Here’s a surprise: The best part of the new extended Blu-ray of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is not the behind-the-scenes footage where director Peter Jackson gives Stephen Colbert a prop of Bilbo Baggins’s sword, Sting — saying, “This is for sticking it to the Tea Party in the forthcoming election. I think you’ll need it.”
“Oh my gosh!” Colbert gushes. He holds his prize aloft. “Forged probably in Gondolan! Thank so much! Partner to Orcrist and Glamdring!”
Then he lets his kids hold it. Nobody bothers to speculate about whether this Sting starts to glow whenever Fox & Friends comes on.
That’s not the best thing in this new embiggened The Desolation of Smaug, but it’s representative of the great munificence of Jackson’s project: His saga, so tiresome to critics and un-geeks, is to its audience endlessly giving and idiosyncratic — built not just for the Christmas box office but for generations to share and dream along to.
That said, let’s get out of the way everything wrong with the bladder-testing, eyeball-chafing 3-D Hobbit theatrical experience. An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug heave and lurch on the screen, their maximalism at odds with Tolkien’s fleet book.
At times the films feel like tech demos, like the world’s most lavishly illustrated appendices, like lab mistakes splicing Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and Jackson and Steven Spielberg’s galumphing mo-cap wonderment The Adventures of Tintin, a movie that played onscreen like you should be sitting in the hydraulic seats of the Captain EO spaceship. (Compare Spielberg’s bravura one-shot Tintin city chase with Smaug‘s orcs vs. elves vs. dwarves barrel-ride — both so much more comic than the violence in comic-book movies.)
More complaints: A couple reels of the first film play out like musical theater based on the idea of a Middle-earth dinner party, and an extended meeting between the realm’s highest of muckety-mucks digs into the political solemnity of George Lucas’s Jedi Council get-togethers — although Gandalf and co. at least have cooler robes.
Yes, the Hobbit films are garish, long-winded, computer-glossy. Yes, Guillermo del Toro might have carved something lean and urgent and new from this material. Yes, the pictures sometimes collapse into stretches of go-nowhere story stasis: Second-time Smaug viewers know the best time to hit the washroom comes during the meaningless complications of the dwarves’ arrival in Laketown. A friend complained last week, “Do these have to come every Christmas and be three hours long?” And he’s a fan.
All that’s true. And none of that matters, much, because — once they’re gone from theaters each January — the Hobbit movies aren’t movies at all. They’re play dates. They’re hours paid for in a vacation time-share. They’re intermediary sessions in an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Reviewing The Desolation of Smaug (which I attempted last year) is like reviewing an adventure on the holodeck. Devotees of the art house and Robert McKee alike find the films messy and indulgent. I’ll grant them the first, but I contest the second: Like it or not, Jackson’s second trilogy is the opposite of indulgent. It’s hugely, bizarrely generous.
At least to the people who like this sort of thing.
Two Christmases ago I took my mother to An Unexpected Journey at Kansas City’s excellent Alamo Drafthouse. At a press screening in New York weeks before I had fought off napping during that film’s long buildup; seeing it again, knowing Jackson planned to steep us in his Hobbiton rather than hustle us through it, I found myself much more engaged. Restless Jackson is no Tarkovsky, forcing something like unstructured time upon viewers, but I still found plenty of opportunity to study faces, to survey Bilbo’s cheeses, to marvel at the mad biodiversity of dwarves — even to enjoy the screenplay’s whimsies: “I’ll give him a taste of dwarfish iron right up his jacksie!” pipes Ori (Adam Brown), a tender-headed and somewhat feeble-looking fellow I started to look for in the (many) bustling crowd shots: Invariably, throughout both films, Ori’s face is quirked up in ways somehow odd, off, and amusing, even during the tedious patches where he’s running from wargs.
The same goes for most of the dwarves, the bulk of whom the movies never make a big show of introducing as, like, characters — even as the performances are smartly individuated. Only through repeat viewings do you sense who they are, which makes repeat viewing essential, which is what fans of Jackson’s films want anyway. Jackson erects his monoliths with the knowledge that his audience will live with them for the rest of our lives.
That isn’t to say the movies offer too little in the theater. After that Christmas screening, my mother offered a perfect, one-sentence review of An Unexpected Journey: “It was wonderful to spend so much time in that world without all the beat-’em-ups.”
That’s the key thing that Jackson is selling: Time in that world, one of the most richly realized ever captured on film. Miraculously, that time often is not spent depicting battle. You may not enjoy the 40 minutes that An Unexpected Journey spends dicking around Bilbo’s house, but you must admit that it takes some chutzpah to foist so many singing dwarves on American audiences — and some wiliness to know that there’s millions who want this.
Another reason reviewing these movies is a mug’s game: At theatrical release, the damn movies aren’t finished yet. The Blu-ray of The Desolation of Smaug adds 25 minutes to the original 161-minute running time, and as is the case with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, that extra breathing room seems to speed things up. Those new scenes often improve the scenes around them: In the extended cut, the travails of the dwarves in Laketown don’t feel like mere time-killing. Stephen Fry eats a plate of bollocks, and you get to stare at those sets: Lakewood’s shanties and canals out-brine Sweethaven from Altman’s Popeye. The company’s march into the sumptuously wicked forest of Mirkwood is now at least five minutes longer, and it’s surprising how effective, dreamlike, disorienting the sequence is — how could this have been cut? It would be the single best bit in any other director’s fantasy extravaganza, but Jackson’s got surplus barrels full of such stuff, heaps more than a true studio filmmaker would ever bother with. Is it indulgent to craft and film reams of material that fans want to see?
A throwaway scene in the theatrical of Gandalf stalking through a haunted ruin here swells into a set piece, with a mad-dwarf attack and a peek-a-boo foot chase through skull-lined tunnels. Mikael Persbrandt’s were-dude Beorn — so slight a presence in the regular cut that I forgot he was in it at all — here gets a memorable comedy sequence, one that finally makes him credible as friend and foe. There’s even a couple more moments that allow Martin Freeman to Bilbo it up — his hobbit is a plucky priss slowly becoming something like a heroic addict, and his performance seems more marvelous here even than it did on the big screen. Bilbo evinces something nobody else does in Middle-earth, something that I suspect the most ardent fans count on the films to escape from: self-consciousness. He’s the first person in a Jackson fantasy since Michael J. Fox in The Frighteners ever to acknowledge the silliness around him. At the same time, Freeman is fully committed to the films’ (sometimes weak) emotional beats, turning hogwash into recognizable human — or humanoid — feeling.
It’s nice to have a guide like Freeman for these sprawling, inelegant, endlessly giving features, even if he gets lost in some of those consummate beat-’em-ups. Especially in their final form, the Hobbit movies take up an afternoon the way a TV broadcast of The Ten Commandments or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad once did. The good parts are just as good, although different audiences will disagree on what those good parts are. Give me the dragon (best ever in a movie!), the mountains, the magic woods, the quick sequence where Gandalf spelunks into a trapped tomb. As for that moment where the dwarves try to drown that dragon in what looks like popcorn butter? Or when the elf-guard and the hunky he-dwarf start making eyes and talking about the moonlight? Think of them as being like the commercials everyone used to put up with.