The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug reviewed (or “Not more barrels”).

The Hobbit Part 2: or "how many characters can we fit in a barrel?"

The Hobbit Part 2: or “how many characters can we fit in a barrel?”

This week, here’s a review that shows the perils of big-budget filmmaking from a screenwriting perspective.

WARNING: SPOLIERS AHEAD

Now, I really loved “The Hobbit Part 1”. I mean, I really loved it. Others may have thought it lacked action scenes and spent too long with the unfunny dwarves. However, I loved exactly that. Music is a much-ignored part of filmmaking. But when done correctly, it can elevate a film to something fantastic. Consider Superman the Movie (the Christopher Reeve one, not the emo-Superman of recent years), Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Close Encounters. All had great soundtracks. Coincidentally, all by John Williams. But other composers like John Barry or even Daft Punk have come up with equally good soundtracks. Anyway, I digress. The point is, the Lonely Mountain Song by Neil Finn was my favourite soundtrack piece of 2013.

I also liked the time spent setting up the dwarves. Film is not a video game. These are supposed to be STORIES about CHARACTERS. Not just an endless succession of CGI chase and fight sequences (which become outdated fast. Check out the Matrix Reloaded if you don’t believe me).

So, in short, I loved Part 1. Loved Rhadghast with his rabbit-drawn sled. Loved the goblin king. Great.

Now to “The Hobbit Part 2″…

It began well enough. Through the “magic” of 3D (it wasn’t available in anything else in my cinema), I was transported to, respectively: Bree, Beorn’s cottage (although this lasted slightly less longer than I had hoped), and the caves of Thranduil. Very nice stuff. Even liked Tauriel and Kili (although I’m not sure how a romance between an elf and a dwarf would work in practice).

Then we came to the barrels. And this is, for me, where it all went wrong.

Now, I understand that this is a adventure film. There has to be SOME action, right? So I was along for the ride. Until the laws of physics started to be routinely ignored. Not only that, but it seemed the laws of PLOT LOGIC were ignored as well.

During the barrel riding scene, elves became superhuman. Dwarves also became superhuman. The numbers of barrels magically fluctuated (maybe Gandalf put a spell on them). Dwarves leaped twenty feet out of moving barrels in a fast-flowing river to steal weapons from the hands of Orcs and throw them back with deadly pinpoint accuracy. And having done all this, they arrive at Laketown and complain they haven’t got any weapons… having just slain about two hundred Orcs!

Still, my growing sense of apprehension was only a feeling of dread akin to the knowledge that the Necromancer had returned. So I went along to Laketown, hoping things would improve.

And, for a while, things did. The Necromancer, and his link to the evil eye in LOTR, was a very nice touch. Not in the book, but it made perfect sense within the context of the movies.

Then came Laketown.

Peter Jackson’s LOTR is reknowned for its attention to detail. It is said that there is so much set detail in Rivendell that it can never be captured on camera.

So what went wrong in Laketown? All of a sudden, it felt like I was on a set. Maybe it was the heavy overuse of interiors. But everything looked a little bit fake. The politics of Laketown were also hard to grasp. Stephen Fry’s Mayor seemed to fluctuate between wanting to kill the dwarves and wanting to help them. Nor was it clear what Bard the Bowman’s  status was in Laketown. Anyway, it was here that the Hobbit and I parted company.

Cue, Smaug. Everybody loves a dragon. I am no exception; I’m a sucker for the mythical beasties, ever since seeing Disney’s rather frightening kids’ film “Dragonslayer”.  So when Smaug appeared, I wanted to like him.

Yet, while Bilbo raced for the Arkenstone (which has no magical properties, it appears, so why it was so valuable compared to a mountain of treasure the size of Wales escaped me), we were treated to the least enjoyable action sequence I have yet seen in the whole film series.

Instead of a brisk romp with a dragon, this sequence turned into a half-hour epic. Dwarves managed to survive fifty-foot drops. They leaped across thirty foot-wide gaps. Never again will I doubt dwarven architecture, as a waking dragon can cause an earthquake in Laketown but fail to bring down the roof of a chasm even when all the support beams are shattered.  The dwarves (ingenious creatures worthy of a job at Microsoft) are able to rig up a one-hundred foot molten gold statue in less than a minute.

When said statute suddenly (and inexplicably) explodes in a torrent of molten gold, it had me rolling my eyes and sinking into my seat.

Another example of plot nonsense occurs when Smaug returns to find Bilbo quivering, ready to be eaten and accepting his fate.

“I’ll show you,” says Smaug. “I’ll burn Laketown down, that’ll make you suffer!”

How about eating him? Wouldn’t that make him suffer? But no, Smaug decides to save Bilbo for later (after all, there’s another three hours to go), and burn down Laketown. Which he would do anyway.

Hmm.

Don’t even get me started on how Thorin manages to use a heat-conductive metal shield to float safely on a river of molten gold.

So in conclusion, “The Desolation of Smaug” is definitely a film of two halves. The nice character moments and humour of the first half is undone in the second half by an over-reliance on the same physics-defying and unconvincing CGI we have sene in films like “Indiana Jones 4” (Remember the fridge? That’s worthy of a trope in itself, much like “Jumping the Shark”. Maybe we should have “Riding the fridge”?)

Perhaps it’s the result of so many disciplines being involved in what used to be a proces involving only actors, a director, and a handful of crew. Maybe it’s even due in some way to the input (or lack of input) of Guillermo Del Toro, who apparently departed the production due to delays in filming. It’s anyone’s guess how having such a visionary director leave halfway through affected the outcome. But whatever the cause, it felt like the filmmakers had thrown in their towels after the barrel riding scene.

I don’t know if “The Hobbit” will take its place alongside the “Lord of the Rings” as modern classics. But it seems that in a world where anything can be conjured up using that magical CGI paintbrush, filmmakers need to exercise more restraint. Otherwise they risk suffering the fate of a certain cartoon mouse who also experimented with magic and came undone.

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