[very minor spoilers]
It’s almost painfully ironic that Tolkien’s world has been gutted and slicked over with CGI in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The Middle Earth of Tolkien’s novels is a fictional world that warns against the danger of too much technology too fast, and the central conflict in The Lord of the Rings is one that can be put in terms of the natural world against the unnatural–thus giant triumph over the evil of Saruman’s rock-grinding, water-polluting industrial works. Similarly, the dwarves at the center of The Hobbit teeter on the brink of abusing technology–for in Erebor, as in Moria, delving too deep and too ambitiously is their downfall. Middle Earth is not a place that celebrates too much mechanized, industrial innovation.
The film feels strangely jarring, in this way–too pretty and swift, too much like a video game. For a story about the triumph of ordinary, small folk over huge forces of evil, it oddly neglects the titular small person, Bilbo. And instead of lingering over the rich scenes of the novel (especially the time spent with Bjorn), the film cuts these out for a horribly cheesy and eyeroll-inducing love triangle involving…Legolas. I know Twilight and The Hunger Games seem to testify otherwise, but not every movie needs to feature a love triangle. Some stories have remained beloved for decades without featuring man-candy.
Of course, a film adaptation is a work of art in its own right, and no one expects a film to follow its novel predecessor to the letter (though Peter Jackson set that sort of precedent by hewing pretty closely to the original in his Lord of the Rings series). Deviations aren’t a problem as long as they add something–but what The Desolation of Smaug has added is long sequences of CGI violence that are deadening rather than interesting. Watching Legolas methodically and rhythmically take out orc after orc gets boring. (Also can we talk about how Bard looks literally identical to the Orlando Bloom of yesteryear? If I were Bloom I would swap out my comically intense color contacts for that goatee again, Pirates of the Caribbean style). We don’t get to see characters develop–we learn twenty different ways to take out an orc with a barrel.
It’s quite a feat to make a story about dwarves/elves/wizards/dragons boring, but The Desolation of Smaug has done it. The film is still worth seeing (you can’t quite obliterate all the interest from Tolkien’s original story), and some characters hold their own, despite their lack of on-screen development opportunities (Balin, Bilbo, Gandalf). But overall the waves of mind-numbing CGI are little more than a disappointment, and obscure the original spirit of the beloved novel.