It’s no secret I did not like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I want to give each subsequent entry a fair chance, but they were all made at the same time so it’s more like watching a movie in chunks a year apart. I’m all for fan service too. I’m Franchise Fred. Believe me, if we were talking about a series that I loved dearly, I could be forgiving too. In fact, that’s me for Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the extended cut, every extra minute of it, even the stuff on the boat. If Tolkien fans love The Hobbit movies, I’m not saying they shouldn’t. This is Second Opinion. On a purely cinematic and narrative level, I cannot get into these Hobbit movies.
The Desolation of Smaug is a little less boring than Journey, but it’s really no better in terms of craft and narrative. There is one inspired action sequence in which the dwarves and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) escape from the elves in barrels. This sequence recalls Jackson’s King Kong set pieces where he just builds idea on top of idea into an extended adventure. And that’s it. Then it’s all back to normal.
We begin with a prologue flashing back to when Gandalf (Ian McKellan) met Thorin (Richard Armitage). I guess we’re waiting until now to see that because the information in that meeting is only relevant to part two. To be fair, Return of the King opened with a flashback to Smeagol (Andy Serkis) but I have to say, by then there was a lot more basis for revisiting Gollum’s alter ego than just doling out some plot information.
Gandalf’s whole presence in this chapter is problematic. I know it’s in the book that he comes and goes, and his side story stuff is from the appendices, but he’s a main character. Doesn’t it bother people that he disappears for a while just because? If you’re doing an adaptation, maybe it would make sense to take the liberty of fixing it so you keep Gandalf on the whole quest, even if you have to invent a reason why he doesn’t use magic in every scene. My suggestion is his magic doesn’t have enough bars in Lake-town.
Gandalf also appears to be a condescending taskmaster now, like, “You silly hobbits, don’t question me.” Weird and out of character. He’s a magnanimous, if sometimes forceful wizard, right? There are a lot of weird looks between characters, meant to indicate distrust and tension, but it’s so shoehorned in that it feels awkward. There’s not real tension between the characters on this leg of the quest. Maybe there is later and they’re setting it up, but it’s blatant. I was under the impression that Thorin trusted Bilbo now. Wasn’t that what the last movie was about?
From where they left off, the dwarf company seeks a shortcut from Beorn, in a stupefying sequence in which the entire cast bum rushes a door and only one character notices there’s a latch and lifts it up to open the door. There is a lot of explaining about why alternate routes are too far away, so they have to keep entering dangerous grounds. I suppose there was a lot of explaining of geography in Lord of the Rings too but it wasn’t one of my favorite parts.
They encounter the elves and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is back, a bit more dangerous, perhaps less mature. Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) is his female badass equivalent. The joy at seeing a familiar face goes a little way towards creating some good will, but aside from the barrel sequence Legolas only gets to do more of the same.
Every other action sequence is uninspired, just another encounter on the way to Smaug. There’s no sense of the filmmakers trying to find every possible beat they could plug into a sequence like the T-rex fight or ice-skating sequences in King Kong. Bilbo gets caught in a spider web and the fight is just stabby stab stab and punchy punch punch. When Legolas fights orcs in Laketown, he has one clever kill involving a rowboat, but the rest is just arrow, arrow, arrow.
The action may be more frontloaded in Smaug but there is just as much talking and waiting as in Journey. They debate staying in Laketown. They get to the mountain and wait. There’s a little bit of suspense with some business to do with the mountain key, but I was only in suspense because I didn’t want it to take any longer than it already was. Then Bilbo gets to Smaug and talks and talks and talks. That conversation I know was from the book, but if they already had that, then maybe cut out some of the other rambling. When they finally fight Smaug, it turns out that fighting something that can fly away isn’t all that exciting. It’s just frustrating.
Those are problems specific to The Desolation of Smaug. My overall problems with this prequel project are still evident in full effect. The attempt to make The Hobbit look like Lord of the Rings visually creates problems. If you’re going to try to recreate the same aesthetic, you have the originals to measure up to. The Hobbit looks close enough to Lord of the Rings to fall short. If it were a drastically different look then maybe it could be something. Different, but something in its own right. Between digital cameras creating a different look, more entirely CG environments, and a rushed prep and production time, it still looks like a cheaper, shoddier version of Middle Earth. Cheaper while still costing hundreds of millions of dollars, yet inferior to the landmark Oscar-winning original.
The visual effects in the Hobbit films are a real conundrum. Weta Digital is a company of fabulous artists who have rightfully won Oscars for their creations. I think the poor quality of the CGI in The Hobbit is indicative of a pervasive problem in the digital effects world: hubris. Since the advent of CGI, filmmakers have felt confident to show the visual effects full frontal. Back when it was all practical, makeup and animatronic effects, filmmakers would use artistic techniques to hide the flaws and seams. They would show creatures from the back or side or in shadow. I don’t understand why digital artists forgot that tenet of filmmaking. CGI is a different process but no different aesthetically. If you show it fully lit in center frame, it’s just going to look like a visual effect, not an illusion. There’s no art to that.
We should still use cinematic techniques to create a sense of magic. If you’re just putting everything front and center, that’s not art. It’s just a show. And in this criticism, I will also include Marvel, Harry Potter, Star Trek and everyone else. The worst example of this hubris was Tron: Legacy. That young Jeff Bridges effect would’ve looked great from the side and in shadow. Showing him full frontal means that you think it looks real enough, and it doesn’t. Shame on you. These effects are not good enough to show side by side with live-action footage. I guess they didn’t really camouflage the effects in Lord of the Rings either, but lighting to match more live-action footage might have blended them better.
Smaug is a flailing, spinning CGI widget, and the camera is wilder than necessary just because they can be unleashed with the CGI elements. Other basic effects are lousy too. Legolas enters the movie sliding around in a horrible composite. To be fair, those shots in the first trilogy were kind of silly too, but they were surrounded by more awesomeness. Certainly they shouldn’t get worse in 10 years. And the obvious green screen composites putting Bilbo in impossibly grand halls... Look, we know you didn’t build it. At least make us believe you did. Green screen has different giveaways than old blue screen opticals had, but we can still tell.
That’s a whole lot on the nuts and bolts of technical filmmaking. It’s relevant because Lord of the Rings were Oscar-winning technical marvels, but the bigger issue is that the story is so mundane that we’re left looking for a visual “wow” factor, and it’s not there. The barrel sequence was so clever, I didn’t care how the effects looked. The generic archery and dragon hunting wasn’t creatively captivating, and it certainly wasn’t visually so.
I imagine being Peter Jackson, after years of trying to produce The Hobbit for another director, was faced with, “Look, we’re ready to go but you only have five months to prep and less than a year to shoot three movies.” He does the best he can because a Hobbit movie is better than no Hobbit movie at all. If Robert Zemeckis would make me Back to the Future IV under those conditions I would be thrilled. Or, case in point, when Curse of Chucky went straight to video I championed it. When this is all over, I’ll be back finding merit in some maligned underdog movie. For now, this is my second opinion.