Michael back again. Nathaniel recently asked us if any of us had seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Peter Jackson's latest Middle Earth chapter is entering its sixth weekend with $800+ million in the worldwide bank and three more Oscar nominations and it's gone completely unremarked upon at TFE. But I could feel the life draining out of me as I attempted to review it. Surely the world did not need one more dissection of Peter Jackson’s chronic inability to rein in his material. What’s left to say, save that Desolation has exactly the problems you would expect it to have? Hell, one could get the same from any archived review of The Lovely Bones or King Kong. All the criticisms still apply.
So I junked that review and decided it would be good for the soul to write something positive instead. After all, Jackson is a maddening filmmaker not because he’s some worthless hack but because he frequently buries moments of brilliance in all the sprawling self-indulgence. So with that in mind here is a list of five things I loved or liked about The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug:
1. Dude, Awesome Spiders - Something about spiders brings out the best in Jackson. Return of the King’s Shelob is, and forever will be, the giant spider gold standard (Annie Hall notwithstanding), but the spider attack in Desolation is nearly as good. It has what so much of the other action in this new trilogy sorely lacks: a visceral sense of danger.
2. Martin Freeman is terrific – Critics are right to point out that the trilogy’s protagonist has been egregiously sidelined amid all the subplots, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that every time Freeman does stand center stage he nails it in a big way. It’s a reminder that Jackson remains one of the best directors of actors working on a blockbuster scale.
3. Smaug is worth the wait doesn't disappoint- If there was one crucial hurdle this new trilogy had to clear it was that the dragon had to be spectacular, and Smaug delivers on the epic buildup. Jackson hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to imbuing CGI creatures with personality. The dragon is a stunning creation with great attention to detail and a superb vocal performance form Benedict Cumerbatch (whose voice is altered almost out of recognition). Of course the confrontation between Smaug and the dwarves is drawn out to such ridiculous lengths that Smaug’s initial awe-inspiring presence dwind – No, I’m staying positive! Terrific dragon. I particularly enjoy the way its abdomen glows orange as a warning it is about to breath flames.
4. I cared about one of the Dwarves this time - That’s nearly 8% of the dwarves and thus a big step up from the first leg of the Hobbit trilogy in which the dwarves were neatly divided between those I couldn’t tell apart and those I could tell apart, but so what. This time Balin, the old dwarf with the white beard played Ken Stott, emerges as a character worth giving a damn about. Then again any character might seem interesting standing next to Thorin Oakenshield with his interminable brooding.
5. Stephen Colbert is in it - I know I said five things but I’m struggling here. Honestly, the film was a real slog. The first Jackson film in which it felt like the superfluous fluff outweighed the actual meat of the story. Even Middle Earth’s normally impeccable production design has started to feel chintzy. But hey, Stephen Colbert has a tiny cameo in this one, and that reminded me of his adorably nerdy Tolkien obsession, which is always a good thing. Here he is taking James Franco to Tolkien school:
So I suppose if I’m looking for a sincere compliment to put in the fifth slot I could to point to that outpouring of nerd love as a reminder that even amid the excess and the mercenary decisions to split the films and the frequent mangling of Tolkien’s peaceful spirit ... even with all that, the films still exude a love of the material which feels genuine. Jackson’s recent films may lumber about like late-period Brando, bloated and undisciplined, but like old Brando, if you look hard enough you can still spot that glimmer of greatness you first fell in love with.
Can you say five positive things about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?