Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug the Incompetent

I like most of what Director Peter Jackson has done with the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) series, and part 1 of The Hobbit is entertaining. But part 2, The Desolation of Smaug (DOS) has so many special effects that it becomes cartoon-like in parts. When action laced with special effects is piled too high the "willing suspension of disbelief" cracks and crumbles. This is a real problem with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Peter Jackson really, really wants another LOTR epic. So, he forces Tolkien's The Hobbit into the LOTR mold. Yes, there are aspects of the story that fit with LOTR, but The Hobbit is not merely the prelude to LOTR. Tolkien's The Hobbit is an adventure story with fun as well as exciting and scary moments. The point of the story is getting to the Lonely Mountain, getting rid of Smaug and getting back the treasure and dwarf kingdom Smaug has stolen.

Tolkien's drawing of the dwarves' escape in barrels with Bilbo atop
Problem 1. Special Effects Overkill
At times it felt like one was watching a Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam cartoon. When Legolas (imported into DOS along with the barrel escape fight) moves down a raging river by jumping from one open dwarf barrel to another and shoots orcs with one foot on the head of one dwarf in a barrel and the other foot on the head of a dwarf in another barrel, it looks like Bugs Bunny anti-gravity moves. I started to laugh (but held it in so as not to spoil things for others in the theater).

Then there's the extended battle against Smaug at the end of the movie. I also had to quell laughter then--especially with the old box swiftly going down to the box rapidly coming back up switcheroo so Smaug misses on his fire breathing attacks. Smaug has so many misses he seems more like Yosemite Sam than a fearsome dragon. Nothing works for Smaug the Incompetent.

The ten dwarves use a gazillion different attack methods against Smaug one after another in the final minutes of the film. Though on the run for their lives, the dwarves manage to figure out counter attack after counter attack by using different aspects of the old mining machinery. The seemingly unending proliferation of special effect action yanked me completely out of the story. The only thing missing from traditional cartoon fights was to hit the dragon with a frying pan, have his head morph into the frying pan shape, and then have him shake it out to its normal shape. The prolonged special effects were a yawn--neither frightening nor adventurous.

Problem 2. Smaug the Slow and Stupid.
DOS's Smaug is pretty feeble. He can be stymied by ten dwarves and a hobbit. So, he gives up on killing them, all visible and basically in front of him for a good stretch of time, and goes to attack Lake-town. How lame is that?

This is the same Smaug who 1) destroyed a strong, thriving dwarf empire, 2) destroyed the rich, prosperous town of Dale, and 3) has held the Lonely Mountain and its treasure for two centuries. But, DOS's Smaug can't lay a finger on any of the eleven in the basically weaponless quest party.

Tolkien portrays Smaug as extremely dangerous, and more than a match for all fourteen of the quest party who hide themselves in the mountain and, except for Bilbo with his ring on, never dare to directly confront Smaug, let alone attack him.* Only fleeing into the mountain itself and shutting their escape door saves them from his fierce beating and fiery breath.

Problem 3. Tossing Light, Fun Elements.
To force DOS into the epic mold, Peter Jackson removes almost all the fun elements from Tolkien's wonderful story. There is no taunting of the spiders in this movie. Gone is the clever introduction by Gandalf of the thirteen dwarf house guests to the not so social Beorn. DOS includes only a very shortened version of the long, witty conversation between Bilbo and Smaug. These episodes in the book lighten the story and bring fun into it.

There isn't much merriment in DOS. There's a hint of charm in the back and forth between Tauriel and Kili at the beginning of their DOS-invented romance. The romance does not improve Tolkien's story, but it does improve Jackson's movie. There needs to be something light in DOS.

Problem 4. Portraying Use of the Ring.
DOS also has problems with filming Bilbo with his ring on. To show Bilbo with the ring on Jackson uses a semi-monochrome Bilbo in an out-of-focus bubble. That doesn't work well with extended shots, so most of Bilbo's conversation with Smaug is done with Bilbo sans ring.  (Tolkien's Bilbo always has his ring on when talking to Smaug because the dragon is deadly dangerous.) In DOS Smaug can easily kill the visible Bilbo, but doesn't.

I feel bad for Peter Jackson and this movie project. His previous tellings of LOTR and The Hobbit, part 1 had some flaws but were never boring or cartoonish. The Desolation of Smaug, however, cannot overcome its cartoon-like torrent of special effect fighting and consequent dumbing down of opponents like Smaug. Unfortunately, The Desolation of Smaug goes on my do-not-see-again list.
*From The Hobbit, "Inside Information", p. 231:
"The dragon came. They had barely time to fly back to the tunnel, pulling and dragging in their bundles, when Smaug came hurtling from the North, licking the mountain-sides with flame, beating his great wings with a noise like a roaring wind. His hot breath shrivelled the grass before the door, and drove in through the crack they had left and scorched them as they lay hid. Flickering fires leaped up and black rock-shadows danced. Then darkness fell as he passed again. The ponies screamed with terror, burst their ropes and galloped wildly off. The dragon swooped and turned to pursue them, and was gone.

"'That'll be the end of our poor beasts!' said Thorin. 'Nothing can escape Smaug once he sees it. Here we are and here we shall have to stay, unless any one fancies tramping the long open miles back to the river with Smaug on the watch!'"


MAX Redline said...

I was underwhelmed with the previous movies, anyway; Bilbo is forever whining, crying, and having to be rescued. "Sam" struck me as one of the better characters of the hobbits, and Gandalf came off well, too - at least for me.

T. D. said...

I was hoping for better. And even though I knew Jackson liked to add and extend fights when there were already plenty of them in the book, I was not prepared for unbelievable feats of battle.

A lot of critics apparently liked it, but then they and I don't share the same political or artistic views. Heh.