Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Excess

Oh, "The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug", you are such a difficult case.  I've sat here at this screen for two days now, trying my best to finally get a review written that could adequately fit both the movie and my thoughts on it.  Because I guess I generally hated "The Hobbit 2", but it feels almost unfair to hate this movie, despite its flaws.  Peter Jackson is just a fat little fanboy, way too enthusiastic for the material for his own good, to the point he's gone way too far with his Hobbit trilogy.  But its such a childish excess, like somebody with far too many ideas and fun moments to add to his movies.  Of course, he and his team seem to have forgotten that a human brain can only endure so much, there's such a thing as too much.

Most of us all generally agree that the decision to turn "The Hobbit" into a trilogy was generally a mistake.  The horrible shame of the whole experience is that Peter Jackson's production has all kinds of really good ideas.  You could not have found a better Bilbo Baggins than Martin Freeman, I don't think any better actor for that part has ever existed or ever will come again.  The world-building, the art design, the action sequences (some of them anyway), are all spot-on.  The only problem is that the movies are too damn long, for no reason other than to accommodate massively long exhausting action scenes.  We could have had three lean ninety-minute movies.  Instead we have three bloated nightmares, which are maybe 60% excellent, and 40% pain.  I know Peter Jackson is having a great time making these movies, and his team seems utterly unable to remove anything.

"Desolation of Smaug" is probably a more streamlined movie than the last one, I couldn't immediately name about an hour of content that could have been removed as I did last year with "An Unexpected Journey".  We also thankfully move at a very brisk pace for most of the movie, at least until the action climax when the movie slows to a damn craaawl.  We aren't going to spend an hour in Bag End singing songs and ruining Bilbo's dishes like last December.  But we will spend an hour in Smaug's cave, which is maybe just as bad - if not worse.  So we've gone two steps forward, fixing some of the mistakes of last year, and just as many steps back.  Return to Go, do not collect $200.  And if trends indicate anything, we're probably at the high water mark of "The Hobbit" right now.  Because next year, with "The Hobbit 3" based entirely around a three hour battle sequence*, its going to get much much worse.

A few years back Peter Jackson remade the 1933 giant monster classic "King Kong", while again, making a huge bloated movie with none of the narrative efficiency that was seen in the original.  I think in that movie it took the characters roughly a half hour just to get out of Manhattan, and it basically moved at that speed from there.  You can see the wild enthusiasm of a fanboy all over that project, featuring recreations of lost scenes and unfinished special effects from Merian C. Cooper's Depression-era blockbuster.  And I know Peter Jackson must know better, it just seems like he's suppressing his reason to follow a base instinct to throw in the kitchen sink - throw in six hundred kitchen sinks, along with a dish washer and a fridge - just to see how much he can get away with.   It was a huge movie, unnecessarily huge, but somehow still managing to hold the spirit of the original 1933 film, despite its issues.  And we're still suffering from those same problems here.  Only it isn't a seemingly endless series of dinosaurs endlessly eating crew members, its now endless series of orc attacks.  I don't think there were this many orcs in "The Lord of the Rings" movies.

What's fascinating is that "The Hobbit 2"'s first third or so, actually is a shining example of how Peter Jackson's technique could have been used perfectly to make some really incredible films.  The first series of events in "Desolation of Smaug" are startling with their energy and speed, something utterly lacking in the first movie.  We go from Beorn the Skinchanger to the Mirkwood to the battle against the spider monsters to getting captured by the Wood-Elves in the span of forty minutes or so.  It was fantastic, wonderfully back on pace, and even properly focusing on Bilbo Baggins, the poor often-forgotten protagonist of these movies.  They even let the spiders talk, so it felt almost like a true adaptation of "The Hobbit", rather than a prequel to "The Lord of the Rings" that just happened to include "The Hobbit" as a subplot.

And then, the next phase of the movie shows that Peter Jackson's additions could really work along with the original text to make for a richer more exciting movie.  The escape moment in the original kid's novel was whimsical enough, just having dwarves and a hobbit ride down a river in barrels.  That's not enough for a huge action epic, so now an orc army has to swoop down attacking them in the river, while elves fight the orcs in a huge three-way theme park river ride battle.  And as stupid as that sounds, its actually the most exciting moment of the movie, an insanely fun combination of violence and hilarity that is exactly the tone Peter Jackson has probably wanted to hit throughout these movies.  So well-done there.  And just before that, there's an addition of a love triangle between the sexy Dwarf, Kili, a new female archer elf played by Evangeline Lilly, and "Lord of the Rings" alum, Legolas.  This actually sounds a lot worse than it actually is.  That triangle isn't fantastically written, but it opens up possibilities for an expanded storyline, and its at least something I cannot predict.  It doesn't quite have the screentime it needs (Kili and Lilly spend about a scene together exchanging wanton barmaid talk about "things blow frocks") but its interesting enough, and adds a female presence to a movie that would otherwise be entirely about dudes.

Then there's the rest of the movie.  Suddenly the plotline slows down to exactly nothing, as now Laketown needs to have this huge political crisis, and more orcs need to attack that side, and half the dwarves need to be left behind to get involved this utterly unnecessary action climax that Jackson created out of whole cloth.  The plotting is so massive that the orc captain, who is maybe third down on the list in terms of the villain hierarchy, cannot even be killed**, and now we have that element to take care of in the next movie.  This whole thing seems to last about forty minutes.  Then we have Gandalf hunting after the Necromancer (Sauron) in Dol-Guldur, which is a part of a battle that Tolkien alluded in ancillary material but never developed directly.  Then finally, in what adds up to just a third of the climax, is an actual scene from "The Hobbit", Bilbo confronting Smaug.

I should point out that the Smaug moments in "The Hobbit" were about a chapter long.  In the 1977 cartoon movie, it was five minutes long.  In this movie, its... actually I have no idea.  It could have been forty minutes long, it could have been an hour, it could have been ten hours.  I might have lived seven lifetimes down in the caves of the Lonely Mountain, watching Benedict Cumberbatch voice act a dragon.  The effects on Smaug are fantastic, and Cumberbatch as always is great, supplying his insanely-deep Khan voice for the character.  And for the first five minutes, when Peter Jackson is actually adapting a scene from "The Hobbit", where Bilbo and Smaug are having their battle of wits, its wonderfully tense and impressive.  I don't think the tone is exactly right, Bilbo seems too terrified and not nearly as confident as his character arc should have made him by this point, but its easily one of the better scenes of the movie.  Until, of course, Peter Jackson cannot contain himself, so he has the dwarves rush in, huge action scenes take place, and suddenly this is a mine kart roller coaster ride.

I couldn't even make sense of what I was seeing after maybe an hour or so of constant drama and action, "The Hobbit 2" has beaten me like no other movie has.  The dwarf plan makes almost no sense at all to me, in a needlessly complicated and ridiculously over-sized location, they attempt to use the mines' own machinery to kill Smaug.  (Its actually the plan from "Alien 3" only bigger and dumber, if you can believe that.)  So there are mine karts, giant forges, fans the size of Delaware, bombs, dragon fire, the kitchen sink, and a giant golden dwarf.  And by this point my brain was reduced to ooze, as Peter Jackson and his special effects team had gone on a six-city tour of my cerebellum, blasting away neurons with machine guns, raping my consciousness.  I danced with the stars and got married to the color green.  We had a baby, the new color of Mongtan.  The big bang exploded in my ear drum and... well, my ear has had this stinging feeling in it ever since, I should probably see a doctor about that.  Excess dimensions, higher frame rates, computer generated marvels at every turn, ITS TOO FUCKING MUCH.  FUCKING GET TO THE POINT, ENOUGH ALREADY.  A-FUCKING-NUFF.  I don't remember if the golden dwarf melted, gilding the dragon, or if the dwarves jumped inside and piloted it to fight Smaug like an episode of "Power Rangers" - I don't know which would be more ridiculous.  But I do know this:  this last act of the movie is pure violence to your mind.  It is frenetic torture on an atomic level, as bad as the ending to "The Man of Steel", or any Transformers movie.

Its worse than the Goblin Cave in "The Hobbit 1"!  Remember, everything I just described was done in FIVE MINUTES in the older versions.  What was wrong with just two characters interacting?  Just Bilbo and Smaug, together, having their moment, that was all we needed.  Did we need a jungle gym wrapped in a roller coaster being stuffed down our throats?  No, we didn't.

And that's where the movie ended.  Because there was simply too much insanity and action for even this part of the story to be concluded.  "The Hobbit 3" will open with Smaug attacking Laketown, and if you think that will be a relatively short adventure, you are truly naive.  Oh, you sad little child, you know nothing of the world.  Because Bard the Bowman is now locked in a dungeon by a fat British man with a comb over, and Grima Wormtongue's unibrow cousin is there, snarking over Bard's fate.  Not to mention that there are four or five dwarves, an elf maiden, and a company of orcs just waiting to join the battle.  The madness is not over.  It has not even yet begun!

So there we are.  "The Hobbit 2", so close, yet so far.  I know I keep harking back to how things were in the book, but there was nothing wrong with the book.  We didn't need these movies, and though Peter Jackson makes a compelling argument, with some truly inspired filmmaking, the sad part is, the bad almost outweighs the good.  Huge spectacles are nothing new, every movie basically now is a giant spectacle.  Its more impressive to me when we resist those temptations to have giant action scenes, and instead go back to the basics, and just have characters have an adventure.  This is why I liked "Iron Man 3", because it didn't have impossibly-huge world crushing sequences that lasted for decades while I felt my soul whither away into dust.

Maybe I'm just a cranky asshole.  Who just doesn't get it anymore.  I don't know.  I can't really be sure of anything after "The Hobbit 2".  I feel like my atoms might want to succeed from my union and join the circus.  God speed, little particles of my being.  God speed.  May you find more joy in your movie-watching than I have this day.

* Which by the way, in the book, you see barely any of, because Bilbo hides with the Ring on and avoids the entire annoying confrontation in its entirety.  I am certain Peter Jackson has none of Tolkien's restraint.  So the Battle of Five Armies will last an hour and a half, and make the Battle of Pelennor Fields in "The Return of the King" (which was itself somewhat bloated and ridiculous) look like the Pig War of 1859, where settlers along a disputed border in modern Washington state argued for a few months over whether a American farmer should have to pay reparations for shooting a pig owned by the British that was eating his potatoes - resulting in no casualties, injuries, or even shots fired.  I don't know about you, but I'd rather watch a movie about the Pig War than the light and sound nightmare MGM and Warner Bros are cooking up.

** That orc captain is Bolg, the son of Azog, the white-skinned CG orc captain from the last movie.  Azog, by the way, should be dead already, I'm not sure what he's doing in this trilogy.  Bolg is the character who is supposed to be in command of the goblins in "The Hobbit" (though he's unnamed in the actual book), so now Azog is taking his son's place.  This means that Bolg is basically redundant.  And really, why do we need two one-dimensional evil computer-generated characters?  Both of whom are just low-rent versions of Lurtz, the Uruk-hai commander from "The Followship of the Ring", anyway.  They're excellent examples of how special effects have degraded over the years, going from the fantastic and chilling practical make-up on Lurtz, to the horrible PlayStation 3-level effects on Azog.


  1. Kili/Kate was the laziest romantic subplot NA. Zero chemistry, zero development, zero reason to be in the movie.

  2. Are you serious? It's a freaking TRILIOGY? This is the first time I've heard of this. Fluff this noise, I like & respect Peter Jackson and all, but I'll just stick to the book and 1970's acid drop cartoon thank you very much.

  3. I have really liked the Hobbit movies for what they are, although I think it is universally agreed upon that they could stand to be about an hour shorter. I love anything LOTR. The originals are, in my opinion, one of the Top 3 trilogies of all time. So obviously, I was excited when I found out The Hobbit was going to get a film adaption, but I worried they would suffer from "Star Wars Prequels" Syndrome. They haven't reached that level, thankfully, but they could have been really really good. Part 2 was a significant improvement over the first, but still suffered some of the same problems. It has been a good, but flawed journey so far.


  4. Yesterday, LOTR. Today, The Hobbit. Tomorrow, The Silmarillion!

    Actually I wouldn't be surprised if that's what Jackson is thinking. The Hobbit movies are great so far, so unnecessary, but still super enjoyable. I just need to forget that a book for them ever existed. Then I like them more. However I'm not sure if this is because they haven't been out as long, but I've only rewatched the first Hobbit movie once. I rewatch LOTR on like a monthly basis. So I dunno. I really hope the Hobbit movies age as well as LOTR did.

    On that note, I think LOTR was made at the best time in the special effects development era. As you say, it's gritty and realistic and doesn't feel computery. And that's because a lot of it wasn't back in the LOTR days. Now, way too much of it is.