“All it was was a bunch of people walking. Three movies of people walking to a f**king mountain!”
Ever since hearing Randal say that seven years ago in Kevin Smith’s Clerks II, I haven’t quite been able to watch Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy the same way since. While many other things – discovery of self, the camaraderie between disparate strangers united on a singular quest, and the overarching humanity-vs.-the devil plot – do indeed happen, at the heart of it, we *are* following Frodo and Sam as they wend their way through Middle-earth to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom. The saving grace of it all were the side stories: the ascendant kingship of Strider Aragorn, the various epic battles at Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith, and (let’s face it) the treachery of Gollum/Smeagol.
Having finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson has embarked on the cinematic recounting of the first J.R.R. Tolkien story in the Rings saga, The Hobbit, in a second trilogy of movies – the first chapter being An Unexpected Journey, followed today with The Desolation of Smaug. Luckily, the story’s focus is tighter this time around, and we find ourselves at the finish line almost halfway through this second installment. However, the fact remains that a near-nine-hour trilogy is being made based on not a trilogy of books, but one 310-page novel. Jackson, with the budget of a small second-world country behind him, has stretched this story to its breaking point, filling The Desolation of Smaug’s 2-hour-and-41-minute running time with a lot of beautiful shots of New Zealand – AHEM, excuse me, Middle-earth – and special effects masters Weta Digital’s computer generated wizardry, but with only enough action and story to fill maybe 2 hours of it. So what’s that leave us? Another movie with people walking.
However, it’s a sight-filled wonder of a movie with people walking. A lot may be said about how bloated these movies may be, but one thing’s for sure: they don’t skimp at all with bringing you things that you’ve never seen before. (Even if it’s a screenful of screaming giant spiders, complete with clicking pincers, slobbery maws, and shining black eyes. I’m gonna watch it, my arachnophobia be damned.) We find the band of thirteen dwarves, one wizard, and one Hobbit right where we left them, having narrowly escaped Azog the Defiler and his Orc army in the last installment. One of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), seeks to claim his rightful throne and resurrect the abandoned dwarf kingdom of Erebor, but he can’t do that without the help of his fellow dwarves and Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Onward they must press to the Lonely Mountain, where Erebor is located. However, Erebor isn’t entirely abandoned – there’s a mythical dragon, Smaug (voiced and performed by Benedict Cumberbatch) guarding the vast treasure hoard amassed by a dwarf king long ago.
The film plods along almost at a Hobbit’s pace, as if to make you feel like you’ve walked the miles in their shoes. By the time the company gets to Laketown, the gateway town of the Lonely Mountain, you’re almost too tired to go any further. But go further we must, if the journey is to reach any kind of satisfying end. Treacheries and alliances abound as the group nears its objective, but most of it feels like running time filler. Orcs keep mysteriously turning up for Elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) to smite, and there’s even a romance in the cards for Tauriel with dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner).
For the most part, Jackson keeps his good intentions ahead of him, giving fanservice when he needs to and making the most of his opulent vistas. Where he falls short lies in how he treats the secondary characters (I honestly couldn’t tell you the names of but maybe ten or eleven characters altogether) and how most of the movie is spent dragging out any kind of drama out of very little. A little more of the time could have been devoted to possibly developing some personalities of the non-lead characters, like Glóin (Peter Hambleton), whose son Gimli figures prominently in the next trilogy. Instead, we are treated to lots of walking, repetitive conversations, and a lot of loosely-edited roundabout action scenes with seemingly no end. Truthfully, I found myself jarring myself awake through the slower parts of the movie. But as this film is titled The Hobbit, we get to see a lot of Bilbo’s transformation from sniveling worrywart to full-on hero, and that should be the centerpiece of our enjoyment. This film furthers his growth toward the legend he would become. Freeman makes this movie worth its tedium and shines as the Hobbit no one could ever expect him to be.