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In the Shadow of Greatness

Spinoffs, prequels, unnecessary sequels—those shameless profit-grubbers. So why do we keep going? We know they aren’t going to be as good as the original, and we say we won’t sit and watch as they ruin our favorite movie series. But deep down we all know we are going to pay for tickets to the new Star Wars sequels. The answer to this counterintuitive urge is, I believe, rather simple. It is the great appeal of the dream, the possibility, the chance, that maybe this one  will be as good as the original.

Allow me to shatter those dreams, again: Peter Jackson’s newest film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is not nearly as good as the original Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and it is not as good as many of this year’s movies either. It is, however, far better a film than the first Hobbit.

The original Lord of the Rings Trilogy was a true masterpiece. Each movie deftly combined amazing and breathtakingly large action sequences with a fantastic score, unbelievable special effects, and superb acting. But what made the movies memorable were its complex characters. Take this snippet from Sam’s speech at the end of The Two Towers:

“Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo . . . and it’s worth fighting for.”

Every character in the original trilogy was holding onto something and fighting for something; there was great evil pitted against great good. The characters cared, and so did we. Each character was fighting for the fate of the world.

Enter Bilbo Baggins, the main character in The Hobbit trilogy, a man simply looking for an adventure. He is not fighting any great moral battle; he is not holding onto anything. He is simply bored, and looking for something fun. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: memorable or moving? No. Entertaining? Maybe.

The movie centers around a group of dwarves who are seeking to return to their homeland and recover their lost gold. Bilbo, a hobbit, tags along for the adventure, and Gandalf the wizard (Ian Mckellen) functions as a sort of advisor. These dwarves must continuously escape the clutches of large group of orcs (Middle-earth’s henchmen-level bad guys), but it’s not entirely clear why these orcs are chasing the harmless dwarves.

In fact, the movie’s first twenty or thirty minutes entirely digress from the plot. The movie begins with a scene which functions mainly as a “previously in The Hobbit . . .” recapitulation. Gandalf embarks on his own journey, which unsuccessfully attempts to connect this movie with the original trilogy, and instill the movie with a deeper struggle. We are introduced to and then proceed to ignore a shape-shifter, we are introduced to and then disregard Gandalf.

Unsuprisingly then, the movie is longer than it needs to be (a rambling 161 minutes— Peter Jackson seems to have a self-imposed two and a half hour minimum length for his movies), and the Gandalf plot is entirely unnecessary. The dwarves enter an enchanted forest, and I was beginning to regret my decision, remembering how much I had hated the first Hobbit movie. But soon the movie picked up steam.

The dwarves encounter a pack of spiders, and the action increases. Elves join the fight, and we are reintroduced to Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and meet Tauriel (Evangeline Lily, also known as Kate from Lost). Legolas, perhaps the dumbest character from the original trilogy (“they’re taking the Hobbits to Isengard” and many more nonsensical sentences uttered at strange times) served one important purpose in that film, carrying the entertaining actions scenes. He returns to Smaug to fulfill the same stock role.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s greatest action scenes were huge in scope, as one massive army battled another across great plains and cities. But this sequel falls flat on its face, as oddly rendered CGI orcs fill a flat battlefield. The scene, in fact, teeters on the verge of humorous.

One well-rendered scene, however, calls for particular attention. As a fresh batch of orcs attack the elves, the elves run around, standing on top of the dwarves, and the dwarves throw swords amongst themselves to fight off the horde. In this protracted scene, winding down a twisting river, Peter Jackson’s cinematography captures both the nail-biting action and the setting’s natural beauty. The scene had me enthralled, as Peter Jackson seemed to finally capture the tone of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. But the joy was short-lived.

The plot rambles again, as the dwarves continue their march. They enter the town of Esgaroth and we are introduced to city-folk who seem to hold no significance, and a ruler who has no function in the rest of the film. This is one of many examples where Jackson feels the need to follow every plotline from the book without explaining any of the characters or necessary background information.

Jackson does deviate from the original work in the creation of Tauriel, a female elf. But in a season full of popular movies featuring strong female leads (two in Frozen, Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games), Evangeline Lily flatlines. Jackson cannot tease out any complex emotions in her character. Her sole motivation appears to be a crush-at-first sight. This should come as no surprise, as her character mirrors the stale orcs, the aggravating Elvish king, the underdeveloped residents of Esgaroth.

After hours of rambling, wandering, fighting, and running, the dwarves—and the movie—finally find their home and the lair of Smaug. I doubt though, that this movie will find a home among this season’s Oscar nominations.