THE HOBBIT: PATIENCE REWARDED?

As we head into the thick of winter, the comforts of home are more appealing than ever.   A favorite sweater, comfortable couch, and a hot cup of coffee comprise some of the most profound and simple pleasures in life.   So it is understandable why Bilbo Baggins might slam the door on a wizard offering an adventure.   If thirteen rowdy dwarves barged into your kitchen pantry, you’d probably be as miffed as our hobbit.

Director Peter Jackson takes his time, immersing us within Bilbo’s comfortable confines before he accepts An Unexpected Adventure.   Antsy viewers might wonder what takes so long for the fun to begin.   But if you consider this long, ponderous opening as the prologue to a nine-hour trilogy, then suddenly, it doesn’t feel so drawn out.

The Hobbit offers fans who crave more time in Middle Earth a fanciful prequel to the beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy.   It is grand to see Ian McKellen back as Gandalf (although Cate Blanchett is the sole actress returning in this installment).   And Christopher Lee offers a creepy portrait of Saruman before his fall.  An Expected Journey feels equally respectful to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original vision (except for some dumb drug jokes involving Radagast the Brown Wizard).   Yet, as a stand-alone cinematic event, The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey does take a LONG TIME to get moving.   Will patient filmgoers be rewarded?

Peter Jackson has pushed his fascination with digital technology and effects too far.  The experimental 48 frame per second, 3D version I previewed was quite jarring.  The clarity of the images made Middle Earth feel cheap and fake, rather than pristine and real.   It took at least ninety minutes for my eyes to get over the initial shock.   Interiors seemed too much like studio sets.   Exterior scenes felt too fanciful.   And a sequence featuring a sled pulled by rabbits looked utterly absurd.   Later, boulder-tossing giants echoed the Rock’em Sock’em Robots of my childhood.    Peter Jackson falls prey to the temptation to resort to spectacle simply because Weta’s technology makes it possible.   For much of The Hobbit, my fellow viewers felt like we were watching a video game.  My simple recommendation—skip the upcharges–see it in 2D at 24 frames per second instead.  In this case, less is more.

Thankfully, the high stakes come into focus in the final hour.   The tenuous nature of Bilbo’s relationship with his dwarf comrades emerges.   Orcs and goblins offer frightening threats.  Swords are drawn.   And the real star of the show, Gollum, finally shows up.   He and Bilbo engage in a captivating game of riddles that is pure movie magic.   The care poured into creating Gollum, from the humorous performance by Andy Serkis to the remarkable effects animating the character, shines through.  Peter Jackson makes Gollum the most sympathetic schizophrenic ever.    And that is the true test posed by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Will we get off the couch if the situation demands sacrifice?   And even amidst war, can we retain our humanity?   Bilbo is challenged to see the potential buried amidst the damaged Gollum.   Tolkien (and Peter Jackson) remind us that mercy remains a virtue in remarkably short supply.  Comforts will always lull us toward malaise.   But isn’t life more than the stuff that surrounds us?    Bilbo learns (and models) true courage.

By the conclusion of The Hobbit, I had overcome the technical hurdles, forgotten about the slow start and embraced the rousing adventure to reclaim the Lonely Mountain that I expected.   The promise of the sleeping dragon, Smaug, draws me toward the next two installments.  But I also fear the specter of The Phantom Menace.   Remarkable cinematic legacies have been sullied by digital indulgence.    An Unexpected Journey left me wondering if we’re in for three slow takes on what could have been one amazing movie.

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is a filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator who has been featured on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ABC's Nightline and in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He blogs as "Doc Hollywood" for Patheos.com.

  • http://www.tonys2cents.blogspot.com tony gapastione

    I agree with you about the LONG opening in retrospect to the 3 piece installment. For one movie too much, but for all 3 quite necessary. Bilbo is set up to the be the archetype hero launched into a journey. I did feel at times I was watching the same scenes we’ve seen before from Peter Jackson (orcs chasing the dwarf team, etc, literal cliffhanging–how many times can we see this in movies?), but the grandeur of middle earth and some of the effects–like the amazing Ravens, kept me from checking out of the story. I did feel a bit, probably b/c it’s the way of the Hobbit story in general compared to the Lord of the Rings, that I was watching a movie inspired by Shrek. The Hobbit has more “characters” that come off a bit kooky (the trolls-even the dragon, honestly), which made me miss the dark and deep feel of LOTR. I didn’t see it in 3-D and was fine with that. Overall, I’m glad I got to see it, and know that the next two parts will help shape the experience better for me. That’s probably why I didn’t leave the theater flying high w/ a five star review. I feel a bit incomplete, needing something more in comparison to the same epic adventure from the previous trilogy. But I expect two years from now my response will be different, and I’ll have the closure I’m looking for.

    • craigdetweiler

      Thank you for this smart response, Tony. I love your reference to Shrek. You’ve definitely taken The Hobbit in context. And it is too early to judge. But for audiences, especially parents with children, it is asking an awful lot of us to invest so much time and money in this story. Yes, it was worth it in Lord of the Rings. But The Hobbit is a much more modest scaled story. Glad you caught it in 2D.

  • http://dreiling.tv Christopher Dreiling

    I was eager and intrigued to see this movie in this new wave of “video” indulgence. But if the medium is the message, then I think we have a mismatch. The effects were flawless, sound was great, picture was clear. Maybe a bit too clear. If I dare to criticize, I would say that the style of editing and cinematography have not caught up to this new medium. It reminds me of the transition from black and white to colour, that brought us locked off shots and over saturation. Many of the edits in The Hobit just did not flow, my mind was racing to see all the detail for a two second shot that would of been best served with a whole lot of motion blur. At other times, as in Bilbo’s home, the speed of the action appeared much to fast. This film nether took me out of reality or heighten my current experience of reality. I do not think that hyper realism was the correct approach for this project. I have a fondness for depth of field, racking focus and yes blurry frames. I do agree with Craig, and I think that I will see it again, without the fanfare of 3d and high frame rate. It would be sad to see a brilliant director get lost in the high tech glitz production showmanship.

    • craigdetweiler

      Great thoughts on The Hobbit, Christopher. It is naturally tempting to have the best and latest technology at your disposal. But all the obsession with effects does come at the expense of other interests and emphases. We’ve seen Peter Jackson get lost in EFX in King Kong and The Lovely Bones. And while there is plenty of digital wizardry behind the creation of Gollum, the riddles between Bilbo and Gollum are the most captivating EFX in the film–because we care about the characters.

  • Clay

    I’m just passing by, and won’t read or comment anywhere else. You just happen to be where I landed after seeing the movie last night. I’m not reacting to your post (which I read and enjoyed); I’m just venting.

    I’m not a movie critic, and have read The Hobbit only once on audiobook, but I know the spirit and story, and the LOTR movies, well enough to know what this movie should have been. I was totally neutral going in, but it was an “Unexpectedly Awful Journey” for me. It was 45 minutes too long, plodding at times, ponderous at others, and full of too-often puerile, banal, and non-Tolkien dialog, and unnecessarily over-the-top and totally unbelievable action scenes and vid-bites. My first clue to the downsizing of the LOTR quality, dignity, and grandeur was obviously graphic outdoor backdrops in the shire scenes–they actually looked painted. Some of the FX were spectacular and all that, but it was at the expense of story and character development. This was Peter Jackson wrapped up in his own mega-director ego rather than guided by any sense of literary responsibility to tell the story visually. I found myself laughing out quietly at scenes that were just silly. If Gandalf yelled “Run!” one more time I was ready to obey. In the end, as much as I like Martin Freeman and Ian McKellan, I didn’t really care very much for any of the characters. I was just glad it was over. There simply was no magic. The dragon eye was cool, but I will catch the next two on DVD. Rant out. Life on.

    • craigdetweiler

      Thanks for weighing in. Your disappointment is being echoed by many. We wanted to love it, but padding a small story about the heroics of little people to turn it a long and drawn out epic wasn’t the right move.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X