In the land of Tolkien-fantasy, Peter Jackson rules as King – and like many kings, he makes mistakes.
In the middle of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” – or should I say, a smaller part stitched out of a bigger picture for cinematic convenience – there is a shining love story between a dwarf and an elf; make that literally shining, with color blooms and halos. The elf is a royal warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an original invention of director Peter Jackson and writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, and akin to most moviemaking liberties Mr. Jackson takes with J.R.R. Tolkien’s material the addition of one lonesome character, and a small love story, is a welcome breather amongst a lot of running, slicing and dicing.
“The Desolation of Smaug” follows up “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, where Mr. Jackson takes the long scenic route to set-up Mr. Tolkien’s less applauded characters with some background support from key players from “The Lord of the Rings”. Those faces, along with the resonating, sweeping trademark score from Howard Shore are intentionally replaced by a lot of actual sweeping. For a good number of scenes Mr. Jackson (and his regular cinematographer, the Oscar winning Andrew Lesine) wooshes the camera across impossible to place positions – dangling from over the top fixtures, speeding through low angles, imprudently edited location establishing shots, and even between peoples’ conversations. The fanatical drive to add hyper-dynamism to an already grim – and overly CGI crowded movie – is headache inducing and amateurish.
Mr. Jackson, who runs through most of “The Desolation of Smaug”, from one action sequence to the other, consigns some dramatics into his hero’s journey: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and a company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (a semi-gruff Richard Armitage) and Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), travel to Lonely Mountain Erebor, to kill the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) and reclaim their land (or to be precise, their mountain and mines). On their way, unlike Mr. Jackson’s other Tolkien middle picture “The Two Towers”, there is very slight prominence to his semi-important characters. (There are exceptions: one is a local town anti-government trader named Bard, played with somberness and severity by Luke Evans; the other is Elven King, Thranduil, played by Lee Pace, who hams it up as if he’s playing a self-centered fashionista).
About 6 hours into “The Hobbit” now, I’m still unable to pinpoint who-is-who in the dwarves. Instead of working them up, the screenplay substitutes Legolas (Orlando Bloom) as a zipping, Olympic-level gymnast elf-of-action, capable of taking down a horde of Orcs without messing up his hair.
A point to be noted, is that Legolas isn’t a part of The Hobbit books (he is fleetingly mentioned), however his appendage – and that of Tauriel – buffs up and unstiffens “The Desolation of Smaug” from its one-point agenda (there are some more liberties, spun-out but held back because they will play-out in “To There and Back Again”, due out next year).
At times, however, there are just too many distractions in “The Desolation of Smaug”; while the dragon, with Mr. Cumberbatch’s hypnotic, imposing, voice is one of the finest flying horrors of his movie-brethren (including Sean Connery’s Draco from “Dragonheart”), the overdrive of CG (including the Orcs, who were aesthetically better when people in make-up played them), fake action and the high frame rate of 48 frames per second (as compared to 24 frames per second, the usual norm), makes every shot seem like it is plucked out of a nex-gen video game, and not the plausible reality Mr. Jackson had worked so hard to create the last time.
I believe Mr. Jackson needs to take a step back and look at the bigger picture: the grandeur of Mr. Tolkien’s works, and Mr. Jackson’s own originality, is muscular enough to stand on its own without newfangled cinematic shenanigans – no matter if its looks good on paper, or in his imagination.
Released by Warner Bros. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is rated PG-13 for intense action, including beheading of fake fantasy creatures.
Directed by Peter Jackson; Produced by Mr. Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, and Ms. Walsh; Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Mr. Jackson (based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien); Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie; Edited by Jabez Olssen; Music by Howard Shore.
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch (as the voice of Smaug), Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom and Mikael Persbrandt, amongst others.