Peter Jackson seems to be obsessed with capturing lightning in a bottle. He may have done better this time around, but he is still far from successful. His approach seems to be to clamber to the titan that is The Lord of the Rings, pulling out every reference and constantly attempting to one-up his previous work. This approach ultimately fails and actually ends up doing quite the opposite of its intention.
I will not deny that making these films in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings is an insanely difficult task. But there are some very simple things such as choosing a different shooting format that could have made these films much more successful.
The acting is the highlight of this film. While Martin Freeman (Bilbo) doesn’t have quite as much screen time as he did in An Unexpected Journey, his bumbling, hesitant nature is excellently portrayed, especially when he finds the courage to slice up some spiders. He portrays a very different courage to Sam’s in The Lord of the Rings, but it is perfectly appropriate. Ian McKellen (Gandalf) exudes even more of his character than in the previous film. Even the rest of the dwarves have solidified their own characteristics aside from their appearance.
Even though the actors all do a stellar job here, they are unable to fully overcome the script. They say that a bad movie can be made from a good script, but a good movie cannot be made from a bad script. The Desolation of Smaug is an example of the latter. Structurally speaking, the film simply moves to quickly when it should move slowly, and moves to slowly when it should move quickly. The environments and atmosphere are not the star here, but instead the action set-pieces. While the action has been refined and tuned a bit over the previous film, it still falls way short of the previous trilogy. For example, Amon Hen was the location of the last battle in The Fellowship of the Ring. The film took a scene that happened off “screen” in the book and made it into one of the best scenes in all three movies. It is a near perfect blend of almost every aspect of filmmaking: cinematography, music, editing, fight choreography, writing, acting, etc, that encapsulates moments that span from humorous, to exciting, to soul-crushingly sad. It has themes of the fall of mankind, fighting to your very last breath, redemption, corruption, bravery, and distrust. And it features one of the most beautiful death scenes in film history. In contrast, the last action scene in The Desolation of Smaug features the dwarves scurrying around the ruins of Erebor, dodging fireballs and pulling levers. I bring up this comparison not because I mean to bash the film, but it is always important to remember where we are coming from. The Hobbit has, so far, been an attempt to ramrod a fun, children’s story into the style and tone of The Lord of the Rings. It simply fails.
The cinematography fails as well. Setting aside my dislike of 3D, digital capture, and high frame rates, the film is mostly constructed of wholly disinteresting shots. Gone is the magic and wonder. The environments are plastic and overly-glossy, as are many of the CGI characters. The color pallet favors pinks and oranges over earthy tones. I miss the softness, the painterly look, the earthy, forested colors, the miniatures, and the prosthetics. Much of the location work is gone as well. It’s a sad fact of The Hobbit, but also of the industry as a whole.
There is, however, one aspect of the CGI that was simply amazing. Smaug is actually a bit of a triumph in characterization. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the part very well, and the dialogue that involves his character is the best in the whole film. This character is a perfect example of how CGI can be used to make something that was previously un-makable. The character design is great, and the way he is introduced is even better. Not much else can be said without spoiling him, but suffice it to say that his character is just as likable and interesting as Bilbo or Gandalf. Smaug is to The Hobbit as Gollum is to The Lord of the Rings. He is a genuine and unique character that just so happens to be rendered in a computer.
Not much else can be said about this film. It does improve on the previous one in almost every way, despite the fact that it is still very inferior to the previous trilogy. I almost got the sense that if the filmmakers could have cut down on the unnecessary action scenes and trimmed the fat a bit, and then transplanted the introductory elements of the first film onto this one, we would have ended up with a far superior film that might have only clocked in just over 3 hours.
The film is fun, but the emotion is paper thin. The deeper themes that were explored in the original trilogy are largely forgotten, despite the attempt to bridge the gap between trilogies by visiting events that lead up to these themes in the first place. The film lags in areas that should be edited a bit faster, and blazes through material that should have been meditated on. It bears striking resemblance to another prequel trilogy that also failed to live up to its predecessor. The Lord of the Rings this is not.
Direction: Jackson has lost what was special about his old films. Perhaps he’s just looking in the wrong place.
Acting: McKellen, Freeman, and Cumberbatch are all great.
Cinematography: Indulgent and counterintuitive.
Story: This time the added material is decent.
Dialogue: Mostly solid and well characterized.
Editing: Pacing is off. Drags instead of meditates in areas.
Art Direction: As before, the art department knows what they’re doing. I just wish they’d do more with practical effects rather than CGI.
“Film as Entertainment” Rating: 7/10
“Film as Art” Rating: 3/10