250 Points: The Hobbit, or, As Expected, a Bogus Journey

Posted by @ 6:08 pm on December 20th, 2012

  1. I really, really hated Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. I think it only fair I get that out there, right up front.
  2. Why did I hate them so very much?
  3. Well, it’s complicated.

  1. For one thing, I disliked how so much of those movies consisted of closeups of the actors’ faces.
  2. Don’t believe me? Rewatch the Council of Elrond.
  3. The scene runs just shy of seven minutes, and culminates in a group shot of the Fellowship of the Ring, which was one of the most widely disseminated images taken from the film.
  4. However, despite the presence of that iconic image (which is onscreen for all of five seconds), the scene mostly consists of closeups. Of its 169 shots, 121 are closeups of single actors. That’s roughly five of the scene’s seven minutes, or about 72% of the footage.
  5. Furthermore, the forty-three wider shots largely consist of no more than two or three actors (and usually consist of characters that are the same size).
  6. Finally, the five master shots, where we see the whole Council together, are done in extreme long shots, presumably due to the fact that size doubles are being used.
  7. I’m not opposed to closeups, not at all. But I tend to prefer it when filmmakers do more than just train a camera on an actor and have them knit their brows and deliver line readings (again, 72% of the footage!).
  8. And the remaining footage in LOTR tends to be CGI mishmash, swooping cameras over landscapes and battle scenes that I don’t care anything about.
  9. I’m also one of those bizarre people who takes at least some offense at Peter Jackson having cut all of the singing and most of the walking from the epic. Because while I’m not some great Tolkien nerd (maybe half such a nerd?), I do think that the journey and its songs and leisurely stories are the lion’s share of the trilogy’s pleasures—and not dumb battles with monsters (which Tolkien always describes as minimally as he can).
  10. And that’s not all. Indeed, for for a long time, I thought about writing a lengthy essay that detailed my various complaints about LOTR. I even started writing it on more than one occasion. (That above analysis stems from one such occasion.)
  11. But then I gave up. Because—hell, it’s not like some detailed formal critique is going to change anyone’s mind, and writing about the damn trilogy tended to wear me out.
  12. So if you love those movies—whatever, fine, I do not care. I’m not going to rail about them here.
  13. But now there’s this new Peter Jackson Tolkien adaptation. And what about that?
  14. It seems as though nobody likes it? That intrigued me. Why did people go for the LOTR films, but don’t care for this new one?
  15. Certainly I went in hoping to like it.
  16. I always do. I don’t think it makes sense to walk in wanting a film to be terrible.
  17. I generally like Peter Jackson’s pre-LOTR films. I think he’s a decent filmmaker, or at least can be.
  18. And I think he had good financial and technical justifications for the way he shot LOTR.
  19. I just didn’t like having to watch the results.
  20. But hope springs eternal. I called some friends, and we met, and bought tickets, and went in to see this new one.
  21. The lights went down and the movie started.
  22. Actually, before the movie started, we saw like a dozen science-fiction movie trailers. And after the first three I was like, “Dear god, please stop making science-fiction films!”
  23. I said this, mind you, as a great lover of science-fiction.
  24. I also said, “Please stop putting CGI animals in films!” Despite being a lover of animals, and not someone wholly opposed to CGI.
  25. But mark my words—somebody’s going to make a movie someday, using just a single camera, and a single long take, and it will just have a single guy in a single room, and no special effects, and that movie will blow everybody’s mind.
  26. The Hobbit is so not that movie.
  27. The movie started—or, rather, it started, but still didn’t start.
  28. Instead, there was all this nonsense footage we had to sit through—stuff about some great glorious dwarven kingdom of old.
  29. Why did anyone think it was good to start with that dwarven crap? Seriously, I care fuck all about all their problems.
  30. And am I supposed to remember all of these characters’ names? As well as this Arkenstone gem thing?
  31. And if so, why?
  32. Just drop us into the Shire, and have it start with Bilbo sitting at home, and then the dwarves showing up! I don’t need to know their tragic back history.
  33. In fact, here is all I need to know about dwarves:
  34. They love goooooold!
  35. Can you imagine being one of the poor schmoes whose job it was to animate, say, Smaug’s left hind limb?
  36. I thank god regularly I don’t work in the entertainment industry.
  37. Then we cut to Bilbo and Frodo, conversing. Why are we watching all this Fellowship of the Ring stuff? What movie is this? Is this The Hobbit?
  38. Why is Bilbo explaining to Frodo what a hobbit hole is?
  39. Why is Bilbo going out of his way to clarify that his hole was not nasty, or dirty, or wet, or filled with the ends of worms, or an oozy smell?
  40. I mean, I can understand why Tolkien would tell us, the readers, that, but why would Bilbo want to tell Frodo that?
  41. Incidentally, I saw the film screened in 24fps, but I still could totally tell everything was fake. All the makeup, for instance, looked fake.
  42. That didn’t bother me any, though. Indeed, I found it to be pretty charming!
  43. It’s like the makeup and sets and effects in the 1980s Russian version, where the monsters are all puppets. Fake is fun!
  44. I mean, I’m a grownup; I know what a fantasy movie is, and that all this is for pretend.
  45. Can you imagine being the guy whose job it was to make sure that all the a‘s in the hobbit’s written language had those three dots over them?
  46. Ian McKellan, to his credit, has really embraced the role of Gandalf.
  47. I admire his conviction?
  48. This is the kind of movie that can’t show you a close-up of a sword without adding a metallic ringing sound to the soundtrack. Kinda like how in LOTR, Jackson couldn’t give us a shot of the Ring without putting a whispery snarling voice on the soundtrack. (Don’t believe me? Go check that Council of Elrond clip! Where, among other things, the little thing growls, and I quote, “The doom of man …”—see around 0:54 in that clip … )
  49. This is also the kind of movie that should just start with the dwarves arriving at Bilbo’s hole place of lodging!
  50. Finally, after forever, the dwarves all showed up. Why didn’t the movie just start with that?
  51. I was so happy when the whole bunch of them fell through the door, because before that I feared Jackson was going to have them all arrive in ones and twos.
  52. I read at least one critic complaining about the dwarf dinner party, arguing that it keeps us in the Shire for far too long, but I have no idea what they’re talking about. Me, I rather liked the dwarf dinner party.
  53. The later action on the road is interminable. The dwarf dinner party is the best part of the film!
  54. Cut all the non-Hobbit stuff from around it—the dwarf kingdom shit and the older Bilbo shit—and the sequence would work perfectly fine!
  55. One thing I liked about the dwarf dinner party is that all the characters were interacting with one another, and with props, and with the setting, and were expressing their personalities, and not just running on green screen sets from fake CGI things, or screaming in slow motion, or fighting in quickly edited shots that my mind can’t follow.
  56. It also highlighted what’s so nice about this movie. Which is that, unlike LOTR, The Hobbit isn’t all closeups!
  57. I can’t believe that no one has mentioned this at all (at least, not in the reviews I’ve read). Can people not see that this film looks totally different than the LOTR films? And I’m not talking about the frame rate.
  58. This film has a lot of composite editing. Peter Jackson et al have finally figured out how to resize everyone, so they can continuously include all the characters in a single shot.
  59. Indeed, it’s extremely impressive! I couldn’t even see how it was an effect. I just accepted that the actors were all different sizes, and interacting with one another.
  60. And I rarely get gushy over special effects, but this is a truly special special effect; it really works.
  61. Sometimes I wonder what so many critics are looking at when they watch films. They don’t seem to be really looking at the film, but rather describing the effect the movie had on them—i.e., “It felt good to me!”
  62. Which is fine, I guess—but there’s also real value in describing films formally, and in observing that this new one looks like a totally different animal than the previous ones.
  63. What’s more, the compositing frees Jackson up a lot more, in terms of how he can dramatize the scenes. It’s no longer a single actor staring past the camera, wincing slightly and giving a line reading.
  64. The Hobbit includes actual choreography!
  65. And wider shots!
  66. And longer takes!
  67. The average shot length on the LOTR films is 3–4 seconds, but I bet it’s longer in this film. For what that’s worth.
  68. And it is worth something. For starters, less frequent cutting is less taxing on the viewer.
  69. It also allows the director to put more information in a shot, which can now be more than just a single actor’s face.
  70. It gives the viewer more time to look at the things in the frame—which you might think important for a fantastical fantasy film, which wants to build a strange other world.
  71. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I thought the production design looked significantly better in this film.
  72. I always thought LOTR looked really cheap, like those TV miniseries adaptations from the 90s—Merlin and Gulliver’s Travels.
  73. I imagine they had a bigger budget this time around.
  74. Even the green screening looks better!
  75. BUT. There are, of course, still plenty of problems.
  76. Gandalf’s line about all good stories deserving embellishment—that is so not true.
  77. It bears repeating: I really don’t need to know much about the dwarves and their motivation. They’re setting out to get their gold back.
  78. Because they love goooooold! And that’s it!
  79. So, uh, Smaug desecrated the dwarves’ sacred holes? Really? (Update: there appears to be some confusion as to who, precisely, desecrated the dwarves’ sacred holes. Rest assured I will get to the bottom of this!)
  80. And why is Jackson making this some diaspora analogy? Are the dwarves supposed to be, like, Palestinians?
  81. If so, does that make the elves Israelis?
  82. And why is there all this subtitled orcish? Why do I give a fuck what an orc is saying?
  83. Can you imagine being the poor guy whose job it was to make sure all the orcish was correctly subtitled?
  84. Why should I care in the slightest about this pale orc leader, whom people call the Pale Orc? And is his name really “Ashcrack”? Or did I just make that up?
  85. He reminds me a little of Mumm-Ra. Now there was a wicked-awesome villain!
  86. Can you imagine being the guy whose job it was to design this pallid thing? I bet he felt very proud of his design, of getting those facial scars just right.
  87. The world is so terribly sad. I often cry myself to sleep.
  88. This movie has way too much crap in it already. Scale back! It also has way too many flashbacks.
  89. This movie definitely demonstrates the principle that narratives can be endlessly embedded within other narratives!
  90. Hey, here comes Radagast the Brown!
  91. So Jackson cut Tom Bombadil from LOTR, and his justification was that it slowed down the action too much, and lightened the tone too much. But now he’s stuffed all this extra crap into The Hobbit?
  92. Actually, I kinda liked the Radagast scene, the one where he heals the dying hedgehog or porcupine CGI thing, while giant monster spiders try to break into his house. Don’t get me wrong—it was all totally unnecessary, but it was also unabashedly dopey, and enjoyable in its naive campiness. And so I threw up my hands and said, “You know what, this scene’s pretty goofy, I sorta like it!”
  93. That sentiment, however, didn’t last long.
  94. Mr. Bilbo must have found the One True Ring already! Because he keeps disappearing from his own movie, lol.
  95. Mr. Jackson, pick some POV and stick there! This isn’t some Victorian comedy of manners!
  96. You know, there’s a source text you can use as a guide, and that did it right. Tolkien rooted his story with Bilbo Baggins for a good reason.
  97. The LOTR films suffered from a similar problem—we kept leaving the hobbits to go visit Saruman and Sauron—but at least there it was somewhat justifiable, since the movie’s scope was larger.
  98. (Even though in the book it’s about seeing that much larger world from the hobbits’ perspective.)
  99. But in this one—why, precisely, do we keep cutting all around? Nothing is gained from any of it.
  100. Plus, the transitions that Jackson et al use to skip around are horribly clumsy and groan-inducing.
  101. Now the company’s ponies are running off. Smart of the ponies—get out now!
  102. The ponies should all get names, and extensive back stories, told in flashbacks.
  103. As well as toy versions of themselves.
  104. Hey, here come the Three Stooges, starring as trolls! And you totally know that all three of these guys all have names, and lengthy histories, and can be purchased, wrapped in plastic, in multiple toy versions, at a Target.
  105. Oh, I guess that trio of bickering trolls wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
  106. The CGI characters in this film have more personality than before, and look less wobbly.
  107. For whatever that’s worth.
  108. You can see how they’ll finally be like Muppets, someday, or something.
  109. For whatever that’s worth.
  110. In other words, the cinema has almost evolved back to being capable of making Labyrinth!
  111. There’s still way too much CGI in this film. I say this because it pulls too much of the focus. In too many scenes, the justification for the scene is some CGI thing that Jackson wants to show us.
  112. Also, all of the lighting is uniformly bright, even during the night scenes. Though I don’t know why this should be.
  113. The company escapes, and they go exploring inside the troll hole. (Which is, unlike Bilbo’s hole, it should be noted, rather nasty, and dirty, and wet, and wormy, and smelly.)
  114. This movie is totally all about holes.
  115. I mean, it’s totally committed to its commitment to being about holes! And I think that’s just great.
  116. “We’re making a long-term deposit”? Peter Jackson, you are a really terrible writer.
  117. Why is it so impossible to make a Hollywood film without one-liners? Do people really like one-liners that much?
  118. The outdoor scenes, I will admit, look better this time around. More outdoorsy.
  119. And the woods look more fantastical? I think?
  120. How many hobbits can fit on the head of a pin?
  121. Anyway, I would say that, overall, The Hobbit is a prettier film than LOTR.
  122. And speaking of pretty, here comes Radagast the Brown again! … More like “Radagast the Goofy.”
  123. Wow, blatant marijuana usage! Very Lord of the Rings.
  124. Radagast vs. the Wargs in an epic CGI race; I take back everything I said. This guy is just awful.
  125. It’s like Peter Jackson is on some mission to thoroughly dumb down Tolkien.
  126. I don’t even think he’s even read the books. It’s more like someone summarized to him while they were Larping.
  127. God, this movie is violent! There are beheadings, bludgeonings, impalings, drug use … What the hell was this movie rated? (Not that I really care.)
  128. And then there’s comedy with hedgehogs and rabbits. It’s tonally all over the place, like the Star Wars prequel films.
  129. No sex, though, of course. Thanks, Hollywood!
  130. Hooray, more subtitled orcish, like I really give a shit!
  131. The orcs keep going on and on about “dwarfs’ cum.”
  132. “The dwarfs’ cum got away from us! It escaped into the elf holes!”
  133. And back to our fearful company. “This will require no small degree of charm.” Take your own fucking advice, Mr. Jackson.
  134. You want charm, read Guy Davenport’s magnificent essay on J.R.R. Tolkien. That’s charm.
  135. Are the elves supposed to be Italian? Italian vampires?
  136. The Lord of the Rings is all about racial violence.
  137. I liked the part where the dwarves couldn’t eat the elvish food. I guess I just like any scenes where dwarves eat!
  138. Hey, here come Elrond and Galadriel, shoehorned into the film.
  139. They also shoehorned in Joanna Newsom, making an appearance on the harp. I guess she’s a Tolkien fan, like Stephen Colbert? (He has to be in here, somewhere … )
  140. The elves help the dwarves read the magic map’s moon runes, using Superman’s crystal desk.
  141. Peter Jackson really can’t keep his camera still.
  142. And yet more flashbacks. Just like in a Christopher Nolan film, whenever anyone mentions anything, we cut to footage of it. In this case, Gandalf tells the story of Radagast’s journey to Doppledogoor … and so we see a dramatic depiction of his journey to Doppledogoor!
  143. And then we cut to Doppledogoor? And Gandalf is talking about something …
  144. “And where sickness thrives, bad things will follow … “
  145. ???
  146. “Small people will save the world with kindness and love … “
  147. ???
  148. You know, the legendary American director Howard Hawks once defined a good movie as having “three great scenes, no bad ones.”
  149. The Hobbit has three decent scenes, and all the rest is fucking terrible.
  150. Yet more nonsense CGI stuff … I guess the mountain rock storm god monsters look cool, but who really cares? None of this has anything to do with the film; it’s just random CGI nonsense.
  151. This is the kind of thing I was talking about earlier. The whole point of this scene is to showcase CGI and nothing else. The characters don’t even do anything; they just stand there watching it happen, along with us.
  152. And they’re just these tiny bodies who careen all over the place, but never get a single scratch or bruise. They bounce around like the Gummi Bears.
  153. The theater I saw it in was rumbling the entire time. I couldn’t tell if that was part of the film or not.
  154. When Bilbo packs up to leave the dwarves, Jackson starts using jump cuts, eliding the action.
  155. This is one of the precious few moments of narrative economy.
  156. (Did you see what I did there?)
  157. Then there’s some violence, and Bilbo falls down into a cavern, and ends up on Georges Méliès’s set from A Voyage to the Moon. (At least, I hope that shortcut to mushrooms was a deliberate reference to Méliès.)
  158. And hey, here comes Gollum! I’m glad to see that; Andy Serkis is a fine actor, and this part of the film was fine.
  159. If anything, the Riddle Game scene was too rushed. It’s a bright spot, and a place where the movie should have slowed down.
  160. Do you think there’s any Gollum slash fiction out there? “Gollum and Lord Elrond in ‘My Precioussss….'”
  161. (Yeah, I just know that already exists.)
  162. That said, the whole discovery of the Ring was totally botched. What’s up with enormous clanging sound as it falls out of Gollum’s pocket? Wouldn’t Gollum hear that? Or was it not a real sound, audible in Middle Earth? (If not, though, what was it? Was it a sound intended just for us?)
  163. Plus they recycled that shot of Frodo accidentally slipping the Ring on, in Bree.
  164. You know, in the ancient boring book that somehow served as the source for all of this, when Bilbo came across the Ring, it was, from his hobbity point of view, just some odd little ring. It wasn’t The Most Important Artifact in the Universe. See, that’s part of the charm of that old-fashioned, musty tale.
  165. Meanwhile, the intercutting with the dwarves and the orcs is interminable.
  166. Hey, here comes the Goblin King!
  167. I mean the Green Goblin.
  168. I mean “Balzac.”
  169. And the Goblin King sings a song! “You remind me the babe…
  170. Actually, he’s more like King Herod, in Jesus Christ Superstar. Either way, I kinda like this guy; he’s fun …
  171. Oh, he’s voiced by the actor who does Dame Edna. That makes sense.
  172. Is this goblin supposed to be the world’s first openly gay goblin? (Mind you, if so, I’m all for that.)
  173. Hey, he knows Thorin! Just like in the Star Wars films, Middle Earth turns out to be a very small place, where everyone knows everybody else.
  174. Is that gibbering little orc scribe riding the zipline a reference to Salacious B. Crumb?
  175. Some filmmakers sure learned the wrong lesson from Return of the Jedi.
  176. Which is, make a goddamned toy for every goddamned character in your film.
  177. I wonder if you can buy Radagast’s super-fast rabbit-sled thing. Because I can totally picture it, in its elongated cardboard packaging …
  178. And does it come with any mushrooms?
  179. This movie is maybe exciting if you’re fourteen twelve seven five.
  180. I understand now the criticisms that older critics made of films like Temple of Doom, back in the day.
  181. It’s like an amusement park ride: you’re riding around in your little cart, brought close to some kind of false peril, but there’s never any peril. It’s just stuff happening.
  182. Mr. Jackson, just stick with Bilbo! We shouldn’t have seen a single second of this Great Dwarf Escape nonsense (even if that meant cutting the Gay Goblin King).
  183. So, this is the part of the film where I really checked out. Once Gandalf and the rest started swinging around on wooden bridges and ropes, I just no longer cared what happened.
  184. Instead, I started reviewing the whole film, making some larger notes in my notebook (which is where I’m transcribing this from).
  185. Jackson and Walsh really should never rewrite Tolkien’s dialogue. They seem hellbent on eliminating all of his prose’s subtle charm.
  186. I also don’t think Tolkien cared that much about the dwarves. They weren’t all that detailed in the book, if I remember; only Thorin got any real personality, right? They’re just a device to get Bilbo out of one hole and into some others.
  187. In this movie, am I supposed to remember all the dwarves?
  188. I wonder how many of the dwarves I can remember.
  189. I’m going to try and list all the dwarves I can remember.
  190. Of course there was Thorin Oakenshield, their boring leader.
  191. And then there was that older, white-bearded one. Gloin? He was all right.
  192. And then there was the morbidly fat one, whose name, I think, was Butter.
  193. And the young, fresh-faced brunette one. Virgil?
  194. The one who looked like Ryan Gosling. (“Hey, dwarf…”)
  195. The dumb country bumpkin one who was wearing the hat with the ear flaps, like so many guys here in Chicago do.
  196. And the bald one with all the tattoos. (Shouldn’t he have been wearing that hat?)
  197. And after that, uh, hm, …
  198. The redheaded one with all the braids?
  199. And the steely-gazed one with an ironic mustache.
  200. As well as the Amish one.
  201. And the Asian one.
  202. And the Jewish one.
  203. And the black one.
  204. As well as the lady dwarf.
  205. And the blind one, wearing the visor.
  206. As well as the half-cyborg dwarf.
  207. And the zombified dwarf.
  208. Though, the truth be told, just like the action scenes in this film, all of them tended to blur together.
  209. So all the dwarves somehow got away from the horde of goblins, with nary a scratch, and still the movie’s not any closer to being over. Funny, I kinda remember this part of the book being over!
  210. Oh, I see, there’s yet another battle to go. Because now Mumm-Ra is back. (Hello, Mumm-Ra!)
  211. The last hour of this film is nonstop CGI mishmash, just relentless.
  212. And the final battle scene is utterly endless. I think it’s fair to say that it’s about as stupid as any random battle scene in Twilight.
  213. All the flames, all the slow motion, all the dwarves falling out of the tree and screaming “Nooooooooo!” and grabbing at one another’s arms …
  214. It’s an actual cliffhanger!
  215. The ending of The Hobbit is quite possibly the stupidest ending I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s like all the cliched movie endings, ever, all rolled into one!
  216. It’s like a parody of endings, but I don’t think Jackson intends it as parody.
  217. You know, if Peter Jackson used less slow motion, then the movie would end that much faster.
  218. Trees falling like dominoes? Wasn’t there some shit-ass scene in The Mummy, where all the bookcases toppled over like dominoes?
  219. Here’s a golden cinematic tip: If something was in The Mummy, don’t put it in your film.
  220. Wow, this tree that the company’s stuck up in is like a catalog of all the false cinematic perils.
  221. Seriously, they drive their enemy back using pine cone grenades?
  222. Don’t even get me started on Bilbo’s “arc,” and how he has to win Thorin Oakenshield’s respect.
  223. This movie is like a master class in deus ex machina (hat tip: Ben Sachs).
  224. So the eagles rescue the company here. And later they’ll rescue everyone, at the Battle of the Five Armies?
  225. And they also rescue Gandalf from Saruman’s tower, as well as Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom?
  226. Well, thank god for the eagles.
  227. I bet the eagles all have names as well, and can each one be bought separately.
  228. When the good guys got away, and Mumm-Ra cried out in rage, I was like, “Dude, I know exactly how you feel …”
  229. Does this mean there’s going to be more fights with Mumm-Ra in the next two movies?
  230. Why?
  231. Then the eagles dropped everyone off on some giant rock. Thank god that there were stairs!
  232. And thank god that the movie went out of its way to show us those stairs!
  233. And it’s still not over! Of course, at the end, they have to show us Smaug in his money bin.
  234. And then … it’s finally … over!
  235. Except for the Irish Rovers song that plays over the final credits.
  236. So what, in the final analysis, were my conclusions regarding The Hobbit?
  237. In some ways it’s exactly the same as the previous trilogy. The writing is total shit, and there’s way too much meaningless action and false peril, and everything’s treated with a weighty solemnity, while anything truly interesting in the source text has been excised.
  238. But I will gladly admit that I liked the composite editing, and the consequences of that. I think it all looked significantly better this time around.
  239. Mind you, it still doesn’t look all that great, or do anything amazing or even interesting, visually—but it didn’t make me want to go blind.
  240. The first half of the film is such that I might be willing to say that I thought that it was perhaps mildly enjoyable.
  241. But then the CGI mishmash assault of the second half totally beat me down.
  242. It’s all very dumb.
  243. And everything takes twice as long as it should.
  244. (Insert obligatory 48fps joke here.)
  245. The thought of two more films after this feels unbearable.
  246. I’m amazed that the fat dwarf didn’t fart at some point; the film showed great restraint on that sensitive matter.
  247. The Hobbit includes three songs, and a great deal of walking in the woods, and for that reason alone I like it so much more than any other film Peter Jackson has ever made starring a Hobbit.

Other movies I’ve reviewed: Inception | The Dark Knight Rises | Scott Pilgrim vs. the World | Drive | Lifeforce | Cloud Atlas

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