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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Year: 2013
Production Co: Wingnut Films
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Peter Jackson/Fran Walsh
Writer: Peter Jackson/Fran Walsh/Philippa Boyens/Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry

Just a few days before writing this review I read that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug had ended up on some critics' lists as the worst movie of 2013.

That's not what surprised me – the entire Peter Jackson-directed Tolkein canon, despite it's broad appeal, is not only an acquired taste but simply by nature of its content, can get a bit old. What surprised me was how two films that are virtually the same can sweep the Oscars in 2004 and then make the worst movies of the year lists less than a decade later.

We were all stunned by realistic imagery of orcs, swords, sorcery and battles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Jackson made a much bigger monster than any Balrog – few films in the history of Hollywood have spawned so many facsimiles.

It also doesn't help that the story he's telling in The Hobbit films is almost exactly the same as the one from Lord of the Rings - a group of travellers on a quest meeting all sorts of otherworldly beasts, monsters, foes and allies along the way - albeit with a new Hobbit.

It's the dreaded second installment of the trilogy, where you're not meeting anyone new and you know the biggest thrills and greatest stakes aren't to be found, so all it's really about is Bilbo (Freeman) and the troupe of dwarves trying to reclaim their mountain kingdom getting to their destination.

There's a battle with spiders and other magick-y stuff, Gandalf (McKellen) again goes off on some important mission and leaves the company like he did in every one of the Rings films, going to the Sauron's scary stronghold and getting himself captured.

Meanwhile, the dwarves reach the secret door to the underground city and Bilbo – who was recruited to the mission because of his skills as a burglar (still no idea where that came from), has to go in and get the glowing rock/Macguffin that will restore them to power.

But he has to get past the giant dragon Smaug that now sleeps in all the gold, and if the film has any technical achievement, it's that Jackson hasn't forgotten how to portray sheer scale. The dragon is gigantic next to the tiny Hobbit, and the chambers full of gold are gigantic compared to the dragon, giving the whole thing a very impressive size.

Unfortunately, we've seen a hundred CGI dragons/dinosaurs/monsters in the years since Jackson showed us what computers could really do, and giving Smaug the power of speech (albeit the sliver-tongued tones of Benedict Cumberbatch) makes him less scary than he needs to be. I remember being terrified of the giant wolf antagonist from The Neverending Story (because of An American Werewolf in London), then being relieved when he spoke because it made him far less scary.

In the same way (and the opposite of what I'm looking for now I'm not a kid anymore), a giant dragon who wants to burn you to a crisp is a scary thing if it's just dumb, giant animal. Have it try to psyche you out turns it from something truly dangerous to a moustache-twirling Dastardly Dan pastiche.

Above all I realised while watching it I'm just not the audience for this anymore, I've seen too much since that's been too similar and though each movie should stand on its own artistic merit, the Rings films were very much products of their time. The Desolation of Smaug is just another Rings film, and that's just not impressive enough anymore.

Two things worth mentioning. One; watch for Jackson's Hitchcock-like cameo very early on. Two; it's either shagging Miranda Kerr for a few years or bathing in the blood of sacrificed virgins, but Orlando Bloom doesn't look a day older than he did in Fellowship of the Ring, even besides his over-CGIeyed eyes.

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