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 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?
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 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?
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.