This Hobbit is Everything the Last Wasn't
Elves snore, it turns out. Their maidens make teensy-peen jokes and pine for the hottest of dwarves. And Bilbo Baggins, so concerned about his doilies just three hours of screen time ago, now punches his sword right through the trachea of a goblin — and then looks rather proud of himself. Now more than ever, the Middle-earth films of Peter Jackson (of which this Hobbit constitutes hours 15 through 18) are less adaptations of the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien than the fullest realization of the fantasy-entertainment complex the Oxford don's pastorals have inspired. Here are the proper nouns and broad outlines of Tolkien's gentle stories, but play-acted with the thunderous swords-and-sorcery heroics of the pulps, the creature-building zeal of Ray Harryhausen and young George Lucas, the wouldn't-it-be-cool riffing of cosplay and fanfic, and a belief in self-improvement through joyous, comic violence.
That last one — mostly absent in Jackson's brooding Lord of the Rings films — is so profoundly American that, as the orc heads fly (four decapitations!) and the characters discover their courage (or level up), there's high comedy in the realization that a Kiwi director mined all this relentless, inventive mayhem from the work of a mostly pacifistic academic's fairy stories yearning for a pre-industrial England. Many people worried about the state of modern cinema share something of Tolkien's nostalgia: an ache for Hollywood before Industrial Light & Magic. That's fair. But I still adore much of Jackson's latest Christmas pudding, despite its garish extravagance, its moral cluelessness, its disorganized bulk and its discomfiting belief that battle is a kind of weaponized freeze tag, where any touch of the good guy's ax or sword means the bad guy immediately collapses.
Sure, all the studios offer anymore are big, dumb adventure spectacles, but that's not a knock against the achievement of this one, which at least parades wonders before us, not the least being the greatest dragon in the history of movies. Before this miraculous Smaug expectorates his flames, orange smolders between the scales of his neck — and you might be tempted to duck in your seat.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug dwarfs its sleepy-eyed predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, and not just because this time Jackson and his co-writers have bothered to include, say, incident. It's as packed with highlights as the last one was stripped of them: better-than-usual orc raids, a horrific spider attack, much more dragon than you'd expect, an exuberant river escape that somehow turns into the old Super Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country, a too-quick visit with a were-bear. Seriously, here's a Peter Jackson movie in which we actually spend too little time with one of the monsters.
Again, much of the character drama feels stiff, especially when Ian McKellen is off-screen. But no previous Jackson Middle-earth extravaganza has had so little of it. Last year, Jackson lingered over that Shire feast like he was making My Dinner with Bilbo, and the Rings movies invested what felt like an age of man in the ennui of elves. Now, he's touched with something of the showy too-muchness that animated his cheap-o early horror flicks. His camera soars and surges through wonderfully rotted caverns and tombs, as liberated as Cuarón's in Gravity or Spielberg's in that giddy curio Tintin, which Jackson co-produced. He packs the frame with his riot of dwarves, and then fractures it in a disorienting sequence in the sepulchral tangle of the Mirkwood forest, where he arranges his heroes above and below each other on different, snarling paths, an image so rich and fearsome you'd return to linger over it again and again if you were a last-century kid lucky enough to find it in a picture book.
Such grandeur abounds. Relish Gandalf spelunking into a ghoul's trapped prison, Martin Freeman's Bilbo freaking out in the first throes of his ring-lust, the long and thrilling dragon climax, or Jackson's signature swoops over mountain vistas, a move copied in every nature documentary to hit since The Fellowship of the Ring. At moments like this, Jackson demonstrates that his true competition isn't Thor or the Transformers. It's every fantasy or adventure film ever made, including the ones that will be dreamed up by kids weaned on this, kids who won't ever read Tolkien without imagining Freeman cycling through his bag of tics: finger pointed up in confusion, brow furrowed in mild exasperation, eyes blinking like a man about to tell a truth but then thinking better of it.
Not that the result is always transcendent. The only interior conflict is whether head dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) will share his gold pile once he gets his mitts on it, although Jackson does wring some minor feeling from that; perhaps he was inspired by those lawsuits he had to file over the profits from the last trilogy. Every moment of balletic elf fighting — and there's heaps — feels invented to top the previous films, doing so more often in cartoonishness than in impact. (This time, Orlando Bloom's Legolas improvises two silly skateboard-like stunts.) Then there's the dreary meaninglessness of PG-13 hack-and-slash: We're supposed to fear these villains who can't bring down one dwarf out of 13, not even that porcine red-bearded one who looks like Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News?
The movie's biggest unintentional laugh, other that the brief elf-dwarf-elf love triangle, comes after Legolas has snuck up on Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a warrior she-elf who has as much to do with Tolkien as Tim Burton's patriarch-overthrowing Alice does with Lewis Carroll: "If I had been an orc, you'd be dead by now," he says. That's not true: Had he been an orc, she'd still have fired an arrow straight through his CGI face and into the forehead of the orc behind him.
It's up to you whether it's forgivable that Jackson's Middle-earthers are forever sneaking up on their own companions for dramatic effect, or that they speak with pauses so pregnant you can't believe no water has broken. Asked if the calamitous rumbling in the mountain beneath the dwarf posse might be an earthquake, Santa-bearded Balin replies like he's the host of a Lonely Mountain reality show just about to throw to commercial: "That, my lad," (Breath. Breath. Switch to camera two.) "is a dragon."
A complaint you'll likely hear about The Desolation of Smaug is that it's all "middle." That is, as the bridging film in a trilogy, it must suffer from shapelessness and a lack of resolution. If this were a true adaptation of a well-structured novel, that argument might make some sense. But this isn't. This is pure serial, just complications and cliff-hangers, nothing but what kids might think of as the good parts. In its form it resembles nothing more than a string of Dungeons & Dragons game nights: dangers gaped at and triumphed over, usually via slaughter, with another danger waiting at the next session and the heroes growing into even better versions of themselves. Think Horatio Alger as filtered through Gary Gygax. And remember that, with such material, a lack of resolution is actually the ideal. Once the heroes have nothing left to kill, how do we know they're heroes? And we should dream instead of this life?
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