When I was a kid, I loved The Hobbit and read it over and over. The Lord of the Rings, apart from isolated moments (mostly Shelob and the destruction of the ring at Mount Doom), bored the pants off me — I dragged myself through it once (I used to say that I’d moved my eyes over every page) and that’s it. When the Peter Jackson films were announced, I decided I wanted to try rereading the novels before seeing them, and was surprised to find them quite entertaining. All the stuff with the humans that had made The Two Towers such a slog for me as a kid was suddenly the most interesting part. The films weren’t that bad, though I did find them a little too serious in mood. To my mind, the bits with the hobbits should have lightened things up a bit, but Jackson chose to play up the burden of the ring rather than present Sam and Frodo as I saw them: ordinary, life-sized characters against a backdrop of myth, people who liked the comforts of home and a good meal and feet up by the fire but who had been drawn into a story too large for them. On the whole, though, I enjoyed them well enough.
So I had high hopes for the three films that would somehow stretch the book I’d preferred as a child (and which I have not reread as an adult) into a similar epic. I didn’t love An Unexpected Journey, though; it wasn’t terrible, but some of the scenes felt wrong to me. The dwarves were too heroic, and Bilbo too stoic, to square with what I’d remembered. I’d been one of maybe three people in the world not to be thoroughly enchanted with Andy Serkis’s Gollum (a big part of the problem being that he sounds far too much like Gurgi and Glomer), but the riddle scene could have saved the first movie all by itself for me if Martin Freeman had sold it to me. Unfortunately either Jackson or Freeman has decided that Bilbo is only ever mildly discomfited, never actually afraid, and as agreeable and competent as I find Martin Freeman in other stuff, he barely makes an impression on me in this role.
All of which is a probably unnecessary preamble to my main point, which is that I found The Desolation of Smaug utterly stultifying, a complete waste of time. It wasn’t just the intromission of Legolas and Thauriel and their juvenile, poorly written plot thread. The whole thing was just unwatchable. Of the few parts I enjoyed even a little, only Ian McKellen, Sylvester McCoy, and a few moments in Mirkwood (the dwarves’ disorientation and the spider peril) come to mind. Benedict Cumberbatch is wasted as Smaug (who, like Khan, has been scripted and directed so generically that it hardly matters who’s playing him), and his CGI form somehow manages to be as dull and obvious as possible. Between Cumberbatch’s generic villain delivery and Freeman’s asking-for-a-promotion-on-The-Office minimal panic, the confrontation between dragon and hobbit is as snooze-inducing as the riddle game had been. And the less said about the dwarves’ daffy battle with the dragon, the better.
This is a film that features some dramatic technical achievement hitched to a shocking lack of imagination — the very best in cinematic talent used to bring a plodding, obvious vision to what can barely be called life. Where the film presents scenes that are actually in the book, it tries too hard to present what we expect to see based on decades of taking these books as a template for countless imitative high fantasy sagas, rather than putting an ounce of thought into coming up with something that would seem as fresh and exotic and thrilling to us now as those elements did back then. Where the film presents new or imported material, it flounders and resorts to cliché. Or it drafts Stephen Fry to play an embarrassingly superfluous role.
I know I’m going to sit through the last film. I’ve come this far, and even though we’re at the point in The Hobbit where I started to get bored even while reading it, I’m hopeful that there’s surely something that made Peter Jackson think it would be worth devoting another 2 or 3 hours to this part of the story. But this time I might have to wait until I can watch it in my living room.
If you’d like more reasons to dislike the Jackson Hobbit, meander over to “Peter Jackson’s Violent Betrayal of Tolkien”. I agree with pretty much every word.