-warg hordes, Gandalf stuck in a cage (again), a Necromancer who is less frightening than inky.
The problem here is not, as some critics complain, that Jackson is “stretching out” one book into three. As anyone who has read the book—and, more importantly, read the appendices to the Lord of the Rings—knows, there is easily three films worth of material which Tolkien kept tantalizingly in the shadows of The Hobbit (especially Gandalf’s abrupt disappearance and the machinations of the Necromancer) and which Jackson is bringing into the foreground here. The screenwriters have mined those fascinating supplements to great effect, and have done so since the first Lord of the Rings film (for instance, Galadriel’s voiceover that opens “The Fellowship of the Ring” film is taken from those appendices).
No, the problem is that the second film has lost the human (er, hobbit) dimension that anchored the first. The first film was a visual and kinetic feast, but it still turned on the transformation of Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, his growing empathy for the initially alien dwarves, and on Thorin’s reciprocal understanding of the virtue hidden within the hobbit’s bourgeois ways. This was lost or effaced in the second film. Perhaps the Legolas plot was supposed to provide the character development in this outing, but we can’t help but look to Bilbo and Thorin for that and, the consistently superb performances of Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage notwithstanding, the film didn’t allow this relationship to emerge or deepen. Meanwhile, the Master of Laketown, one of Tolkien’s canny portraits of sleazy populism, is turned here into simply a kind of anti-democratic one-percenter.
One last criticism, which I think is the thing that finally sinks this film. Was it just me and the movie theater or is the sound a problem? What I mean is the muffled, indoor quality of the sound throughout the movie. I feel like I never heard wind, air, loons on the lake, random sloshing of water. Everything sounded like it was manufactured on a soundlot, or on a computer, and this gave a canned, sterile quality to a film I really wanted to love. I remember that in the book the “desolation of Smaug” refers to the near total elimination of animal life in the vicinity of Erebor, but I doubt that the aurally dead quality of the movie was an intentional nod to Tolkien purists.
And yet: a mediocre Peter Jackson film is still more gripping than most Hollywood fare. And of course I will see the final installment as soon as it comes out.