Multiple beheadings, one impaling, an omnipresent necromancer—these are just three indications that director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s’s 1937 adventure/fantasy The Hobbit has taken a dark turn. Last year, Jackson’s first installment, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was light in comparison. The medium-sized novel has been expanded into what might, ultimately, amount to a nearly nine-hour trilogy, roughly 125 pages of text per film.
It picks up with hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in possession of the all-powerful ring. Once on his finger, he becomes invisible—which comes in handy for getting out of the many scrapes he and 13 dwarves encounter (with not a moment to catch their breath) on their quest to reclaim the dwarves’ ancestral homeland. It has been laid waste and now occupied by the giant dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Glimpsed briefly in the first film, Smaug is now ready for his close-up. Smaller and nimble, Bilbo is the right size to creep into the lair and steal back the dwarves’ heirloom.
Instead of the book’s episodic-but-forward-moving scenes of danger, Bilbo and company are constantly pursued by blood-thirsty Orcs. Wood-elves save the day in more than one action sequence choreographed like a de rigueur whirl-and-twirl video game. Despite the odds, the dwarves are indestructible. They bounce off bobbing barrels, adroitly dodge arrows, and grab onto anything that’s conveniently within sight, holding on for dear life while boulders careen below them.
Moving fluidly, the first half follows Tolkien more closely, and includes the creepiest interlude when Bilbo and his cohorts are caught in sticky webs spun by giant, hairy spiders—arachnophobes, avoid this movie at all costs as nightmares are guaranteed. And to his credit, many times Jackson greatly increases the suspense from the original text. More than once Bilbo loses or drops the ring and its power is up for grabs, and he never reveals to his fellow travelers the power that the gold band holds. It becomes a secret shared between the audience and Bilbo.
However, Jackson and his co-adaptors have stuffed the tale with extra plot, introducing a Matrix-like warrior She-elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). As the only female here, besides an unnecessary cameo by Cate Blanchett, she’s a refreshing presence—Middle Earth needs women. Romance is in the air between Tauriel and a hunky dwarf, and the script also throws in a fascist ruler (Stephen Fry). This Mussolini-style egotist in Lake-town, a hamlet populated by Man and located not far from the dragon, is an overt tie-in to political events in Europe at the time of the book’s publication.
Yet even with Orcs rampaging in the background and an amped sense of foreboding and menace that underlines the conflict between good and evil, the script really doesn’t enhance the book’s themes or even the ideas that are original to the film trilogy. It’s a long road to the dragon’s lair. Perhaps there’s enough material for two films, but the story line is stretched to the point of monotony in three. What comes across like a fireside yarn in print has turned into an overlong schlep with extra baggage.
Directed by Peter Jackson
161 min. (you read that right)