The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Movie review

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is a spectacularly realised saga that’s even more impressive for the scale of its ambition: to tell a grand, epic story on film, which it (mostly) does (when it’s not swaddling itself in sentimentality). Remember how compelling The Fellowship of the Ring was the first time? I saw that movie four times in the cinema and countless times after on DVD.

I can’t imagine watching any of The Hobbit films more than once, ever. Not because they’re terrible: The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, is fine, and its sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, is also fine. It’s just that the ambition of these films feels less “let’s tell a story” and more “let’s make a ton of money stretching an uncomplicated story across three unnecessary films”.

If you’re a Middle-earth diehard and/or you don’t care about any of that, great, good for you, you will enjoy this a lot. But a sense of gross cash-grabbing cynicism hangs off Smaug like the creepy giant spiders that have spun their webs across Mirkwood. Sure, yes, Hollywood is a business and every blockbuster is made to make money – but The Hobbit franchise’s naked greed is actually revolting.

Because J.R.R. Tolkein’s Hobbit book is so slight you could literally read the whole thing in the time it takes to watch a single part of its film adaptation, Jackson and co. have made significant additions to its plot. Smaug picks straight up from the first film, in which the 13 dwarves, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) made barely any progress on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to boot out Smaug the dragon (voiced by Tumblr’s favourite actor Benedict Cumberbatch).

To move things along a bit, the party takes a shortcut through the spider-infested Mirkwood while Gandalf goes off to investigate some spooky Necromancer we’re meant to pretend we don’t know is Sauron. The travellers are rescued then imprisoned by elves, including princely Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who spends most of the film looking fiercely irritated by his contact lenses) and his subject Tauriel* (Evangeline Lilly), a badass he has a crush on.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug(*Tolkein avoided female characters like orcs avoid Sting, but Tauriel is one of the few inventions this bloated film actually needs: She’s its only major female character – in fact she’s the only female character, period, which is not a menstruation pun. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, An Unexpected Journey’s only lady, appears only for a moment. Of course Tauriel is manouvered into a love triangle with Legolas and one of the dwarves; this doesn’t bother me because it’s sexist to give the only lady a love story, or whatever, but because it’s yet another unnecessary plot. And as if a warrior elf hottie would fall for some smelly dwarf anyway.)

The travellers escape the elf kingdom by riding in barrels down a river in a great sequence that will probably make a great theme park ride some day, and they befriend a handsome outsider named Bard (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into a village near Smaug’s hideout called Laketown, where they meet a dumbass mayor (Stephen Fry) who cuts some deal with them – I’m fuzzy on the details because I slipped out to visit the men’s room* – and then they trek off to the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves throw a tantrum and quit the whole journey because they don’t immediately find the doorway in, but luckily/conveniently, Bilbo finds it, and then he’s sent in to burgle the dragon’s lair (which was the whole reason he was dragged along, remember?) and find some important dwarf stone (which is the key to this whole quest, remember?) (actually I didn’t remember anything about that stuff, but luckily there is lots of exposition, so much exposition), and then Bilbo actually meets Smaug when the dragon emerges from under his treasure pile, and then some more stuff happens, and then…

(*One does not simply watch a 17-hour film without taking bathroom breaks, though it says a lot about Smaug‘s plot that you can skip scenes to pee without missing anything important.)

Whew. There is a lot going on in this movie. It leaps from scene to scene, so it’s never boring. It’s just… pointless. What is all this story for? What is it labouring towards? What does it service aside from this bloated franchise? There’s another film to go after this one? Jeez.

This feeling is most obvious in the climactic, 20-minute scene (spoilers ahead!) depicting Bilbo and the dwarves escaping Smaug’s lair, with the fire-belching dragon chasing furiously after them. They all run around! They all pull ropes! They all ride mine carts! Except it’s not really clear why anyone is doing any of this, because there isn’t any reason for it except to fill screen time.

The story of The Lord of the Rings had purpose. The story of The Hobbit just has… dwarves. So, so many dwarves, whose quest no one cares about and who blur into one and rarely stand out from each other. (“Hey, it’s that red-haired dwarf again. Oh – and another red-haired dwarf next to him? There are two red-haired dwarves in this I guess?”) Despite being the franchise’s title character, Bilbo disappears in among the dwarves and hardly matters for long tracts of the film. Who needs a magic ring to make someone invisible when you can pull of the same trick by burying them in hours and hours of unnecessary storylines?

Previously: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Movie review

The Hobbit Martin Freeman

I like how so many reviews of The Hobbit include a synopsis of The Hobbit – like, der, it’s about a hobbit. And as if is there is anyone who doesn’t know already it’s about a stumpy fellow named Bilbo Baggins who goes on a quest blah blah magic ring yada yada dwarves and elves flim flam dragon.

The true reason it’s unnecessary to summarise the plot of this film is: there isn’t one. Sure, there’s lots of events. Lots of action. Lots of exposition. But no plot. This stems from splitting up J.R.R. Tolkein‘s slender children’s book in three greedy Hollywood-machine money-over-art films, which means a straightforward storyline about going there and back again doesn’t even get there.

Despite this you will go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, because you liked The Lord of the Rings. And you will think The Hobbit is… fine. It’s not like this is some impossible-to-endure colossal failure of cinema that will skim off the top of your soul and feed it to wargs or direwolves or whatever. There is plenty of stuff to like. Martin Freeman is charming as Bilbo. I could watch Ian McKellen act out scenes from Gandalf Sits Quietly For Three Hours Without Speaking Or Moving (spoiler alert: this is the plot of the third instalment). Cate Blanchett, why are you so beautiful. The dwarves are well cast – some of them are even nice to look at. (Attractive dwarves! Can you imagine!)

It’s just that The Hobbit is as cynically padded as you think it’s going to be. This is evident from the very first scenes, where Ian Holm reprises his role as Old Bilbo to explain to us that he’s writing down his adventure for his nephew Frodo, and then Frodo actually wanders onscreen all like “Whatcha doin’ there, Uncle Bilbo? It’s me, Elijah Wood, from those LOTR movies! Here I am for a bit!”, and then Bilbo explains that he’s writing down his adventure for Frodo to Frodo, and then they talk about Bilbo’s upcoming 111th birthday party (HEY THAT’S FROM FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING GET IT), and Old Bilbo fusses around some more why is any of this stuff in the movie can the unexpected journey please begin.

The entire movie is like this. (The dwarf musical numbers you might have read about in other reviews aren’t as mortifyingly long as I was dreading, but there are two of them, both within about the first 45 minutes, so.) Like remember, back when Peter Jackson and co. weren’t just pumping out movies just to make money, how they wisely cut that awful Tom Bombadil shit out of FOTR? The Hobbit is like they kept that shit in – then shovelled in some more. Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Blanchett) pop up in Unexpected Journey because, hey, why not? (I get why they added Galadriel, actually. Without her the film would be 100 percent sausage-fest.) Some wizard chum of Gandalf’s called Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) zooms around on his bad-CGI sled pulled by bad-CGI rabbits to warn everyone about Sauron’s comeback. I half-expected Aragorn to saunter onscreen and make some “Darth Vader built C3PO”-type meta-reference – everything else is crammed in there.

All this bloat really steals away any urgency from the story. The dwarves want to reclaim their home mountain cave from some dragon who’s taken it over*, but so what? In two-and-a-half hours they hardly get anywhere on completing their quest. I can’t imagine taking a kid to see this, unless kids’ attention spans are suddenly magically enormously long.

(*Remember how the dwarves were the least glamorous characters in the first LOTR trilogy? Like everyone wanted to be Legolas and no one wanted to be Gimli? Well, The Hobbit is focused almost entirely on Gimlis – 13 of them, few of whom I felt I got much of a sense of – so if you don’t like dwarves, it’s T.S. for you.)

Serious question: I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Jackson say he’s doing an extended DVD cut of this movie. How. This is already an extended cut. Watching an extended-extended cut honestly sounds like a tedious chore – I’d rather they release a contracted DVD cut with all the filler chopped out (it would run for five minutes). I have no idea how he’s going to spin two more movies out of what little plot remains, even with all the Middle-earth backstory tacked on, but I have a feeling it’s going to feel “thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

The Hobbit poster

In addition to splitting The Hobbit up into three movies, Jackson filmed it at 48-frames-per-second. As far as I know it’s the first feature that’s been filmed this way. Boy I hope it doesn’t catch on. The very best you can say about the effect of the increased frame rate is that you get used to it, eventually. At first it’s super jarring – because it just doesn’t look like a film. It looks like a video game cutscene, or a cheaply done reenactment from a dodgy pay TV crime doco, or a showroom-floor television with those dreadful motion enhancement settings jacked up to max.

Probably future generations of cinemagoers will look back and laugh at how us primitive 2012 audiences recoiled from The Hobbit‘s boosted frame rate, like we look back and laugh at those bozos who leapt out of the way of projections of trains rushing right at them. Well: cram it, future generations. 24fps looks better. 24fps looks like a movie. 48fps looks… plastic and artificial. The computer effects look like computer effects. The stunning New Zealand landscapes* look like IMAX tourism commercials, and not in a good way. The actors clash with the beautifully painted vistas behind them. You should actually go see The Hobbit at 48fps, just to witness its effect yourself.

(*Hilarious joke: How can you tell The Hobbit is filmed in New Zealand? Because New Zealand will tell you. Again and again.)

The first LOTR films worked so magnificently because it’s so easy to get lost in them and forget you’re watching a movie. The Hobbit never stops reminding you it’s a movie, that it’s padded and bloated and strange-looking, that its Middle-earth is built with green screens and computers. It’s not the epic disaster some critics are making it out to be. There are some good, solid, enjoyable scenes – especially Bilbo’s confrontation with Andy Serkis‘s Gollum (which, of course, goes on twice as long as it needs to). But there’s just not a lot of magic here.


Book review: Word of Honour and Time of Trial, Michael Pryor

The Laws of Magic series continues to check all the right boxes: Cracking – check. Inventive – check. Intriguing (in the best sense of the word, the one that implies spies and politics and conspiracies) – check. In Word of Honour, junior magician Aubrey Fitzwilliam and his pals save the capital of the great nation of Albion, their universe’s incarnation of England, from magical distruction; in Time of Trial, they travel to Holmland – that is, Germany – in an attempt to avert war.

Time is the better of the two, because the stakes are higher: war is close, Holmland is dangerous, and the romantic tension between Aubrey and Caroline is more electric than ever. (Seriously, if they don’t at least share a chaste kiss in the next instalment, I will die.)

These are good books, though I do have one complaint. And it’s a biggie.

The villain of the piece – who I won’t name, because it’d spoil the end of Blaze of Glory, though I will refer to him as “he”, which isn’t really a spoiler since almost all of Laws of Magic’s major characters are men ((Note: that’s not the say the series has no strong female charaters, because it does, just that most of the major characters have penises. Which fits the books’ early-20th century setting.)) – is not a formidable enough opponent for Aubrey, our protagonist. I don’t mean that in the sense that the villain isn’t powerful; we’re constantly reminded of his power. I mean that he’s not a compelling villain.

In Word of Honour the villain runs around concocting plots intended to spark a world war, basically as a means to securing his own power. (His motives are revealed in more detail in Blaze, though again, I don’t want to spoilt it.) But he’s a villain because we’re told he’s a villain – he doesn’t really do anything especially villainous. And even when he does appear on the page, he’s a bit two-dimensional. “Evil and smug cackle, I have you in the clutches of my nefarious plan now,” etc.

In Time of Trial Michael Pryor attempts to rectify this by expounding on the villain’s backstory, revealing details about his family and background. Though it’s still unsatisfying – who is this guy? Why is he like this? How come he doesn’t just kill Aubrey? I’ve read all four books in the series so far and I don’t really have a sense of the bad guy. He’s just “the bad guy” to me, and I want him to be more. (In Pryor’s defence, I have the same beef with Lord of the Rings. Sauron = zzzzz.)


Book review: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

I was chatting with a friend not long ago about Neil Gaiman’s writing style, and we agreed that his is an authorial voice you either like or you don’t: my friend doesn’t like it, but I do. A lot. Gaiman has a knack of adapting to whatever genre he’s writing in, but his work always has a sense of the very old, the very deep, and the very strange.

I started The Graveyard Book with high expectations, and wasn’t disappointed: Like all the best children’s literature, it’s wildly imaginative, seductively scary, and a sophisticated read for both kids and adults.

Loosely inspired by The Jungle Book, Graveyard is the story of a baby who escapes from the ruthless killer who’s murdered his parents, and escapes to a very old graveyard. Rechristened Nobody “Bod” Owens, he’s raised by the graveyard’s ghostly  inhabitants and encounters vampires, werewolves, witches and other beasties as he grows up. (The Guardian has a more detailed, though mildly spoilery, synopsis; I recommend going into it without knowing about the plot’s direction.)

It kind of reminded me of Harry Potter, if Harry Potter‘s sprawling story was condensed into a single book: Graveyard has the same magical, captivating and adventurous tone. I felt really sad when I turned the last page, both because of the way the plot wrapped up, and because I’d finished a really great book.

Each chapter advances Bod’s age by around two years and stands alone as a story (more or less), making this a breezy read. If you never read anything of Gaiman’s before, this is a fine entry point. ((After you finish Graveyard, try his short story collection Fragile Things. Then move along to American Gods and Anansi Boys, or maybe Coraline (which I haven’t read, yet, though the movie adaptation is stellar), if you’re looking for more “kiddie” stuff. I haven’t sampled Sandman yet, but I plan on getting to it one day.))

Gaiman has proposed writing more books exploring the backstory of the Graveyard universe, but with a darker, more adult tone – a sort of “The Lord Of The Rings, to which The Graveyard Book would have been The Hobbit“, in his words. I want to read that book so bad. Right now. (Especially since the propects of a Graveyard Book movie aren’t looking so hot right now.)