Is “Desolation Of Smaug” A Bad Movie?

No.

I wrote a very long essay on why “Desolation of Smaug” was disappointing, but The Hobbit 2 is still a hit.  A CinemaScore grade of A-, decent reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and down 12% from The Hobbit 1 but still pretty respectable at the box office.

And Desolation is still worth watching.  The scenes with Smaug are amazing, and the visuals are gorgeous.  (I saw in 48 FPS, and you can count me a fan.)  It’s amazing eye-candy with some fun action scenes that defy all known physics, and I don’t regret spending my cash to see it.  I may even see it again.

I just don’t think it’s a great movie.

Let’s be honest; there are a ton of box office smashes that come, make their mark, and leave without a trace.  If we look at 2001, Rush Hour 2 was a gigantic smash, as was Jurassic Park III and the Planet of the Apes remake.  All of them were okay, and fun to watch, but in the end they entered your eyeballs in a flare of action and slithered out without a trace.

There’s a lot of movies like that.  Fun while they lasted.  But not great movies.

Lord of the Rings, I think, are great films that people will be watching in twenty years’ time, maybe even thirty.  They’re brilliant, and deep, and moving.  And The Hobbit, I think, will be the Phantom Menace; watched, perhaps, out of curiosity, maybe even loved by some, but interesting as a portion of a greater film.

There’s a distinction between “That was fun!” and “That was magnificent” that, perhaps, as a writer – who has to shoot for magnificent every time – is lost on people.  But I’m not saying The Hobbit is terrible, but rather a disappointment compared to Lord of the Rings.  It’s eye candy.  It’ll be fun.  But it won’t really last the test of time, if you’re to ask me.

And a lot of very silly people said, “Well, you said the Hobbit should be about friendship!  The books aren’t about friendship!” Which I did not.  What I said was this:

“I don’t envy Peter Jackson’s challenge here, because the Hobbit is a hell of a story to try to tell.  You can’t make it about friendship and the dwarves bonding with the burglar, because of how bitterly the Hobbit ends….We might be able to get around all of this thematic whiplash if – if! – the story was about friendship.  But it is not.”

People have made the point that The Hobbit is fractious, but then you need to figure out what it is about.  And thematically, The Hobbit is a mess.  Is it about Bilbo learning to be A Hero?  The Dwarves, longing Palestinian-style for their homeland?  Gandalf, fending off Baby Sauron?  Well, it’s about all of those, and when it’s about all of those, I’d argue strongly that it’s about none of those, because the characters are at odds with each other and yet the film strongly keeps trying to hammer home the resonance of Lord of the Rings.  Which was about friendship, and facing a shared challenge.

What The Hobbit is, is nothing.  It’s a lot of fun, if you don’t think too hard.  It’s three hours watching crazy action sequences.  But it’s not the heart of the Fellowship – and that’s not to say that it needs to be the heart of the Fellowship, but rather twisting the Hobbit a bit to make it about friendship was but one way to save it.  Maybe you make it thematically about lost homes, and how that eats into your soul – the tools are there, but it’s not explored in the film.  Maybe you make it about how greed drives apart friendship.

But what’s the Hobbit about?  About three hours long.  It’s fun.  But it won’t stick, because man, it just doesn’t know what message it’s trying to tell aside from “Dragons are pretty awesome, aren’t they?”

4 Comments

  1. Karmakin
    Dec 16, 2013

    I do think there was a theme to TDoS…and it was the same theme as the original trilogy as presented by Peter Jackson, who is certainly pounding the theme more than Tolkien did.

    That theme is corruption.

    The corruption of Bilbo, the corruption of Thorin, the corruption of Laketown and the corruption of the Wood Elves.

    All take different forms, but they’re all based upon that one concept.

    That said, what was missing was the overcoming of corruption that was present in the original trilogy. So basically you had a 3 hour long chase movie where everybody got emotionally destroyed by the end.

  2. Marc
    Dec 16, 2013

    And that’s the problem in many hollywood movies, including this one.
    Theme is nice, and we al like it, but shoehorning one “just because we need it” can lead to awkward results.
    “The hobbit” is a very easy book to make in movie form. All these troubles are self inflicted.

  3. GreenRider
    Dec 23, 2013

    It’s about pride, overcoming it and reshaping it.

    Bilbo, Thorin, all the dwarfs really have great pride in their heritage. That’s why the tenacious inter-relationships and individual story strings, there is no one underlining motivation.

    Each character appears to have their own agenda. Bilbo to continue in his ancestors adventurous footsteps. Thorin to reclaim his throne giving his people roots and bring them prosperity, same as his ancestors. Dwarfs to follow their king no matter what, even against their better judgment (how many times did they say to Thorin it might be better to give up, yet follow him?). The elves have similar pride in their heritage of living apart from the rest of world, you see this even in LotR. Gandalf is a protector and a guide, his pride takes a hit when he fails to detect a serious threat (rise of Sauron) earlier. Every character feels their failure as a personal shortcoming.

    The strings are the same story, reclaiming pride. Though they fail to reestablish ancestral pride, they accomplish finding pride in themselves.

    Not nearly as compelling a story as friendship, but it delves into another human(oide) emotion. There are undertones of friendship in The Hobbit, just as their are undertones of pride in LotR.

  4. Noah
    Jan 15, 2014

    I do like, as a primarily visual worker, some of the visual learning that’s gone into that movie–tropes developed over time have been refined in the DOS and they are a fine, fine example of where our work can take us. Smaug is going to go into the annuls of time with all the other great cinematic beasts and he’s going to change how people approach these creatures. But from a storyteller’s viewpoint, yeah, the whole thing is fun, it’s a great way to spend a night, and frankly even without a strong overarching theme I do like the depth of character explored in the film and the potential knock-on effects of a cast of charismatic, ‘unattractive’ characters…I think it’s a gateway movie. I think most of the movies we’re getting at the moment are gateway, because we’re starting to hit the same breaking points that reformed cinema in the first place.

    Rambling aside though the ‘baby Sauron’ description did make me wince a little. That’s not how the story works!

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