The Desolation of Smaug – More Fairy Tale than Fantasy – 5/10

Peter Jackson overcame my resistance to fantasy in general and the Lord of the Rings in particular. Before 2000 I had a sustained aversion that lasted four decades, throughout secondary school and in the face of an older admired brother who revelled in it; was unmoved by intellectual wonder at the made up language and other complexities a clearly under-employed professor had time to construct. Fantasy stories seemed just too much like one particular writer’s sexed or gored up version of folklore made all the worse for the transparency of their individual views of women, other races, hierarchies and ideal societies where they would be king, or at least wise.
I should be more precise because I still hate the fantasy genre, so my starting point with fantasy films is not robust. However I really liked and was sucked in by the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The introduction was made by my young sons. The visible pleasure of my wider family including wife, grandmother and sister in law convinced me to postpone my biases long enough to engage. Any list of things I liked about the original films seems biased to those mentioned first. The characters were well written and cast in a story that made me care, as well as thrilling me. The mix of special effects within a glorious landscape anchored it in this world, so I wasn’t forced just to admire imagination. Yes, the story dipped badly in ‘The Two Towers”, just like every road trip has a boring middle, but we wanted to get to the mountain – so we put up with it. All that male bonding was occasionally manifested in deeply unbelievable ways, at least for supposedly sober characters. The women, as unfortunately usual, were restricted to roles full of unrealised potential. All in all it was a good series of films. I liked them, but not in my top 10.
And then he decided to do 3 more. Not one, but three. So the whole sustainability thing was always going to be a problem. I shouldn’t have worried because the first one, ‘The Hobbit’ was so blandly pointless. Going backwards in every way. The landscape and Ian McKellen sparked old loyalties, but the story was exactly what I always objected to in Tolkien. It always seemed to me that it was unlikely that something so immense as the whole cycle was likely to be all sustained brilliance. There were bound to be bad bits, and even whole bad volumes. But for those who bought into the whole vision, they seemed happy to hear more detail, and just go with the blather. Not at all unlike those lesser books of the bible that say unpleasant, weird things, or just give you long lists of ‘begats’. Lesser disciples looking for a good read risked encountering a cold squib. So you can see where I’m going with the Hobbit. As a result I was prepared to forget the whole thing. Star Wars – the early years redux.
However boredom in an African City with limited distractions led me back to a comfy cinema seat, and I found myself giving Smaug a chance.
Mr Jackson is a great director, with a great team, and lots of money to spend. He managed to make an OK film with all that, which is a mealy mouthed compliment. The landscape was just as good, as were the wizards. More dwarves – too many, and unsuccessfully rendered as heroic. Why still play them for laughs and cutesy dwarf moves? The women – sorry the woman – is a fighting machine. Good. The soft focus love at first sight stuff is simplistic and unconvincing, even compared with the love stories buried into the original trilogy. And then it’s over. Like the projector failed. Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t left wondering what next – just how a cinema team so talented at narrative and technique could simply stop the movie, as if for an interval.
The film was mediocre. My shoulders slump as yet another creative force becomes lazy and formulaic, rather than driven and inspired. The film is less complex, with too many elements taking a simple route through our imagination. Love previously mentioned. A couple of fluttering eyelids, some soft focus and that that covered. The mysterious riddle. Our heroes are required to turn up on a clear night, on such and such a date. We are held in non-existent tension, while the paltry few minutes screen time pass that are required to resolve it. The merry band that had disappeared down the treacherous mountain, reappear on cue – like a magician’s sloppy sleight of hand.
Jackson’s first interpretation of Tokein brilliantly interpreted something that many of us shied away from. Tolkein’s vision was too complicated. The limitations of my imagination rendered all those fantastic characters in amalgams of pantomime, Disney and 1970’s Dr Who programs. Jackson did what we need film directors to do. He simplified the story without making it too childish, and he used his particular creative force to make it visually intoxicating. In ‘Smaug’ he has failed to repeat this. Adult has become childish. And the visuals now look like a product placement for the New Zealand tourism board. They stand alone, when in a film, they are supposed to support and enhance.
So the story has moved from fantasy to fairy tale, and the landscape from epic to advert. Of course maybe his source material was poor. Who reads the other volumes anyway?