“This is my ACTING helmet.”
In keeping with Peter Jackson’s style of pacing, I briefly considered using the first thousand words of this review to describe just my journey from the box office counter to the concession stand. Sure, we wouldn’t get to the climactic culmination of our stated quest for another two or three reviews, but, so many fascinating things happened along way there! Me fixating on the ticket taker’s weird mole, fights over whether my compatriots and I should buy nachos or whoppers, debates over popcorn butter, conflict over who should be allowed to sit in our section… What seemed at first to any rational person like only a tiny hint at a complete story could, the more I thought about it, scrutinizing every asinine detail, surely become a tale all its own! HUZZAH! I SHALL NOW SING A 10-MINUTE SONG ABOUT MY QUEST, ACCOMPANIED BY THE PAN FLUTE!
O’er to the sneeze guard I didst go, yonder through the Starburst candies ‘neath flecked glass belooooowwww…
Phew! That was hard. And tedious. Luckily for you, reader, I am no Peter Jackson. I lack that level of dedication.
Okay, so I understood going in that was to be the first of three separate, nearly three-hour movies covering Tolkien’s shortest middle Earth book, and maybe that shouldn’t be the first complaint. Hell, I even liked that book. But it’s impossible to overstate how swindled you feel coming out of a movie where the characters spend hours talking about a climactic battle at a place they don’t even get halfway to. Think Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday Walk One Third of the Way to the OK Corral: A Very Peter Jackson Western (featuring a carefully-shot, 90-minute scene of Doc trying to mount his horse). I’m convinced Peter Jackson’s version of Chekhov’s Gun would hold that if you show a loaded gun onstage in the first act, someone better have gone on a side quest to buy an ornate holster for it at the end of three hours.
If the structure is The Hobbit’s biggest problem, it’s far from its only problem. As someone who wasn’t that into the first three Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit doesn’t so much convert me as it helps to crystallize all the reasons why it got progressively less interesting as the series went along – much in the way that even Aaron Sorkin’s good shows had something vaguely obnoxious about them, but you couldn’t put your finger on it until The Newsroom. The Hobbit is Peter Jackson’s Newsroom. Let’s explain:
1. In a movie that’s a series of battles, the battles have no narrative arc.
Every battle scene in The Hobbit plays out like this: the good guys are surrounded, all hope is lost, and then the good guys win against all odds. There’s no rhyme or reason or progression, you’re just waiting for some inevitable deus ex machina to come in and win the day whenever Peter Jackson feels like it. Bilbo goes from being afraid of an unarmed Gollum in one scene to killing a full-grown orc in hand-to-hand combat in the next, without so much as a montage in between. Did he swallow one of those invincibility stars like Mario? And if so, why didn’t you show it? THAT might have been interesting. You can’t show a guy in a wheelchair and then two seconds later he’s dunking a basketball, and the only explanation is uplifting music. The characters have no agency. This movie is like watching a little kid play with his GI Joes.
2. Almost every scene has a “Well why didn’t you just do that in the first place” problem.
You watch something like Die Hard, John McClane will have a problem, like that he’s out numbered and doesn’t have enough bullets, so he comes up with a solution. Like maybe he grabs a fire extinguisher and throws it down a hall full of evil Teutons and he uses his last bullet to shoot the extinguisher and explode them into tiny bits of human spaetzle. You can argue the science of it, and the way action movies play fast and loose with shit that just explodes whenever you need it to, but for God’s sake, at least it’s a progression. In Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies, Gandalf just stands there like an old asshole for 20 minutes while his buddies get their asses kicked and then when he’s let them suffer juuust enough, he pulls some trick out of his ass that levels the entire enemy army. Hey, Gandalf, if you could summon giant hawks that eat orcs, maybe you could’ve just done that in the first place? Like maybe when we started getting attacked by orcs? There’s no progression, just 20 minutes of you sitting there with cans of food until Gandalf tells you he’s had an opener this whole time. This guy is supposed to be the hero? I hate him.
3. Gollum is the only character with any semblance of a personality.
Gollum is a breath of fresh air, and easily the best part of this movie, mainly because the other characters don’t have personalities, only motivations. (With a bunch of no-name actors in silly make up, it’s hard not to be reminded of a Syfy original). Thorin Oakenshield, played by Richard Armitage, is ostensibly the leader of the quest to the Misty Mountain. His dominant personality trait? SELF-SERIOUSNESS. He shouts “NOOO!” when his father dies, dreams of avenging his father, and spends his days getting angry at people for not taking the quest to avenge his father seriously enough. YOU DWARVES SIT AROUND HERE MAKING JOKES? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO, ENTERTAIN PEOPLE?! Meanwhile, Bilbo is ingenue, Gandalf is gravitas, and the rest of the dwarves just eat all of Bilbo’s food because they’re dicks. They’re all just props and make up dolls, and I’d like to think I know a little something about putting make up on dolls.
4. Gratuitously gross design.
I understand why Peter Jackson wants to stretch The Hobbit into three movies. It’s not because of the story, it’s because what really gets him off is the chance to bring to life all the mythical creatures. There’s nothing wrong with that, he’s great at it, and it’s why people like him. But he desperately needs someone else there who can edit. Practically every character in The Hobbit has a goiter, a leaky oozy lazy eye, warts, pimples, boogers, scars, schmegma, etc… I respect the level of craft and detail that goes into it, but at a certain point, I don’t want to stare at your fake vomit for another hour. Radagast the Brown, who was rightly the least popular wizard at wizard school, seems to be in the movie for no apparent reason other than Peter Jackson wanted to depict a man with birds underneath his hat and sh*t caked down the side of his face. A GUY WITH BIRD SH*T ON HIS FACE, WHAT WOULD WE EVER DO WITHOUT YOU, 3D.
Finally, I’m sure you all want to know about the 48 fps 3D. Fitting that it’s a technical detail that’s piqued the most interest in the first of three Hobbit movies. The 48 fps (representing about 450 of the 4000 locations playing The Hobbit) is, as many people have already noted, off-putting. Part of it is cultural, 48 fps looks strange because we’re used to seeing 24, but I think there’s a biological element as well. Being projected at 48 fps means that when the camera or characters move, there’s no motion blur. You’re used to seeing faster-moving elements blur, and when everything’s crisp at all speeds it decreases the sense that there’s one focal point to the action – something which I think is not just cultural but inherent to the way we perceive faster action in real life. Yo, Pete, what am I supposed to be looking at here, dude? There’s barely a depth of field. It looks like an old painting before the perspective school. Likewise, camera pans feel less like turning your head a different direction than like someone shifting your screen perspective in Google Earth. Certain actions (like characters walking, or moving their hands) also seem sped up, like they’re being played back at a faster speed, but I can’t explain why.
Odd as it looks, the higher frame rate wouldn’t be impossible to get used to. The question is, why? The higher frame rate is supposedly a fix for the way 3D is disorienting when the camera moves or cuts too fast, as your eyes try to calculate the extra focal planes. Fine. But The Hobbit never really convinces you that it needs to be in 3D in the first place. It’s a correction for a solution to something that wasn’t really a problem in the first place. For now, it’s effective as a curiosity. Hey, it got me into the theater. And what was I rewarded with once inside? Goiters, mean dwarves, an inept wizard, and a guy with bird sh*t on his face, all putting aside their differences so that they could walk part of the way to somewhere.