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That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
(2013)

(SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown.


Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbits. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creatures and The Lovely Bones. The former remains one of his best pictures. The latter, while not quite the disaster some claim, is guilty of the over-produced indulgence found when no one is prepared to say “No” to a talent. If the Jackson of the ‘90s had access to the full WETA box of CGI tricks would the uproarious physicality of those pictures have been displaced, and with it one of the keys to their appeal? It’s hard to tell. His transition movie, The Frighteners, is a largely successful blend of the director’s crazed energy and a more glossy Hollywood finish. By the time of The Return of the King, Jackson is indulging in uncomfortably obvious CGI action with virtual doubles (often involving Legolas, so it’s clearly an affliction for which there is no remedy), but in general the trilogy bears the weight of world-building physicality successfully; the exceptions are just that. 


So what happened? King Kong, his passion project, was finally made but it resolutely underwhelmed. It had the bloated running time of his Middle Earth ventures, but with no good reason. His casting was off; a strange assembly of actors who never quite gelled. And most significantly, the earlier warning-signs of off-the-leash CGI were now manifested in dumb dinosaur stampedes and general whackiness. He managed to continually undercut himself; with no limitations, he lost his bearings as to the kind of picture he was making. So the tragedy never takes hold the way it should, and the forays into comedy are ill advised.


He also seems unaware that slapstick humour works because it is physical; make it virtual and you’re lost (I’ll recant this in a few paragraphs time, but it’s most likely an exception that proves the rule). Jackson’s probably the guy who thought the sequence in Attack of the Clones where CGI C3PO’s head was welded to another CGI droid’s body amid a CGI landscape was hilarious. Certainly, it appears that in the period since LOTR he has picked up many of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels bad habits. Just in time for his trilogy of prequels. Perhaps it’s simply the difference between a 40-year-old filmmaker and a 50-year-old filmmaker. Jackson’s willingness to go the extra mile has gone; it’s just a shame it happened a decade earlier (in terms of comparative ages) than his buddy Steven Spielberg (at least he was in 60s when he drowned Indiana Jones in a quagmire of CGI).


Another warning sign with Jackson is the type of material he currently venerates. He’s a big fan of Steven Moffat’s Sherlock and Doctor Who (he was a Who aficionado anyway; above and beyond one might suggest, since he went to the unconscionable extreme of casting Sylvester McCoy). Moffat, of course, contributed to the first in a projected series of CGI Tintins for Spielberg and Jackson.  Moffat’ first TV successes (well, it’s a relative term) were in the comedy arena, and as a consequence his dramas are drenched in self-conscious show-off dialogue and waving at the audience. He’s a writer with a talent for an imaginative premise, but who appears uncomfortable and ill-equipped if he’s not undermining it with tired and repetitive gags every couple of minutes (most of which are interchangeable across the two shows). Unfortunately it means the same incessant one-voice self-reflexivity is found across all his characters. Not an isolated complaint by any means (Joss Whedon stands guilty), but it lessens the damage if the post-modern asides are actually funny. Maybe they were, the first time.


Moffat has also of late become enchanted by his own dense yet internally illogical Who continuity. It’s an indication of how the geeks now rule the media world that an area once avoided by the mainstream at all costs has now become the tail that wags the dog. Lucas’ Star Wars prequels were partly sunk by this predilection (everyone relates to everyone!) Jackson’s new trilogy takes such pains to make The Hobbit a direct lead-in to LOTR that it suffers as a film(s) in its own right. The director also evidences a Moffat-esque lack of restraint in respecting someone else’s property; he must make it “his own” even if that stamps all over the original tone. Jackson can’t trust himself to remain true to his environment. In LOTRNo one tosses a dwarf” was goofy exception (which he couldn’t resist reprising due to audience approval). The Hobbits are littered with cheap gags, toilet and sexual humour. I wouldn’t suggest that some of these aren’t funny, but there’s a cumulative effect of diluting the distinctiveness of Middle Earth; it debases Tolkien and renders the series increasingly indistinguishable from the competition.


The result of Jackson becoming a “That’ll do” filmmaker is that he’s started making only “okay” movies. I probably enjoyed An Unexpected Journey more than many, but I still found it severely wanting when stood alongside its predecessors. Most of the criticisms were valid; the indulgent lack of focus; the willingness to stretch a small story to “epic” breaking point. Most painful was the lapse into full-blown CGI fakery. It felt like a punch in the gut to witness the computer game gravity-defying action sequences in the goblin caves. It was almost as if the director was actively mocking anyone who actually wished once again to be captivated by the tangibility of this fantasy world. It seems like such an anti-intuitive move, one can only assume that Jackson, alone in his ivory tower, has lost the plot as Lucas did before him. That, and the whole 48 frames per second debacle, saw him swiftly plunge from fan darling to enemy number one.


So the knives were out for The Desolation of Smaug. I’d read as many reviews suggesting Jackson had addressed his earlier missteps as I did ones that accepted TDOS as a marginal improvement but still nothing to write home about. So perhaps my appreciation results from a case of continued low expectations (as with AUJ). Perhaps seeing this one in 3D (but not 48fps) made all the difference in immersive terms (a strike against the overall quality of storytelling, if true). But I’m pleased to say I really enjoyed TDOS. It may be as overworked as An Unexpected Journey but it is weighed down by none of its drag. It’s still blighted by the CGI curse of AUJ, but less criminally so. Most significantly, it has the benefit of a meaty plot to dig into and makes the most of each successive stage in the ongoing quest.


At least we know now that Jackson doesn’t know when to stop with the CGI, as if he's trying to match George Lucas for unnecessary CGI characters. Just because you can make all your Orcs CGI doesn't mean you should. Of course, a pertinent concern is what Orcs are doing in The Hobbit at all. If fidelity to the source material is your primary concern, however, you’ll have given up on these films long before Jackson decided to tackle Bilbo’s first adventure.


It is worth stressing that there’s a difference between holding off from vehemently opposing changes and recognising there are limits to how much a text should be bent out of shape or be grafted with extraneous incidents and details. While TDoS is shorn of the bloat of AUJ, it suffers at times from Jackson’s Lucasisations. Shouldn’t the permeating presence of Gandalf be enough to link trilogies? Do we really need the return of "young" Legolas? Especially since he never looks less than an uneasily rejuvenated waxwork. Since Jackson’s unable to disguise that Bloom is a fair bit beefier than he was before, it might have been better (if he really had to bring him back; it isn’t as if Legolas was the greatest character evah) to leave him be rather than substitute one distraction (he looks older) for another (he looks weird). The vertically labyrinthine realm of the Wood-elves is superbly realised, and Lee Pace (has he changed his agent? Suddenly he’s everywhere) is marvellously unswervable as the King of the Wood-elves. There’s no need for the intrusion of Bloom’s impassive (read: wooden) performance.


This passage of the film introduces another of Jackson’s major additions; Tauriel. It’s understandable that he felt the need to invent a lady Elf to up the quotient of female characters, much as he expanded Liv Tyler’s role in the originals. And credit to Evangelline Lilly, she is very good (much more confident in her performance than Bloom, and a much stronger presence than Tyler ever was). But Jackson inevitably shoots himself in the foot. He attempts to lend a semblance of balance to the male-centric proceedings, but he lazily defines his female character by not one but two love interests (his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens must take equal blame)! Of course, Tauriel is a kick-ass warrior too (because this is post-Buffy) and of course she is headstrong and rebellious too (because this is post-Buffy).  Most tenuous is her affection for Kili (pretty boy dwarf Aidan Turner), leading to randy sex talk somewhere between Benny Hill and Steven Moffat.  An exchange between them revolves around whether Kili has anything of value down his trousers. I’m sure Tolkien would have heartily approved.


These elves are also the main offenders for whizzing around like they're in a computer game; yes, we get it, they’re super ninja types. Don’t you think it would be more effective if there were actually a sense of peril though, Peter? It comes a great surprise in the closing stages, when Legolas is actually seen hurting a bit in his fight with Bolg (Lawrence Makoare). As much as a plastic-faced Elf can express any emotion, that is. There should have been more of this sort of thing. 


The escape from the Wood-elves barrel sequence starts out well; it’s involving, dramatic and well staged. It’s only when Legolas shows up and begins acrobatically shooting orcs while astride two barrels rushing down river that you remember this is a director who’d rather show off than engage the audience.  Once he starts, he just can’t stop, and the tail-end of the sequence wouldn’t look out of place in the goblin kingdom in AUJ; Bombur (Stephen Hunter) flies about the air taking down Orcs left right and centre before landing on his feet, the barrel now adorning body armour. It’s an incredibly silly bit of business that takes you out of engagement with the drama, but I have to admit to being carried along with the laughter of the rest of the audience (so there’s my admission; CGI can make LOLs).


If the attempts to link everything to LOTR didn't generally mar my enjoyment, they do have the unfortunate side effect of highlighting that this isn’t a life or death drama on the same scale. The fate of Middle Earth isn’t at stake, and torrents of (virtual) Orcs and glimpses of Saruman’s eye won’t change that. Ian McKellen was reportedly less than impressed at the quantity of green screen required for this trilogy, a turnaround from LOTR where he actually got to act with real actors, so he’s clearly with Joe Public there (does Jackson listen to critics, or does he Lucas-like keep his fingers in his ears?) It’s ironic then that Gandalf's quest feels like it’s more about giving McKellen something to do than anything really essential. All this detective work is repetitive (preemptive?) of what will come in LOTR. It’s unnecessary but admittedly well executed. 


We also re-encounter Sylvester McCoy covered in bird shit. This time out McCoy is called on to do some proper acting, so Radagast the Brown is a less successful screen presence (I was surprised as anyone that McCoy was okay in AUJ). There’s also the problem that it’s impossible to see McCoy and McKellen sharing a scene and not think of the latter’s brutal takedown of the former in The Five(ish) Doctors.


Leading in to the encounter with the Wood-elves, the Mirkwood spiders sequence is suitably tense and features some enjoyably trippy visuals. Speaking of which, Jackson must be on something or really stoked with 3D as Gandalf’s encounter with Sauron verges momentarily on 2001’s stargate sequence (unsurprisingly, the director is fond of the occasional in-your-face use of the technology; while I love the buzzing bees, I was less enamoured of the pointy objects flying at me).  


Later, Lake-town has a nice physicality to it and feels consequently much closer to the world of the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring. The new additions to the cast here are dependable if unremarkable; Luke Evans supplies a variation on the brooding hero (pre-Aragorn with a troubled history; see also Thorin for another take on this) while Stephen Fry plays Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town. His right-hand man, Alfrid (Ryan Gage) is a tepid version of Brad Douriff’s twisted man behind the throne in The Two Towers.


The luxury of an increased running time hasn’t afforded increased identification with the numerous dwarves. Richard Armitage’s Thorin continues to receive the lion’s share of the attention, and his is by far the most rounded character of this new trilogy (much more so than Bilbo). Conflicted by the impulses of honour and greed, quick-tempered and prickly, he makes for an effective anti-hero throughout. Ken Stott’s considered Balin, Bilbo’s chief advocate, is second most in screen presence, but aside from belligerent bald Bifur (Graham McTavish), Armitage, and a barely present James Nesbitt, the rest merge into one.


Martin Freeman continues to deliver a deceptively at-ease performance as Bilbo. His tone and manner isn’t so different to any number of previous roles; it’s only when the pull of the One Ring comes into play that he broadcasts how good he is.


So far I haven’t mentioned the film’s major selling point, the confrontation with Smaug. It’s a resounding success, and any early concerns over whether or not the dragon should be seen to speak (there was doubt it could be pulled off convincingly) prove groundless. Cumberbatch’s vocals (and motion capture movements) lend the beast a playful malevolence, and Jackson builds the scene with an expertise that gives way to excess elsewhere. Bilbo’s realisation that he is staring at a huge closed eyelid is a wonderful moment, and his tumbling, falling, running attempts to escape the twisting, turning, pursuing dragon down the vast mountain of gold is as impressive as anything the director has staged in his career. True, I didn’t Smaugasm over Cumberbatch they way we all did at Andy Serkis’ Gollum. But it also says something that this movie suffers not-at-all from being the first Middle Earth movie without even a glimpse of the one-time owner of “Precious”.


The heftiest addition to this encounter is the dwarves’ attempt to bury Smaug beneath a torrent of molten gold. The frenetic reactivation of the mine by the company as Smaug gives chase, followed by yet more of Jackson’s keynote gravity-defying antics, should really have been a huge turn off. But I was engaged throughout, even when Thorin stands atop Smaug’s snout. Perhaps it’s because, on this occasion, Jackson never loses sight of his narrative goal amid the excess (no doubt he was inspired by Terminator 2 and Alien 3); I wouldn’t compliment him on such intemperance, but he didn’t lose me this time (and again, I may redress this view when I revisit the film in the harsh light of 2D rather than 3D).


Jackson leaves us in a place where it isn’t difficult to guess what will happen next, even without having read the novel. I’m dubious whether he can make There and Back Again sufficiently engaging, since it looks as if it will consist of one long protracted battle. The Return of the King just about got away with such extensive sequences of warfare because we were invested in the characters; Jackson will have his work cut out for him to achieve the same this time. It’s perhaps inevitable that I’ve given more attention to what doesn’t work than what does, since Jackson has adopted certain abrasive filmmaking techniques since LOTR, but for the majority of its running time The Desolation of Smaug more than satisfies. At least one part of this trilogy has proved fit to stand in the company of The Lord of the Rings.


****

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