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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

An Impossible Love

A Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

By Daniel Carstens

December 19, 2013

I really want to love The Hobbit.

A decade ago I was in the midst of the most monstrous film obsession of my lifetime. For three years or so, Lord of the Rings likely consumed more of my time than anything else. Each film that released in theater, on DVD, and on Extended Edition DVD required me to watch the previous films again. I also watched each DVD with friends several times, and made five trips to the theater each to view the second and third films. I viewed every minute of every special feature on every DVD, including the four different audio commentaries for each three and a half hour-plus Extended Edition of the films. In other words, I was madly in love with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

It was easy to fall in love with. The story, a simple classic tale of good versus evil, was given life and depth by Jackson and company. Lord of the Rings had everything an audience could ask for: Love, humor, action, drama; moments of heartwarming and heartbreaking. Jackson's obsessive attention to detail was like no other. Middle Earth was real, almost as if it existed in our own world, perhaps on an island somehow yet undiscovered. This fantasy world was perfect for the post-9/11 American young adult to escape to. The Best Picture win showed that Lord of the Rings was much more than escapist entertainment. The three films were the most important blockbusters, to both myself and American film goers, since the original Star Wars trilogy.
Inevitably, Jackson had to film The Hobbit. The opportunity to revisit the world that consumed Jackson for a decade, as well as the massive payout and the likelihood that someone else would end up making the films brought Jackson back to Middle Earth. As with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is divided into three films. I really wanted to love the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, almost desperately. In my heart, I feared that it would not live up to Lord of the Rings and tarnish my view of the films, much like the Star Wars prequels have done. An Unexpected Journey ultimately did disappoint.

The second installment, The Desolation of Smaug, is a stronger film than the first. There are moments where Peter Jackson shines brilliantly. When the group enters the elf forest, dreamy sound, rotating camera, and nauseated characters coalesce to create a hallucinatory scene as memorable as any from Lord of the Rings. Nearly all moments with Smaug the dragon were as harrowing for me as they were for pint-sized Bilbo. These moments transported me back in time, summoning emotions I had not felt watching such escapist fantasy films in a decade since Return of the King.

Despite these brilliant moments, The Desolation of Smaug suffers from much of the same issues as An Unexpected Journey. To quote Bilbo in Fellowship, the films feel thin, like butter scraped over too much bread. Jackson insisted on stretching The Hobbit into three films, to the detriment of pacing and substance. There are action scenes that feel forced, and other scenes that should have been left for the extended cut. There are some provocative additions, particularly Tauriel, a female elf who was fabricated for the film, and her forbidden relationship with Kili the dwarf. Ultimately, however, The Desolation of Smaug disappointed me like An Unexpected Journey, albeit to a lesser extent.

The Hobbit, both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, have caused me to study myself as an audience member perhaps even more than Jackson as the filmmaker. Is The Hobbit really below the quality of Lord of the Rings? Or is it my preconceptions, shaped long before viewing the first film? The Hobbit is not Lord of the Rings, therefore is it possible for my mind to view it on the same level? The announcement of The Hobbit as a trilogy immediately raised a red flag in my mind. I was convinced that there was not enough material for three films, even as I tried to remain open-minded. After my third viewing of An Unexpected Journey, I realized that while the film was partly to blame, I was equally responsible. My own notions of what the film should and would be tarnished the film before it even released.

Our preconceptions influence how we respond to a film, whether we want them to or not. When I take a step back, I realize that the first two Hobbit films are not as different from Lord of the Rings as I may feel. But my expectations and preconceptions have made it impossible for The Hobbit to be as enjoyable as Lord of the Rings. On Rotten Tomatoes, 65% of critics gave An Unexpected Journey a “fresh” rating. Meanwhile, 77% of critics gave a fresh rating to Thor. Is Thor really a better film than An Unexpected Journey, or were critics simply pleasantly surprised by Thor and disappointed with The Hobbit because of their similar preconceptions? I would wager that, when asked which film they prefer, these critics would choose The Hobbit over the mindless comic book action fodder that is Thor.

Peter Jackson had an impossible task. Lord of the Rings was that girl I was madly in love with, who was madly in love with me. It was the perfect relationship, but it had to end for whatever reason, perhaps she had a job offer she could not turn down and we were forced to part ways. The Hobbit is the next relationship. The desire is so strong to have that perfect relationship again, but this new person cannot possibly live up to my desires because she is not the same person.

I really like The Hobbit. But, no matter how much I desire, I am incapable of loving it.

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