Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, review by Greg Wright

What was that I was saying about An Unexpected Journey not feeling rushed, about moving at a pace, and with an ethos, that would have made room for Tom Bombadil in Fellowship? About the inclusion of songs, in all their silliness and pomposity? About belly laughs and witty homages?

Naw. The Desolation of Smaug begins instead, and perhaps appropriately, with a not-so-witty homage to Peter Jackson himself as the director opens with a flash-back sequence of Gandalf’s initial encounter with Thorin at the Prancing Pony in Bree. And as the scene opens, just as with the Bree scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson emerges from the darkness munching on an oversized carrot. That’s a fitting metaphor, methinks.

Once the flashback is complete and we learn that Thorin is out for revenge (there’s a revelation), off we go with chase after chase after chase after chase. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the events of The Desolation of Smaug covered about four days instead of the weeks they would necessarily entail. That’s how rushed this film is.

desolation-of-smaug-insetYou might think that embellishing a short novel like The Hobbit into three overstuffed films might produce a sense of increased passage of time rather than compression, of bloat rather than haste, but that’s simply not the case.

The story, such as it is, covers the trail of Bilbo, Thorin, and company from Anduin to The Lonely Mountain. They are hosted by Beorn, venture into Mirkwood, are held captive by spiders and Wood Elves, escape via wine barrels to Lake Town, and then penetrate Smaug’s lair.

And that’s sort of the problem with making three movies out of The Hobbit. This section of the tale has no story arc of its own, in classical terms. So as a filmmaker, you have to invent one: figure out who the primary protagonist and antagonists are in this particular movie, and manage a central conflict to some kind of narrative resolution.

Jackson managed the same problem fairly well in The Two Towers, which was saved by a brilliant and groundbreaking portrayal of Gollum. In The Desolation of Smaug, however, Jackson seems to hope that if we are hurtled along fast enough, we won’t notice that the emperor didn’t have time to dress properly.

Nominally, Jackson sets up Thorin as the central protagonist in this segment of the story, with the conflict to be “resolved” being the return of the rightful “King Under the Mountain.” To that end, one can’t have Thorin slink into Beorn’s halls, as he does in the novel, nor spend too much time mummified in spider silk, nor be shut up in a barrel, nor even sitting around uselessly on the side of a mountain. And you certainly can’t have the Arkenstone enter the narrative in an offhand and disconnected manner, as it does in the book.

But the wheels fall off this wobbly cart of a narrative conflict when you have Thorin entirely out of the picture for what is the centerpiece of the film: our introduction to Smaug and his treasure hoard.

Jackson’s solution? Invent an absolutely insane and absurd sequence with Thorin and his crew battling the dragon in Durin’s mountain fortress. Tolkien didn’t write it this way because he knew it would be a battle the Dwarfs could not survive. Jackson… well, narrative logic has never been his strongest suit.

It’s bad enough that the humor of the Company’s encounter with Beorn is replaced by a chase culminating in gnashing teeth; that the oppressiveness of Mirkwood is exchanged for rushed irritability; that the Company’s wine barrels must be most illogically open while hurtling through cataracts and a hail of Orc arrows; that the romance between Kili and Jackson’s Elf-warrior Tauriel must even exist; that Bard the Bowman should be a smuggler; that Jackson must divide the Company by inventing Kili’s injury; or that Gandalf should prove powerless (and rash) against the Necromancer.

But for pity’s sake… if you must do these things, can’t you at least make them more interesting? And must you cap it with that awful sequence with Smaug? When Bilbo mutters, “What have we done?” I can only hope that’s Jackson’s chosen form of irony.

Lest you think that I found the movie completely without merit, I will note that Jackson’s depiction of Thranduil, Legolas’ father, is worth seeing. Appropriately condescending, superior, and vain, Lee Pace’s performance makes me wonder what might have happened had Jackson found a way to make Thranduil the central villain of this episode.

As it is, it’s hard to see anything other than greed as the central villain… and in The Desolation of Smaug, greed wins. Ick.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is available to stream at Amazon. You can also stream it for free right now on xfinity if you’re a Comcast subscriber.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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