The first “Hobbit” film was needlessly long, padded with backstory, cameos and Easter eggs into a cartoony, rehashed bore. Peter Jackson’s devotion to his source material just seemed like indulgence the first time around. With “The Desolation of Smaug” however, Jackson has turned that obsession into a Wikipedia entry.
This second “Hobbit” film is so devoid of actual ideas or substance that it is not merely a meandering middle film without a proper beginning or ending, but it stands to be about nothing at all. It is so obsessed with its own plot details that “The Desolation of Smaug” becomes a litany of portentous prophecies, stern warnings and untrusting conversations between various species and creeds.
The film doesn’t so much pick up where the last one left off but drops us in a new CGI playground. First they outrun the orcs still chasing them, then they escape the spiders in a mystical forest, then they escape the elves holding them captive, and finally they evade the humans somehow bent on arresting them. Eventually they will reach the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) that was merely hyped in the first film, only setting up what is now prepared to be a three hour long battle sequence in “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.”
Missing from all of this is a sense of purpose and a set of values. Gone are the words of wisdom from Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who sidelines himself for much of the movie, or even the cheeky riddles and split personalities from everyone’s favorite Gollum, here replaced by Smaug to only recite more threats about how the dwarves will never reclaim their home.
What he has added (because even Jackson is not averse to fan fiction) is mightily slim. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) returns mostly for stylish, Elvish beheadings of orcs, but he’s also caught in a love triangle between the new elf maiden Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner). This drama is as manufactured and stiff as the elves. It introduces a woman and an extra archer into the mayhem and little else.
It feels remarkably overplotted in its details and somehow underplotted in how slight of consequence they are. We’ve gotten to the point where the characters are admiring the stone walls of the halls of Erebor. Jackson is constantly whip panning around the CGI vistas and playing with objects and characters in the 3-D foreground, still tinkering with the 48 frames per second that can be as plastic-y as it looked before.
It’s frustratingly pretty in a franchise that used to be grittily realistic. For instance, what is it with this movie and narrow, single file walkways? We see them in the shape of tree branches, stone staircases and Venice-like bridges in Lake Town. They’re everywhere, faded in and out as the dwarves march onward to nowhere in a same-y looking spectacle.
This seems to be true of some otherwise rousing set pieces. Whereas “An Unexpected Journey” felt intentionally cartoonish in its mostly animated action sequences, “The Desolation of Smaug” is accidentally so.
Legolas for one can amass an absurd body count without breaking a sweat. At one point he bounds across the heads of dwarves as stepping stones, blasting off arrows mid-flight, then skates down a hill on the body of a dead orc in order to decapitate another. Meanwhile, the dwarves are careening down a river in barrels when one splashes out of the water, bowls down some orc baddies and bounces over trees and rocks, allowing the dwarf to land on his feet, pull out swords and axes and utilize the sides of the barrel as a shield in his spinning death machine.
Clearly Jackson is not making the gritty, dusty brown, starkly realistic action epic he made in “The Return of the King,” but this new style suits him badly. It smacks again of a director too enamored with this manufactured excitement to trim the fat. He should really take some notes from “Gravity” on how to make a minimalistic epic on a grand scale, or “Catching Fire” on how to raise the stakes on familiar territory, or even “Iron Man 3” and how the movie allows Tony Stark to step outside himself for a moment to be a person.
“The Hobbit” is digging itself deeper into the hole it dug for itself years ago when the decision was made to split this into three movies. It exhausts me to think there can be more.