Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

The problem with Smaug


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a strange beast of a film. On its surface, it has everything I could ever want in a big holiday movie; battles, orcs, amazing special effects, and the best representation of a dragon onscreen ever. 

And yet it left me flat. 





The problem as I see it is that up until Return of the King Peter Jackson was a mostly untested commodity, known only for spectacular gross-out horror comedies, one highly acclaimed art film, and the middling The Frighteners. No-one had a clue how he’d tackle Lord of the Rings, a notoriously unfilmable series of novels. Even fantasy as a film genre was dicey at best, with Legend, Excalibur and maybe a few other films as standouts of sword and sorcery, and a trail of trailers and B-movie non-efforts otherwise.

Fellowship of the Ring and the Two Towers sometimes get overshadowed by the multiple (and, I maintain, mostly necessary) endings of Return of the King, but all three films were pretty tightly plotted and expertly paced considering the source material. Jackson pulled out all the stops and created a masterful trilogy, and he has been justifiably praised for it both by audiences and by, in the case of ROTK, multiple Academy Awards. 

After the LOTR trilogy, Jackson was able to make whatever he wanted, so he tackled his dream project, a remake of King Kong. But where LOTR was tight, King Kong is a great two hour movie in a three hour frame. Jackson could do anything he wanted, and did, but at a certain point, all the cool set pieces tipped into excess.

That’s exactly the problem with Smaug. Freed from the story constraints of introducing a cornucopia of dwarfs and the titular Hobbit, Jackson dives into the action with gusto. Too much gusto in fact, as almost every single moment is an orc beheading, a dwarf running, or a dragon scheming and spitting fire. It’s all too much, fired at my eyeballs at such a rapid and relentless pace that inevitably I sink back in my chair, defeated. 

I can see the incredible amount of skill and effort it took to realize this world, and I have nothing but admiration for the vast array of artists marshalled to the task. But it fundamentaly fails to connect precisely because there’s so much of it. By the time Smaug showed up in the film’s third hour, I was spent. What should have been awe was replaced by disinterest at best, mild irritation at worst. 

Given that Smaug ends on a cliffhanger and we’ve yet to see the Battle of Five Armies, there’s every reason to think this pattern will repeat itself in a year’s time. Intense, well-crafted action ramped up to 11 and only ceasing once Bilbo Baggins marches back into the Shire (or we see Ian Holm wrapping things up.) I’ll see it, but I’ve got the feeling I’ll walk out feeling just as listless and uninspired. 

I’d love to see Jackson go back to his roots and make an amazing (but tightly paced) gore fest, or branch out and do something completely different, though that didn’t really work out when he tried The Lovely Bones on for size. He’s a true talent and managed to turn the LOTR trilogy from a decades-long cinematic pipe dream into one of the true masterworks of the genre. I just hope he can restrain himself now that nothing else can. 

Warren Frey is a journalist, freelance writer, podcaster, video producer, and all-around media consultant currently based in Vancouver, Canada. His written work has appeared in such publications as Metro Vancouver, the Westender, Mac | Life and the Japan Times.

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