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Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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A funny thing happened to Peter Jackson, besides the weight loss program, that is. Somewhere between 1996 and 2001 the right people noticed his weird and kinetic cinema. Despite a disappointing release of The Frighteners, the film did demonstrate an ability to merge his B-movie aesthetic into a more classical Hollywood style with bona fide movie stars. Perhaps this is what landed him on the epic production of The Lord of the Rings.

This monumental film, even with its share of the usual trilogy problems, was a great success, both financially and critically. Within the span of one epic film, Peter Jackson was launched into the upper stratosphere of Hollywood filmmakers.  Like Sam Raimi, an entire fanbase was created that had no idea of the outlandish early movies.

The Lonely Mountain is a long ways away.

I’m going to admit something. I’m not really in lockstep with most of the fanboys out there. Get me in the right mood and I might defend part of The Phantom Menace and certainly Revenge of the Sith. I liked sections of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I disliked Unbreakable with a passion. I loved Spider-Man 3 and all of its Sam Raimi craziness. I found much to praise in Prometheus. Perhaps my critical opinions are less pure than some, as they are seen through the filter of a filmmaker. I find it very difficult to measure an entire movie as good or bad.

“No Ewoks! No Jar-Jar! What could go wrong?”

I walked into The Hobbit knowing the early buzz, that Peter Jackson had gone off the rails and was becoming an indulgent filmmaker like so many others before. The decision to create three three-hour movies boggled the mind and filled me with dread. How slowly was this movie going to unfold? Was Bilbo’s journey going to be watched in real time, like a sword and sorcery 24?

“Forget Winter. Oakenshield is coming.”

The first thirty minutes of The Hobbit did nothing to brighten my opinion, and walking into a movie like this with preconceived judgements is the wrong way to start. Suspension of disbelief also means a suspension of critique. Popcorn has a narcotic effect, and it helped remove some of this barrier. Peter Jackson’s filmmaking chops finished the job. Once the adventurers moved out of the Shire and the dwarven antics, once there was a known threat, my defenses fell away and I was brought into the story as I should have.

I enjoyed The Hobbit, for what it was, and I would say it is good. This doesn’t mean it is a great film, or even rivals The Lord of the Rings, but it is a good film, still heads above many other entertainment options. This might be damning with faint praise, but I think the interesting parts of the film far outweigh the weaknesses.

 

“Mr. Jackson, I found another hour of the script!”

After leaving the theater I tried to square my naked reaction with the many hits Bilbo has been taking in the press and word of mouth. Game of Thrones is one of several cable television programs that rival feature films for narrative power and production value. The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire are other members of this new wave of television programming. All of these programs provide the sweep of novel storytelling within a digestible and addictive format. More than soap operas or the usual one-hour drama, they also deliver keen visuals seldom seen in network television production.

Like these stories, The Hobbit takes a long view. Unlike Lord of the Rings’ forward-moving narrative, The Hobbit takes time to track other elements connected to, but not obviously related to the story. In an unexpected way, The Hobbit has a larger scope than Lord of the Rings did. I can understand why cinema-goers would be out off by this, as this kind of narrative is not really a part of the pacing we are used to as movie fans.

I’m among the many that laugh at the day-long Lord of the Rings marathons you see every now and then at local cinemas. On the other hand, I spent more than nine hours plowing through Breaking Bad in one sitting. Maybe a marathon like this would be the best way to watch the long scope of The Hobbit, but then, how many of us read a full novel in one sitting? A novel, like an episodic, is best experienced in portions at a time. This mental marination is a key part of the experience, it creates the feeling of returning to a world you know and understand over the course of a short period of time.

He’s like an old friend, isn’t he?

Reading the industry blogs and press over the last two years has made it very clear that Hollywood, meaning the narrative feature film industry in the United States, has developed a legitimate case of duration envy. Some of the best motion picture work is being done in long-form television, and the ease of access is much better suited to the direction of culture and technology. In a perverse way, the ease of getting digital media may hurt feature films not because they are being pirated, but because audiences are demanding more than a two-hour story. People I know don’t talk so much about how engrossed they are in the weekly film releases, but they do talk about the latest Walking Dead or True Blood.

The convergence of these forces has given us The Hobbit as it is. Whether by strategy, pressure or appreciation, it’s clear to me that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is reaching towards work like Game of Thrones and away from Lord of the Rings or King Kong. Unfortunately, it is a feature film and it will be seen in three pieces over the course of several years. Appropriately, Peter Jackson has crafted a piece of mutant media. Not quite cable episodic, not quite blockbuster feature film, and not easily recognizable as either. Whether it is a clumsy example of evolution in progress or a benign tumor will not be known until Hollywood finds its footing amidst competing media.

While three hours may be too long to watch one-third of a movie, it is barely the first act of a season of Game of Thrones. There are many strengths and pleasures to be seen in The Hobbit, but the success of the film may be weakened by the ironic fact that is not nearly long enough.

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About T.A. Wardrope