By Preston Wilder
What is there left to say about The Hobbit? Most of the major talking-points – that Peter Jackson took a 300-page children’s book and turned it into a nine-hour saga; that he mostly (or partly) did it to make himself bankable again after his post-Lord of the Rings career foundered; that the films were shot in 48 (not 24) frames per second, though only projected that way in specially-equipped cinemas – were chewed over pretty comprehensively when the first film in the trilogy, The Unexpected Journey, came out last year. Now here’s the second instalment, The Desolation of Smaug, and one feels defeated, both by the scale of this mammoth enterprise and its sheer pointlessness: The Hobbit is simply there, like Mount Everest.
Still, there are a few things one could say – for example, that the film looks murky. Much of it, from the opening scene in the giggle-inducing Inn of the Prancing Pony to our climactic view of Smaug the dragon’s stupendous hoard of treasure, is shot in a rust-brown colour scheme that’s vaguely depressing (the New Zealand landscapes lift the spirit occasionally, but only occasionally). The treasure in particular feels like a missed opportunity; the orange-brown is memorable, just by virtue of being monochromatic, but a glitter of gold and jewels might’ve amplified the sense of a magical lair and stood out more from the rest of the movie. The dragon himself is a muffled creation compared (say) to Gollum, Middle-Earth’s most voluble monster; Benedict Cumberbatch (of Sherlock fame) does the voice – but his voice has been so pumped up with artificial boom and reverb that precise cadences are lost, and it feels like it could’ve come from anyone. The whole film is post-produced to within an inch of its life; the look is aggressively colour-corrected, the images tweaked, the sounds worked over. It feels unreal, in a plastic way.
Jackson’s made a few changes for this second part. There’s a new character, an elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who’s handy with a bow and arrow. She seems designed as a corrective to Tolkien’s very male world of warriors, par for the course now that even (or especially) Disney cartoons have ‘feisty’ heroines – just as the new emphasis on decapitations may bespeak a Game of Thrones influence. Efforts have been made, in other words, to keep the film relevant to 2013 – and it works well enough, yet something’s missing.
Take Tauriel, for instance. Tolkien buffs are apparently indignant that a new character has been added – but can you even call her a character? There’s a hint of an inter-species love triangle, insofar as she’s fancied by fellow elf Legolas but fancies a dwarf (Tauriel, dreamily: “He’s tall … for a dwarf”), but most of the time she just looks steely while battles happen around her. These characters are thin, even Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), our titular hobbit who looks for a while like he might be corrupted by his Invisibility Ring – we see him gleefully slaughter giant spiders, clutching the ring and going “Mine! Mine!” – but recedes into the background after an hour or so. The last hour is a problem in general, made worse by Jackson’s decision to cross-cut between three strands of action.
He’s done this before, of course, in The Two Towers (a middle instalment, like this one) – but it’s one thing cross-cutting in mid-quest, quite another to cross-cut after our hero’s met the dragon who’s the point of the whole story. The Bilbo-Smaug confrontation is the most important part of the climax here; it’s not even close. It’s daft to keep abandoning that to focus on some sick dwarf in Laketown, or Gandalf doing god-knows-what in some other place altogether – but the point, I think, is that Jackson isn’t really interested in the main plot of The Hobbit. What he really wants is to wallow for nine hours in Middle-Earth again.
There’s a certain thematic link here – because The Hobbit, like Lord of the Rings, is a tale of different factions (races, breeds, whatever) coming together. The elf king is isolationist, thinking only of his own kingdom, but Tauriel – sounding a bit like George W. Bush 10 years ago – warns that “With every victory, this evil will grow”; all must come together in a grand alliance. ‘Grand’ is the operative word in The Hobbit, a saga that works (or doesn’t work) in the opposite way to most films: most directors can’t see the wood for the trees – but Peter Jackson can’t see the trees for the wood.
The vision is grand, but the story doesn’t grip. The characters don’t grab us. Despite some flashes of fun, notably Stephen Fry as the corrupt Master of Laketown (“An election? I won’t stand for it!”), Smaug’s humour is mostly unintentional, having to do with contrived moments – the dwarfs just decide to give up and walk away disconsolately? oh please – and the usual portentous dialogue. Desolation of Smaug got surprisingly good reviews, and it does unfold more pacily than the first instalment; there are funny Spielbergian set-pieces (the escape in barrels) and the usual spectacular backdrops. But there’s really not much to say about this airless, all-but-endless saga. It’s there. It exists. Like Mount Everest, you can take it or leave it.
DIRECTED BY Peter Jackson
STARRING Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
US/New Zealand 2013 161 mins