Chances are very good that I did enjoy The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug… unfortunately, I either have to see it in the theater again or wait until it’s released on Blu-ray before I can say for sure how I felt. Why is that you ask? I had the extreme displeasure of seeing this in its high frame rate format (48 fps vs. the standard 24 fps) and it turns out that I have nothing but loathing for this supposedly “advanced” filming technique.
I can easily point to the moments in the film that I thought were fantastic, because I was able to recognize many scenes and action sequences, of which there are many, that had me thrilled and excited and happy to be back in Middle Earth. But with the constant distraction of viewing this film in a way that brain simply refused to accept, I had great difficulty in investing myself back into this world. It simply did not look to be the Middle Earth that I’ve come to know and love over the course of five previous films.
Perhaps I should explain exactly why I disliked the HFR presentation. It was simply too realistic… too clear… and it had the look of an older BBC teleplay shot on video, or rather, an old episode of Land of the Lost where you knew you were definitely on a film set and not in the real world as we are meant to suspend disbelief for. I’ve come to the conclusion after seeing The Hobbit 2: Smaug Harder that the artifice of film is necessary… and by removing all trace of blur, those moments when CGI become the predominant focus of the story, the stark contrast between the “real” and the “artificial” become that much more glaring. Couple that together with a backdrop of high fantasy and all the makeup and prosthetics used (Orlando Bloom’s face is most distracting… it’s so smooth and shiny that he comes off as a mannequin action hero) and this highly touted advance comes across as cheap in the end.
I’ve been trying to wrestle with my thoughts on HFR and realized that this may be a similar effect that happens with CGI humans and the “uncanny valley“. It brings the visuals to such a realistic level, that my brain can’t seem to reconcile what I’m seeing with what I should be believing. I truly needed the illusion of disbelief in order to suspend it… this format violated that sense of wonder and it’s been bugging me ever since.
OK… enough about the HFR… what about the film itself?
Picking up immediately after being dropped off by the giant eagles, Thorin and company continue their journey to the Lonely Mountain and have greater and more wild adventures every step of the way. If people were put off by the rather laconic pace of the first film, this film ramps up the action right off the bat and almost never puts on the brakes… and as the band of dwarves, together with their “burglar”, move closer and closer to their goal, the perils increase from one set piece to the next… from the giant spiders, to the realm of the wood elves, to a Laketown that looks akin to the fishing village seen in Robert Altman’s Popeye (I’m hoping it will look less silly once I see it in any format other than HFR), to the eventual showdown with Smaug himself.
As for the performances… the principal cast is as stellar as we’ve come to expect in a Peter Jackson film. A couple of the dwarves get a bit more to do, while relegating some of the motley band to more minor roles this time around in favor of introducing more characters and a few added bits not in the original story. I do have a few quibbles about some of these additions and the choices in how they were portrayed, specifically Beorn and Radagast… and Orlando Bloom got what I will forever more refer to as the “Daryl Dixon” treatment… thinking that people liked seeing Legolas be an amazingly acrobatic and deadly fighter, so let’s ramp that up and have him be more Legolas than Legolas. Does he have to literally surf on every surface? And the CGI done to his face to smooth out the decade plus since we saw him last was odd to say the least. His face was so shiny!!
I wasn’t expecting to like the female elf of Tauriel as played by Evangeline Lilly, but I thought her performance and how she was utilized was wonderful… along with Lee Pace as Legolas’ father, Thranduil. We got a nice glimpse of him atop that giant elk or moose in the first film… and I believe that same antler rack makes an appearance as his throne… but his eyebrows alone do more acting than most humans can muster. The orcs get a bit more fleshed out this time around as well, including Azog’s son, Bolg… and their relationship to the overall tale told in The Lord of the Rings becomes apparent and, in my opinion, was a welcome addition to what would otherwise be a cute little children’s tale. How that relationship is revealed will remain a mystery on this page… I suggest you see it for yourself.
Finally, I have to mention the dragon. Smaug, as voiced and motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the highlight of the film. Once inside the Lonely Mountain, the film takes a very dramatic turn and delivers the most edge of your seat moments as Smaug glowers and taunts Bilbo and the dwarves. It is within these scenes when I finally stopped being distracted by the HFR, did not care, and simply leaned back and loved every moment. Whether it’s Cumberbatch’s dripping baritone or the amazing work of WETA in creating such an impressive visual feast, the moments shared with Smaug are some of the greatest moments I’ve seen on film this year.
Would I recommend The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug? Absolutely… and if you are a fan of the previous Lord of the Rings films and/or the first chapter of The Hobbit, than this is a must. Would I recommend seeing it in the high frame rate presentation? Hell no. If you are curious about it, then by all means, see it for yourself… but if this is the wave of future for film as Mr. Jackson seems to be thinking… I have never wanted him to be wrong more so than I do now.
There and back again, and again, and again, and again,
Cornelius J. Blahg