This article contains spoilers for the movie in question. You’ve been duly warned.

 

In this piece I won’t talk about the decision to shoot and project in 48fps. I won’t talk about how the advances (or lack thereof) in special effects reflect in this new technology. I won’t even talk about the 3D, and whether Peter Jackson is – in this regard – an Ang Lee (in Life of Pi) or a Lou Letterier (in Clash of the Titans).

The reason being this: most of you will see ordinary projections of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, our return to Middle-Earth after nearly a decade. Even if you watch a pristine HFR 3D projection (what the 48fps version is commercially called) now, when you revisit the film later from the confines of your living room you’ll do so with a 24fps 2D version. And when doing that you won’t be bothered with unnatural speed, sets looking like sets, dialogue delivery going for a toss and other problems that dominate any discussion of the film right now.

However, while revisiting An Unexpected Journey later from your living room, you’ll still be bothered by a few things. And that’s because those are genuine, significant flaws with the film itself.

This piece is about those flaws.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

I apologize in advance. Let’s not get violent here.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is 169 minutes long, and boy does it feel like more. But that’s weird: each movie in the trilogy was longer but didn’t feel like a drag. In fact, the Extended Edition of Fellowship of the Ring plays seamlessly for a grand 208 minutes (that’s 3.5 hours) and it’s my favorite film. Of all time. So what exactly went wrong here?

Momentum.

The screenplay for The Hobbit, like every other film in the series, has been written by Peter Jackson with longtime collaborators Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens. The trio won every award under the Sun for their work on the trilogy (including an Academy Award) but, unfortunately, the work they’ve done here is frustrating at best, torturous at worst.

An Unexpected Journey has a first act that’s nigh interminable. We spend an eternity in The Shire, waiting for Bilbo Baggins to get off his (figurative) high horse and get the quest rolling. This feeling isn’t helped by a framing device – featuring Ian Holm and Elijah Wood’s reprisals of their roles from the trilogy – that’s labored and awkward. Just contrast how the subtitle “An Unexpected Journey” pops up here as compared to, say, “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The opening is rife with unneeded backstory and exposition dumps. We gets answers to questions we never even had (such as why there’s a sign outside Bilbo’s door at the beginning of Fellowship). Peter Jackson seems wont to exercise his unquestioned final cut powers by including AS MUCH OF FOOTAGE as he can. It’s no surprise, then, that we end up with sequences like the Dwarves visiting Bilbo coming off as if they were shot and shown in real-time.

This moment occurs approximately 15 minutes later than it should.

This moment occurs approximately 15 minutes later than it should.

This vibe of stasis pervades the film elsewhere too. A major creative decision taken with the making of this new trilogy was to also adapt material from the Appendices at the end of Return of the King, so that this story is better connected to the existing trilogy. That has led to characters like Radagast the Brown entering the frame and, correct me if I’m wrong, but his introduction brings the entire story to a halt. And the timing couldn’t have been worse because this cutaway occurs when the quest has (finally) just started. The same goes for the backstory to Thorin Oakenshield (don’t worry, Jackson painstakingly and painfully explains how he got that name too), a flashback sequence that is memorable mainly because of how blatantly and badly it is set up, and how blatantly and badly it itself is a set up for what is to come later.

This stuttering to movement, signified by multiple starts and stops, continues till the Company leaves Rivendell. But before they do that, there is the mother of all exposition dumps (and naked fanservice moments): a roundtable meeting featuring Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Lady Galadriel and Lord Elrond. This scene – which seems to last an eon – is like a microcosm of the film itself, a concentrated sample of all its flaws: lack of momentum, fatalistic grinding halts, unnecessary fanservice and subplots that jar from the propulsion of the main story.

It’s not like the trilogy was devoid of any subplots. Far from it. However, a key difference there – I have now realized – is that every character on the good side had the same goal: to destroy the One Ring and defeat Sauron. Which is why, even when new elements like The King of the Dead (in Return of the King) or the Ents (in Two Towers) popped, they did so while keeping the plot in motion. Their entry was quickly amalgamated into the existing conflict. Aragorn’s decision to go into the Paths of the Dead was motivated by his desire to help defeat Sauron at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Merry and Pippin wanted the Ents to destroy Saruman’s headquarters.

Here, the protagonists themselves have different immediate goals. While Bilbo and the Company of Dwarves wish to travel to The Lonely Mountain and defeat Smaug, Gandalf (and, soon, the White Council) wants to eliminate the threat of Necromancer from Dol Goldur. Those two things aren’t even highly related. So, my worry: how exactly will these disparate threads will be joined in the later instalments? And how will the mistakes of this part be corrected, when every evidence points to the disturbing possibility that they may only be exacerbated?

Always nice to see more Cate Blanchett. But must the film suffer as a result?

Always nice to see more Cate Blanchett. But must the film suffer as a result?

There were various other things I wanted to talk about. However this article has gone on way too long already, with questionable justification. If The Hobbit were any other fantasy film, I couldn’t be bothered to write a thesis explaining what went wrong with it. That’s expending too much energy in pursuit of negative aims. But, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is/are my favorite motion picture(s) of all time. It is the reason I love cinema as much as I do today. In many ways, this blog exists in this form today only because, six years, a certain trilogy from a New Zealand filmmaker moved me in the ways it did.

So, today, after all the waiting and the legal troubles and the shuffling of chairs behind the scenes, when I see The Hobbit and notice it fall short in so many fields, it hurts.

That’s all.

 

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Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

  • Leopancakes

    Having been a fan of the books for thirty years, I found the LOTR adaptations fairly horrible. Fellowship inparticular is plagued with horrible pacing (Gandalfs warnings about the ring, quick jaunt down to Gondor and back, then sending Frodo off on a panicked quest as quickly as possible? Sam stopping in the middle of the cornfield? The addition of Arwen, the removal of Frodo’s defiant stand against the Nazgul…)

    In Hobbit, I could have happily done without Ian Holm and Elijah Wood. That’s about the only complaint you make that I can agree with. Well, the addition of the hunting of the dwarves by Azog was not to my liking. Otherwise? Damn good movie. And unlike the previous trilogy, the majority of material added came from Tolkien’s imagination rather than Jackson’s. and by the way, the connection between the Dwarves adventure and the threat of the Necromancer are connected by Tolkien. I presume Jackson will lead us there, though it would be a bit odd if he did so at such an early stage.

    • http://iwatchiread.com Laya Maheshwari

      I can’t stop imagining how much *better* the movie might have been if the framing device wasn’t present. Even Azog and his beef with Thorin seemed like it was taken out of Stock Fantasy Saga Tropes.

      I’m sorry if the post may make it seem that way, but I don’t think “The Hobbit” is a BAD movie. It has its flaws, yes, and it was a letdown but that’s only because it was following up on masterpieces (for me). I’d have no qualms in saying it’s a good film…but “good” isn’t enough for me.

  • Aksharapradhan

    I agree about momentum in the first half but the second half scores because of some excellent action sequences. In essence, it becomes a really good movie.
    I also think many of your objections are very purist in nature. I guess I just had lower expectations and was thus, quite quite satisfied.

    • http://iwatchiread.com Laya Maheshwari

      I agree the second half elevates the movie “good” or “really good” status but I was let down by the action sequences too. Because of two reasons:

      1) There were no stakes to them — Wasn’t the Battle of the Stone Giants pure empty spectacle? Even for *one moment* did you think anyone involved was going to lose their lives? When was the last time a movie’s protagonist died because he *fell off a ledge*?

      2) Gandalf Ex Machina — Every action sequence in the movie essentially follows one pattern (fight –> fight –> oh we’re screwed –> Gandalf saying “Hey I’m a wizard watch me do magic!”). Not only did that seem anticlimactic but it added to the problem of nothing in the movie having any stakes to it.

      I don’t know what to say about the “purist” comment. In my experience the source material fanatic will always say he’s being unbiased (even when he’s clearly not) so I’ll just stay mum.