What’s most surprising about ”The Desolation of Smaug” is how it ended up on a few critics’ worst movies of 2013 lists. Not because it was a great movie, but because the entire Rings and Hobbit trilogies (so far) have been remarkably consistent in content and quality. How can the sort of thing that swept the Oscars in 2004 now be making ‘worst movie of the year’ lists?
Could it be that the entire Jackson-directed Tolkein canon – despite broad appeal and billion dollar box office – is simply getting a bit old?
We were all stunned by realistic imagery of orcs, swords, sorcery and battles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Jackson made a much bigger monster than any Balrog – few films in the history of Hollywood have spawned so many facsimiles.
It also doesn’t help that the story he’s telling in ”The Hobbit” films is almost exactly the same as the one from Rings trilogy – a group of travellers on a quest meeting all sorts of otherworldly beasts, monsters, foes and allies along the way – albeit with a new Hobbit.
It’s the dreaded second installment of the trilogy, where you’re not meeting anyone new and you know the biggest thrills and greatest stakes aren’t to be found, so all it’s really about is Bilbo (Freeman) and the troupe of dwarves trying to reclaim their mountain kingdom getting to their destination.
There’s a battle with spiders and other magick-y stuff, Gandalf (McKellen) again goes off on some important mission and leaves the company like he did in every one of the Rings films, going to the Sauron’s scary stronghold and getting himself captured.
Meanwhile, the dwarves reach the secret door to the underground city and Bilbo – who was recruited to the mission because of his skills as a burglar (still no idea where that came from), has to go in and get the glowing rock Macguffin that will restore them to power.
First he has to get past the giant dragon Smaug that now sleeps in all the gold, and if the film has any technical achievement, it’s that Jackson hasn’t forgotten how to portray sheer scale. The dragon is gigantic next to the tiny Hobbit, and the chambers full of gold are gigantic compared to the dragon, giving the whole thing a sense of epic scale.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen a hundred CGI dragons/dinosaurs/monsters in the years since Jackson showed us what computers could really do, and giving Smaug the power of speech (albeit the sliver-tongued tones of Benedict Cumberbatch) makes him less scary than he needs to be. You might be reminded of how terrified you were of the giant wolf antagonist from ”The Neverending Story”, then being a little relieved when he spoke because it made him far less scary.
In the same way, a giant dragon who wants to burn you to a crisp is a scary thing if it’s just dumb, giant animal. Have it try to psyche you out turns it from something truly dangerous to a moustache-twirling Dastardly Dan pastiche.
Above all, if you liked the decade-and-a-half-old ”Rings” trilogy, you might realise while watching this film that you’re just not the audience for this anymore. You might have seen too much since that’s too similar and though each movie should stand on its own artistic merit, the ”Rings” films were very much products of their time. ”The Desolation of Smaug” is just another ”Rings” film, and that’s just not impressive enough anymore.
Two interesting aspects worth mentioning things worth mentioning are Peter Jackson’s Hitchcock-like cameo early on, and Orlando Bloom’s face. It either a few years of sleeping with Miranda Kerr of bathing in the blood of sacrificed virgins, but Orlando Bloom doesn’t look a day older than he did in ”Fellowship of the Ring”, even aside from his over-CGIeyed eyes.
DVD : As usual it’s probably the first in a series of ever-longer extended special directors cut anniversary diamond rerelease editions, and there’s already a raft of special features here including video production diaries and short docs on the locations and filming.
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