'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' with Martin Freeman, centre, as Bilbo
'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' with Martin Freeman, centre, as Bilbo

The second film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, is an undemanding and perfectly decent action blockbuster that will make an enjoyable outing for children this Christmas. What a shame.

An undeniably brilliant producer, Jackson has the right people on board: his art-designers, Alan Lee and John Howe, come from the school of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Samuel Palmer etc – but their work’s lovely, hazy Tolkienesque feel cannot survive digital translation, or 3D, or especially an aesthetic that actively prefers exaggerated latex enhancements over the naked human face. Technically, a sad logic obtains: since Jackson’s high-speed digital cameras are so unforgiving of miniatures and sets, CGI environments (which allow a virtual camera freedom of movement) are preferred, and those movements encourage a ruinously unreal physics in the action setpieces. And that’s sort of game over. Credibility vanishes and you’re left with “awesome” and “badass” in lieu of wonder and terror.

It’s not that Jackson doesn’t care – it’s that he cares more about the fans than the characters. With his vlogs and DVD extras and production diaries, he understands modern fandom perhaps better than anyone in movies. But he doesn’t understand that The Hobbit is not in fact a lightweight bedtime kiddies’ story prequel to The Lord of the Rings so much as the same book – only left largely and powerfully implicit. Written from Bilbo’s restricted viewpoint, The Hobbit is a masterpiece of suggestiveness, an ingeniously sad parable of possessiveness and materialism filled with subtext, and a perfect mismatch for Jackson, whose competent literal fidelity to the externals of Middle-earth only emphasises his distance from its spirit. A single Nick Drake guitar-lick would give you more Tolkien than all of Howard Shore’s score. One great shot of a real tree would top a year’s worth of painstaking CGI.

As Jackson piles on backstory and boring plot explication and even a romance between a pretty elf and a handsome dwarf in an attempt to pad things out and build consistency, you begin to realise that he doesn’t at heart believe in Bilbo’s little tale. Martin Freeman as Bilbo is perfect, but he’s a butterfly directed by a sledgehammer; Richard Armitage as Thorin has been trussed into a one-note straitjacket.

At bottom, Jackson has never really believed that this new trilogy, despite ostensibly lower stakes, could actually have been subtler, deeper, more moving, more adult, and all-round better than the first. The dragon Smaug himself is magnificent, some of the digital artwork is attractive and the movie is no worse than its multiplex peers, but in my heart all I feel is . . . desolation.

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