Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug

Rates: * * 1/2

So there’s a mountain. And some dwarves who used to live there. And they’re on a quest to move back in, helped by a hobbit and a wizard. The key sticking point is the dragon, who took over the dwarf mountain and now doesn't want to give it up.

This, in a nutshell, is the plot of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the venerable fantasy novel that has been thrilling audiences since it was first published in 1937. There’s more to it, but since the number of people who aren't familiar with the book can be counted on one hand (without the thumb) there’s probably no need to break it down any further.

This is also where the second Hobbit movie – The Desolation of Smaug – picks up; mountain, dwarves, quest, hobbit, wizard, dragon. The opening scene shows wizard Gandalf and dwarf leader Oakenshield meeting in a pub and hatching a scheme to claim the mountain back, which sets the whole plot in motion.

Which might seem a little strange.

I mean, as a starting point for a quest flick this is fine. But didn't we already have a near three hour movie before this one? Wasn't that meant to establish the characters, set the story up and advance the plot to a certain point? The answer, clearly, is no. Which makes you wonder what on earth that leaden paced first installment – An Unexpected Journey - was all about. The one thing that sticks in my mind about AUJ is the never ending dinner scene at the beginning, and that’s not a memory I want to revisit too often.

So TDoS makes clear that the previous film was almost entirely redundant, which goes to the heart of the problem with this series of films. While The Lord of the Rings books are epic length and so suited director Peter Jackson’s monolithic treatment of them, The Hobbit is a much simpler, shorter story and blowing it up into three movies was very obviously a dud idea. The excessive length of the overall project, with corresponding flat, aimless stretches, again hampers the new film almost as much as the first.

Although, this is not to say that TDoS doesn't have its strengths.

The opening hour – as our heroes run for cover in a sinister forest - is terrific. And the climactic battle with Smaug delivers the goods. These sections provide a much sharper story arc for this movie in comparison to the first, which gives a greater sense of urgency and import to what is happening on the screen.

So it is a shame that a lot of that impetus is lost during a plodding mid section. Our heroes spend an absolute eternity doing… not very much; after escaping from the forest elves they fanny about with a dreary boatman in Laketown for an age, hiding and bartering for supplies. Gandalf, meanwhile, leaves the bulk of the party to go off on his own for a bit, something he states he ‘would not do unless it was absolutely necessary.’ Curious then, that the point of this side mission is absolutely obscure; he summons up fellow wizard Radagast, breaks into an empty crypt with him, strokes his beard a bit and then sends Radagast off again. Subsequently, he heads to the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur and encounters a disembodied necromancer (you can probably guess who this is) and their orc army.

All of Gandalf’s solo adventures (not to mention Radagast’s greatly expanded role) are not in the book and so have been created specifically for the film, something the film makers have defended as part of their plan to ‘flesh out’ the story. That these scenes are among the weakest in the new movie demonstrates the hubris that surrounds this idea; ‘I think what Tolkien meant to say was…’

When film makers reinterpret material from another medium there are always changes required and fans who are unhappy with whatever these are. But what we have here are enormous tangents being added on to a tightly plotted little adventure romp. The new sub-plots, characters and dialogue add nothing, whatsoever, to the overall thrust of the story and, worse, their bloating of the narrative detracts from the fun bits.

As more than one reviewer has already pointed out, most readers could get through the 300 page book version of The Hobbit in about 6 hours. And countless millions have done so, over the decades.

But we have nearly reached this time threshold in the movie series and the end is not yet in sight. Another three hour installment will be waiting for us next Boxing Day, with who knows how many extra bits tacked onto it. And this suggests a director and writers who have lost perspective and their grip on the material. They seem to be making films to please themselves, and so are not making films very pleasing for the rest of us.

Jackson’s LoTR films were so successful that the director was able to release super expanded ‘Special Editions’ of each one to an audience hungry for more. With The Hobbit series you hope that maybe he’ll do the reverse; redact all the crapulent new stuff and release a three hour ‘condensed’ version that sticks to the original plot.

And that is one movie I’ll be very keen to see. Ho hum.

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