"The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" is either the second movie in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" trilogy or the fifth movie in his "Lord of the Rings" saga and depending on which path you take will help define your feelings about the movie.
Taken on its own, or as a part in the three "Hobbit" films, "Desolation" fits comfortably - enjoyable enough, brisk despite its lengthy runtime with a unique visual flair, but when considering the talent of the filmmaker behind it, and the success he had visiting this world a decade ago, "Desolation" can't help but feel like something of a letdown.
The film's greatest failure, and one that is often overlooked for the more obvious structural problems that come from stretching a single short novel into three films, is it's complete lack of emotional resonance or attachment. "The Lord of the Rings" excelled at emotional involvement. The most memorable scenes from all three pictures - maybe right behind the excellent battle scenes - are all quiet moments of reflection. Moments where the characters take a minute and refer to their place in the larger world and say something not only of Middle Earth, but of our world as well.
Each film had an emotional center that made a straightforward tale of good versus evil into a much broader story about humanity - or Hobittity as it were.
The first "Hobbit" film, despite its flaws, flirted with this idea.
Martin Freeman provided a center to the film, and his growth and acceptance with the dwarf pack he found himself in feels slightly unearned, yet resonant. The movie had something to say, and though it lost its way with Goblin tunnels and flaming pine cones, that central theme was still there and expounded on. "Desolation of Smaug" lacks such a theme.
The characters bounce from place to place, action scene to action scene without a single moment of stillness or reflection.
By the end of the film, there is no lesson learned, there is no moment of growth, there is just "To be continued." The characters are so thin, that they honestly could have replaced at least half of the 12 dwarfs with other actors, and I'm not entirely sure I would have noticed.
The decision to split the book into two films was made early on, and it seems like the first film reflects the original plan for the story.
Late into filming, they decided to split the footage into three films, and it seems like the central theme that was to come into play in the second film is now being shunted off into the finale. That makes "Desolation" less of a film in its own right than a simple arranging of pieces to get to the true end of the tale.
This lack of thematic cohesion is just one symptom of the structural problems of the film. About halfway through the movie, Gandalf takes off to go star in his own "The Lord of the Rings" prequel film that we check in on about every 40 minutes or so. These interludes are not only uninvolving - we know how they end - they kill any momentum the main story, the story we are ostensibly supposed to be following, has built. These ties to the original trilogy hamper the film. Legolas is almost comically superfluous to the entire picture - he could be replaced by any character, or better yet, cut out entirely and no one would ever care. The film is called "The Hobbit" yet the titular Hobbit takes a backseat to pretty much every other character in the film. Martin Freeman was the MVP of the last film, and every time the movie remembers to focus on him, it becomes legitimately engaging again, but then suddenly, he reunites with his companions and the movie loses sight of him once again.
The action scenes struggle from the same lack of cohesion as the rest of the film. It's almost embarrassing to think the director of the battles of the mines of Moria and Helm's Deep - two of the most engaging action scenes of the '00s - is responsible for the flat lifeless action in this film.
The barrel-chase sequence - where the characters float down a river in wine barrels while elves and orcs battle around them - feels more like a ride at Disney World than an engaging battle.
Ever since finishing "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Peter Jackson's action scenes have all modeled themselves after the much-maligned dinosaur stampede from his "King Kong" remake. A bunch of actors positioned in front of a green screen travel through their environment while amazing things happen around them. The characters become passive viewers in their own experience and the audience becomes similarly unengaged. It's rather like watching someone play a video game and refusing to hand over the controller.
Legolas flits about engaging in incredible feat after incredible feat without ever pausing or seeming in danger. He had these grandstanding moments in "The Lord of the Rings," but where those moments were crowd-pleasing, these seem largely tiring, because this time there is no moment of danger or of breath in between his feats. Action scenes are built out of valleys and peaks, but the battles in this films are simply flat high lines.
Things pick up slightly with the final battle with Smaug, because the characters are given a defined goal to accomplish and Smaug has some personality, unlike the interchangeable orcs. But because the climax to the battle is so short lived, and Jackson's digital camera is so weightless, even this impressive battle comes off feeling like a VFX reel instead of an action scene.
"The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" is the very definition of a Teflon film. It slides right off the brain immediately after watching it.
There may be a great Hobbit film buried in the trilogy when all is said and done, but it's going to take a lot of carving to get there.