So I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and I have no idea what to make of this movie. My thoughts on this movie have become a gigantic bundle of contradiction, and instead of eventually resolving itself in time, it’s just getting bigger and bigger, like a snowball rolling downhill and turning into an avalanche. I’ve seen a lot of reactions to this film, and I’ve had the rather odd experience of agreeing with what everyone said about the film. Which is to say, I agree that the film is great, that it is horrible, that it’s action packed, but boring, that 48 FPS in 3D is pretty cool, that it really sucks too, that somehow the first third of the story is overlong, yet I can’t wait to see more. What the heck is going on here? Let’s break it down a bit more.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room first. The Hobbit is the shortest book in the whole Lord of the Rings series, and it’s a rather simplistic adventure tale written for children, yet Peter Jackson and crew have decided to split this up into three films. What’s more, each film is looking to run close to 3 hours in length. The cynical response to this is to call it a simple money grab, and for sure, New Line certainly greenlit the project for exactly that reason, but I get the impression that Jackson genuinely believes in what he’s doing here. I also get the impression that Jackson is being enabled by those around him, that few are telling him not to do something so extravagant. That is pure speculation, of course, but I feel like Jackson got a little carried away with this project and no one tried to stop him.
But how is it possible to do this? Well, technically, I suppose this isn’t just a straight adaptation of The Hobbit. The story is certainly padded out, but not by making events in The Hobbit last longer, but by delving deeply into the supplemental materials of Tolkien’s universe. Stuff like The Simarillion, of which there exists a ton of material to draw upon.
So rather than a Wizard and a bunch of dwarves dragging a hobbit along on an adventure, we get all these background sequences where we see historical digressions on dwarf culture, or Radagast the Brown riding a sleigh pulled by bunnies, or a mysterious necromancer mucking with the lands, or Gandalf speculating on the rise of Sauron with the elves, and so on. There is an interesting balance that Jackson is trying to go for here. The Hobbit is a really light story, which means that it could be a bit jarring when viewed in light of the more intense LotR trilogy films. These new scenes help integrate the movie with the rest of the series and give it more depth… but I’m not entirely sure that was needed. Again, I didn’t find any of these things boring or poorly done, but then, they’re just not necessary either.
Does this actually work? Damned if I know! If you’re down with the whole Tolkien universe, and I suppose I am, then it’s all good, I guess. I’m the type of person that appreciates details that hang together in the end, even if some things aren’t strictly necessary. On the other hand, I can totally understand the complaints that this movie is overlong and boring. There’s a lot of unnecessary stuff here, and while I appreciate detailed narratives and explanations, I’m also a fan of economical storytelling. While Jackson and Co. managed something rather spectacular with the original LotR trilogy, ruthlessly trimming parts of the story that were superfluous (I mean, is anyone really all that upset that Tom Bombadil didn’t show up in Fellowship of the Ring?), they went in the complete opposite direction with The Hobbit, adding tons of extraneous stuff that wasn’t even in the narrative to begin with. I can appreciate the skill with which this was done and I was never bored while watching the movie, but at the same time, I would probably have liked this better if there were only one movie that was tightly plotted.
I hold out hope that at the end of this whole process, instead of releasing even longer extended cuts on DVD/BD/Streaming, Jackson will buckle down and produce a 2-3 hour cut of the movie (which, again, is looking to be 9 hours or so long). Given the amount of extra stuff in this movie, I’m pretty sure that would be possible. I also doubt this will happen officially, but I can pretty much guarantee such a thing will show up on the internets, Phantom Edit style. It would probably be an insane amount of work, but I wouldn’t put it past Tolkien fans, who certainly qualify as cult fans, despite the popularity of these movies.
Alright, next up is the presentation. I saw the movie in 48 FPS IMAX 3D (jeeze, that’s a lot of acronyms). It was simultaneously interesting and terrible. I guess I can see where Jackson is coming from with this. 48 frames per second does impart more information to the viewer, and it makes fast camera movements appear smoother and more detailed. This is especially helpful when it comes to 3D, and I think this is the first time I saw a 3D movie in IMAX without emerging from the theater with a splitting headache. Should that be attributed to 48 FPS? I’m not sure, but from what I’ve seen, that might be a fair bet. On the other hand, I found the presentation lacking in many ways. One of the interesting things about it is that I don’t really know how to describe it. I’m not alone, either. Everyone seems to be grappling with the problem of describing this presentation, whether they’re proponents or detractors. Many have called it more realistic looking and smoother, which sounds nice, but then, detractors are saying it looks like an old, crappy TV show or a video game. There’s also the notion that more realistic looking can also contribute to a sorta uncanny valley kinda experience, where the supposedly better experience of more FPS ends up feeling creepy or unnerving. From my perspective, while the movie clearly has great production design and special effects, the presentation detracts from the experience considerably. I suppose I fall down more on the detractors’ side here. I found it distracting at first, but eventually got used to it. But the fact that it was no longer distracting doesn’t mean that it looked good. Ultimately, I found the whole enterprise rather pointless. I didn’t get anything extra out of it, except that this is yet another piece in the puzzle of my cognitive dissonance with this movie.
There’s a part of me that wonders if my instinctual response to this is because I’m used to film and that I’m just being a luddite, but I’ve really grown to dislike 3D, and I don’t think that 48 FPS has really changed my mind on that. There’s just something so strange about the experience that it’s really hard to get over it. This feels like more than just a simple change that I need to get used to. Besides, it’s not like I’ve never seen higher frame rates. For example, I get why video games go for higher frame rates – it’s an interactive experience, so faster feedback is always going to feel better – but I don’t see the need in the world of film.
There are some things I’m not so conflicted about. Ian McKellen has always been fantastic as Gandalf, and this movie is no exception. Martin Freeman is a wonderful addition to the cast and comports himself rather well, especially in key scenes like the game of riddles with Gollum. Speaking of which, that scene with Freeman and mo-cap Andy Andy Serkis as Gollum is the highlight of the movie. While the beginning of the film felt meandering and overstuffed, the last third was pretty well done and delivered some satisfying arcs that I didn’t realize were being set up earlier in the film. Oh and remember that first, horrible trailer with that dwarf song? Yeah, I hated that trailer, but the song actually felt much better integrated into the movie. I thought it was actually somewhat movie. If, like most of the film, a little unnecessary. But it was a good kind of unnecessary.
In the end, I really enjoyed this movie. I also kinda hated it. I… really don’t know how to parse my response here. Ultimately, I think I would have rather had a single film that told the simple story with the normal 24 FPS 2D presentation. But I don’t begrudge Jackson for trying something new either. Gah, I feel rather feckless when thinking about this movie. I keep throwing thoughts at it, but nothing seems to stick. It’s like I’m stuck in some sort of quantum loop, both loving and hating it all at once. The cat is both alive and dead, the electron is a particle and a wave, it’s all very paradoxical. But it is happening… so what do I say? I don’t know. I do know that I’ll try to watch the next movie in regular 2D. Assuming that will even be possible. And I do still hope that someone puts together a 3 hour (or shorter) edit of the entire series at some point. I suppose that says something.