The Desolation of Smaug: a review (spoilers)

I had thought to reread the latter portions of Tolkien’s The Hobbit before writing my review of Peter Jackson’s movie, but, as the folks on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast demonstrated this week, no such diligence is needed to completely trash this movie. From what little there I remember of the book, there are a number of truly unnecessary, egregious changes, but I want to focus on some of the broader issues from the movie rather than the picayune, which are frustrating, but, ultimately, not the greatest flaws of the movie.

A few of the key complaints laid by PCHH this week:

  1. tDoS basically operates on a single, helter-skelter pace, with just a few brief lulls where people were incapacitated.
  2. tDoS simply begins and ends without much in the way of introduction or conclusion, or even picking up where the last one left off. If the third movie picked up as much removed from the second as the second did from the first, Smaug will likely be dead off camera.
  3. the distinction was drawn between action and spectacle, tDoS clearly being the latter in place of the former instead of the latter supplementing the former.
  4. Not enough Martin Freeman

In addition to these, Linda Holmes made the comment that many of the scenes looked like a high-end video game rather than a movie. I had a similar complaint about tDoS, except that it was not just the visual effect that I had a problem with. I noted last year when I wrote about the first installment that the chase scenes felt like a video game level in that the characters had to hit the right button in order to advance, an unfortunate technique that Jackson expanded upon in this movie. First, while walking through Mirkwood, I had flashbacks to Final Fantasy X and then, in the escape downriver, it felt like a repeat of the escape from the goblin caverns from the first movie–and an easy tie-in for the merchandising department to make a video game level from.

It had troubled me last year that Jackson downplayed Bilbo’s street-cred as a burglar, something that he re-establishes in the waxing moments of the film. In a way I was glad that tDoS reestablished this plot point, but the rapid change between the first installment and the second as to what was worthy of respect in Bilbo’s character was irritating precisely because it should have been unnecessary.

Some issues that bothered me in passing:

  1. One of PJ’s shticks seems to be shoe-horning more elves into every movie he makes and, if possible, to invent or foreground love stories that contribute to the bloat in his movies. It has been a while since I have watched his King Kong movie, but at this point I wouldn’t be surprised to find an elf or three.
  2. Why was there a huge amount of greenery around the forest until you got down to Lake Town and suddenly there was ice everywhere? This seemed to be an abrupt change because PJ needed to demonstrate how much everyone in Lake Town was suffering, but just sort of came in from left field.
  3. A good chunk of the waning period of the movie (I have no idea how long it was, exactly) involved the dwarves running around their deserted kingdom trying to enact a plan that involves some sort of preset Rube Goldberg machine. Except that it seemed “the plan” involved them all instinctively knowing where to run without ever really explaining what they were doing or what they hoped to accomplish. As it turns out, they didn’t hope to accomplish anything of much significance and the whole episode was just an excuse for flashy CGI.

But one last thing that bothered me in tDoS that seems to be cropping up in a lot of movies these days is unnecessary diversity. Peter Jackson would not go so far as to make any of the hobbits or dwarves a person of color because that does not fit with the story and yet when there are shots of the crowds in Lake Town, particularly when they are there cheering on the declarations of Stephen Fry’s portrayal of a repugnant Master of Lake Town, a sizable percentage of the people look black or Asian.

I have problems with this on two levels. First, other than a few hair color/race issues with the elves, this is the only real artistic license taken with race thus far in the Hobbit films. Tolkien did not make all the people in his world white, but he did draw distinctions about generally who lived where. If one was going to take the other races largely at face value, it seems forced to include this much diversity here, particularly since–and this is the second level– it was still the poor, huddled masses who are black and Asian cheering on (particularly in the PJ version rather than the JRRT one) their oppressive white overlords. [1] I am, generally speaking, a purist when it comes to my preferences in the visual representation and I believe that in the realm of Tolkien-esque fantasy literature, themes of racism are often transposed onto the tensions between the actual races rather than the skin color within a single race. [2] When this is the case, it seems excessive to force diversity into the films.

If one were to claim artistic license in this instance and make the world more colorful than it was in the books, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. What happens in Peter Jackson’s film is what I would call the wrong way–where the people in charge, both good and bad, are white and the under classes are people of color. But why couldn’t the heroic Bard be a person of color? Again, this is not the artistic choice, I would have made and to make the population of Middle Earth more colorful would have changed the overall films and probably made a lot of people really mad, but to force this little bit of diversity in just seemed unnecessary.

Now that I have spent over a thousand words trashing the movie, I want to close with something I like. It remains the case from last year that I am intrigued with what PJ decided to do by filling out the details of a slim children’s story in order to make it a true prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies that he already did. I may be in the minority, but one of my favorite things about fantasy stories is the pageantry of world-building and so I usually don’t mind getting to see more of the world. The problem with this movie is not necessarily with concept, it is with execution. This movie was painfully bloated, with jarring transitions, painfully wasted acting talent, and is more designed to show off the technical wizardry than tell the story. [3] There are plenty of other ways in which PJ’s choices in directly the dramatically alter the morals found in The Hobbit, but I have already gone on too long. In the end, tDoS is simply not a good movie.[4]

[1] And, surprise, they will also get to cheer on their white liberator in the next movie.
[2] These are also worlds where true evil exists and they should not be cleared of all racist implications since the black skinned people, whether the Haradrim of Tolkien or the Drow and Duergar of Dungeons and Dragons, are far more likely to be black skinned, while the white skinned folk may be either good or evil.
[3] In this way it seems like the same critiques that were so devastatingly leveled at George Lucas in the transition from Episodes 4-6 to Episodes 1-3.
[4] I will likely see the final installment of PJ’s Hobbit movies, if only for completion’s sake, but tDoS mostly served to redouble my conviction that I am done with movies made out of books I like.

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