Monday, September 15, 2014

"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" Made Me Sad

Maybe I'm a bad geek. Maybe it's just a sign that life is getting busier and busier. Either way I missed seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in theaters when it released last December. 

However, thanks to the magic of HBO I finally got the chance to sit and take in the second part of Peter Jackson's take on not just one of the great works fantasy, but literature as well. The movie clocked in at 2 hours and 42 minutes. Sure, I had been disappointed in Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit, but that was overshadowed by the knowledge that it was in this film I would see Bilbo meet the mighty dragon Smaug, one of my all time favorite book scenes. Underwhelming first outing be damned, I was stoked. Stoked!

And then I watched the movie and that sense of stokedness turned to sadness.


The world of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a dark place. In all fairness, how can it not be when the actual Lord of Darkness is on the move? Everything from the land to the wizards protecting it is being corrupted. That's the point of the film. It's a dark time and the heroes are trying to combat that.

The world of The Hobbit, on the other hand, isn't meant to be a dark place. Oh, it's a dangerous place, no doubt. There are trolls, Goblins, man-bear-things, and fire breathing dragons. The Hobbit works, and has worked for over 75 years, as a children's story. It's a fairy tale and like all fairy tales it's wrought with danger and peril and yes, sometimes even death. Yet "dangerous" is not the same as "dark" but Peter Jackson doesn't seem to be aware of that. He's clearly trying to connect The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings thematically and aesthetically, but in the process seems to have forgotten the world hasn't become a dark place yet. Ultimately, the fun is sucked out of one of the most fun stories ever written.

When the fun is sucked out of stories like fairy tales they become a little harder to sit through. When something's fun, you forgive a lot. You tend not to notice glaring plot holes, one-note characters or anything else like that. You don't really care if something is patently absurd even if it is high fantasy. Take that sense of fun away, though, and all the faults begin to become glaring.


I found myself actually dreading action scenes. Whenever it became clear the dwarves were about to engage some orcs in battle or take on some giant spiders, I actually began to get anxious. Not because I was afraid for their fictional wellbeing, but because I knew I was in for yet another 10-minute plus, overly rendered, overly choreographed fight sequence. For scenes designed to titillate the audience, they did the exact opposite for me. The more someone ran from one collapsing bridge to another, the more an elf made one impossible trick shot after another while leaping upside from a tree branch, the more extraordinary escapes packed into one scene that showed up on screen, the more I wanted to stop the movie. After a while it just seemed like the filmmakers were showing off more than serving the actual film.


When it was first announced that Evangaline Lilly would be playing a completely original-to-the-movie character, many fans got all kinds of riled up. Me, I figured I'd trust Jackson since he'd given me three of my favorite films to date. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt and at least see what his original character brought to the story? As it turns out, not much of anything. It felt as if she was only included so that Legolas (also needlessly plugged into the film) would have someone to look at intensely at random times and that Kili would have someone to flirt with. 

Speaking of Legalos, why, exactly, was he in this film other than to serve as a wink to the audience? There was no narrative reason in The Hobbit's story and there was no narrative reason built into Jackson's interpretation. The same goes for Radagast. As much as I love Sylvester McCoy, I'm still trying to figure out what purpose Radagast serves in these films other than (forced) comic relief. 


If you were to take a shot every time the ominous music from The Lord of the Rings played whenever Bilbo wears, touches, feels, and/or even thinks about his magic ring... well, you'd be pretty properly fucked up. Bilbo can't just wear the ring as he does in the book, oh no. Every time the ring comes into play in Jackson's film there has to be a comically direct and overt foreshadowing of The Lord of the Rings. 

And it's not just the ring. Everything seems to be recast to directly foreshadow The Lord of the Rings. Spiders in the woods? Foreshadowing. Orcs on the move? Foreshadowing. Even Smaug starts spouting off with cryptic references to Sauron at one point. Not only that, but these constant call backs destroy the pacing of an already poorly paced film. Take, for example, Bilbo's conversation with Smaug. By the time the film gets to this point, we've already waited over two hours. This is the moment everyone's been waiting for and it's actually one of the parts of the film that exceeds expectations. Everything is perfect to the point of making all sins of the past two hours absolved. But as soon as things really start to take off, we're forced to cut back to Gandalf running around an old, abandoned fortress because, well, Peter Jackson really loves referencing The Lord of the Rings.

And therein lies the problem with Jackson's The Hobbit films. So far, they've yet to be allowed to exist on their own. Even worse, he's taken a fun, whimsical story that probably needs at most two hours to tell and has turned it into a 9 hour extension to the films he made 10 years ago. What should be a fun revisitation to a world we all loved has instead turned into a slog, something I feel obligated to see rather than excited to see.

The thing is, though, I get what Jackson was trying to do. He saw The Hobbit as his chance to not just go back to Middle-earth, but to bring even more of Tolkien's mythology to the big screen for general audiences. There's as much DNA from things like The Silmarillion and even more obscure writings from Tolkien in these films as there is The Hobbit. The problem is none of that serves the the film or the story. It weighs it down, it makes it feel cumbersome and despite the intention of making the film feel richer, it just makes it feel at times unwatchable.

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