Remember those LORDS OF RINGS movies and books they used to have, about the magic ring that a bunch of little people had to throw into a volcano because it was so powerful it would warp the mind of even a good man, and dessicate him into a freaky, fish-munching Gollum? I always thought that story was supposed to be about the arms race, but it turns out the ring was actually a metaphor for The Lord of the Rings itself. The power of this thing has turned director Peter Jackson skinny and made him jones for his precious so bad that he’s adapted the first third of J.R.R. Tolkein’s 320 page children’s book The Hobbit into a 169 minute part 1-of-3 that’s somehow gonna have an additional 20-25 minutes added for video, meaning the full movie will likely end up being around 9 1/2 hours by the time the third blu-ray comes out around Christmas 2015. See, Jackson found a bunch of appendixes and supplemental materials, some recipes, golf score cards and a doodle of boobs that Tolkien drew on the back of an Arby’s menu, and he felt it was important to include all that. And in order to pack even more in he developed new technology to shoot at double the standard number of frames so that certain theaters willing to shell out the dough to upgrade their digital projectors can project it to look like a shitty shot-on-video mini-series or an HDTV somebody set up wrong because they didn’t know any better.
More – alot more – on the “48 FPS HFR” technology later. For now let’s talk the movie, as much as is possible.
I think The Hobbit was written before the other ones, but this is treated as a prequel, so it has a wraparound that totally fills you in on Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood in a brief smiling-and-skipping cameo) sending out the invitations for that party they had at the beginning of part 1. So consider that dream fulfilled, everybody. FINALLY, some answers.
Bilbo begins to tell part 1-of-3 of the story of the adventure he once had, and it flashes back to young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) hanging out in the hobbit hood one day when the deadbeat wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up and invites a whole bunch of dwarves to come to Bilbo’s house and eat all his food. I think Bilbo is a survivalist because he has like an entire Whole Foods worth of shit stored in his pantry. The book probly didn’t go into as much detail about how many different foods they eat and how stressed out Bilbo is by all this. And then the dwarves start playing hacky sack with his dishware and it seems like it’s headed into a sweet dishwashing montage that never materializes. So wait for the extended edition for that.
It turns out the dwarves lost their homeland to a mean dragon one time, they feel they do not have a home and they want to reclaim what they believe is their birthright. At first I thought The Hobbit was about Israel and Palestine, but then I realized it was written before the founding of Israel, so really it’s the other way around: Israel and Palestine are about The Hobbit. Anyway, the dwarves have noticed signs that this dragon asshole’s gonna (die? retire?) so they have to go to a mountain to unlock a door, I believe. Some of this was probly explained in the 5 or so minutes of narration at the beginning that I had trouble concentrating on because I was so distracted trying to figure out why in God’s holy name Jackson wanted his $180 million, nearly-ten-years-in-the-making dream project epic to look like that version of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK that the kids made in their backyard with camcorders. Maybe 25 minutes in my flight instincts kicked in, I really badly wanted to leave and either see it somewhere in actual movie format or not ever see it. I never had that reaction to a movie before. But I was with somebody so I stuck it out. Glad I did, ’cause otherwise this would be a short review.
The dwarves and Gandalf try to harass Bilbo into risking his life to go with them and he wisely refuses but the next morning he’s bored so he goes anyway. There is camping, etc. No mention of second breakfast, which is BULLSHIT. Obviously in part 1 they don’t make it all the way to the mountain, but they get pretty close. They can see the mountain. (SPOILER.) The giant eagles help them again but they leave them on top of a steep mountain. I know you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but come on, birds. How hard would it be to drop them off on the ground? No wonder they gotta have 3 movies. Part 2’s probly gonna be just them trying to figure out how the fuck to get down from there.
If there’s 2 things I’ve learned from these movies it’s
1) sometimes in a wizard’s life a wizard’s gotta tell a moth or butterfly to go get the giant eagles
2) but the giant eagles aren’t gonna do all your work for you. They don’t do dropping rings into volcanoes and they don’t do Lonely Mountain journeys. Or maybe they normally do but Gandalf is such a stoner they figure he’s not gonna tip so why bother.
The dwarves all have different types of crazy beards and bulbous cartoony noses and goofy braids and shit, except two of them are handsome. The one that doesn’t look like Jimmy Fallon is the leader, Thoren Oakenshield, the only one whose name I caught. He has a backstory that is sort of the main story of the movie, about a mean one-armed Orc that has a vendetta against him and hunts them on their journey. Also there are other characters such as The Wizard of Bird Shit (who talks to animals, rides on a sled pulled by bunnies and has bird shit smeared all over his face) and what I thought were new improved Orcs but I guess they are goblins. Didn’t mean to be racist there, I just didn’t know. I mean both are barbarians who live underground and hate hobbits. There are undeniable cultural similarities. It was an honest mistake.
Jackson likes a little gross-out even in a kids movie, so Bilbo smells a troll’s ass and gets covered in snot and stuff. The Goblin King guy has a giant nutsack for a chin, like the dad in Family Guy. But also it has nasty blood blisters all along one side of the balls. It’s all CGI but it looks so real, I couldn’t stop staring at it. If I was a hobbit that got captured by this guy I think I would be in even more trouble than these ones because he would be like “Why won’t you look me in the eye? Are you scared of me? Wait a minute, what are you– You’re staring at my ball-chin-blisters, aren’t you? What is your problem?”
By the way, I might be coming at this different from other people. I like hobbit movies but would always rather watch a CONAN. The people this movie was aimed for were super-excited that Benedict Cumberbatch from Sherlock played “Necromancer.” I was the one who was excited that Conan Stevens from TRUE LEGEND and MUAY THAI GIANT played somebody named “Bolg.”
Jackson has lost his mind, but not his talent. I’ve liked almost all of his movies to date, even the unpopular THE LOVELY BONES and especially the hated-by-some-people KING KONG remake. He can still put some good (if overly long) scenes together and he gets a very likable performance out of Freeman, who has the benefit of being a more bumbling, light-hearted character than Wood got to play. Gollum shows up late in the game for his famous riddling-in-a-cave scene. He’s still mo-capped by Andy Serkis with even-better-than-before digital effects, and I hadn’t watched the other movies in years so I forgot what a delight he was gonna be. He steals another movie. I also really dug the look of the one-armed Orc guy and the goblins, like the little toady the King has hanging from a rope. They look so real but you know they’re not just because they’re so beautifully designed. Too good of monsters to be real.
The wolf monsters that the Orcs ride on do not look as real, they’re more muppety in design, but I kinda liked that.
Also, it needs to be said that McKellen is still great, and I think maybe better than before as Gandalf. His look and performance when first talking to Bilbo was the first thing in the movie to carry me past the garbagey look of the 48 FPS video into this fantasy world of Hobbitland.
And hey, is this new? Check out Gandalf’s hands:
He has wizard warmers! To keep his wrists warm when a gust of wind blows into those big sleeves that wizards wear. That’s ingenious. I wonder why he gave those up?
By the end I was able to get fairly involved in the story. There are good scenes involving giant trolls, a big subterranean rope bridge battle, other fights. There are two pretty effective emotional moments, one where Bilbo comes to a realization and one where Oakenshield pulls a RETURN OF THE KING “My friends you bow to no one” type thing. I gotta say though, I really wish this could just be one movie, a more tight and complete experience than LORD OF THE RINGS, the one you can watch when you’re in a hobbity mood but don’t want to dedicate your whole damn week to watching it. I mean if you really want to go overboard then make two I guess, but if you’re tellin me I gotta wait a year just to see the middle of this story, there better be a big payoff. But I know there’s not, because this is The Hobbit, it’s about a guy meets some dwarfs and a Gollum and then talks to a dragon. It’s not supposed to be LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Which, by the way, was one movie.
Remember, in LORD OF THE RINGS they were on a journey to “Mount Doom.” In this one they’re going to “The Lonely Mountain.” That right there is everything you need to know about why this isn’t 3 movies. I mean come on man. No trilogy can end at The Lonely Mountain. We all know this.
Wait a minute – there were three Lord of the Rings books, three movies. Does Jackson wish he’d done nine?
The thing is, Peter Jackson’s entire career has been based on not showing restraint. He obviously showed none with BAD TASTE, DEAD OR ALIVE or MEET THE FEEBLES, and that’s one of the main things people loved about those movies. HEAVENLY CREATURES is his classiest and most normal but for the type of drama it was it was pretty crazy to have the weird special effects fantasy sequences. One of the few times he held back was in not showing the murder and rape of the little girl in THE LOVELY BONES, which of course he was roundly criticized for.
With all that in mind it’s weird to be saying that he needs to start editing himself. And I was even one of the ones who didn’t have a problem with that first pre-giant-gorilla hour in KING KONG that alot of people thought was boring. But maybe that was a symptom I shoulda taken note of. Somehow this guy’s gotta fuckin cool it. Somebody who cares about him, like maybe his life-and-writing-partner Fran Walsh, needs to line up his darlings in front of him and start executing them right there. Really shake him up. Make him realize that just because you can do anything doesn’t mean you gotta do all of it.
I mean, do I really want to watch the middle movie? Seems like I could skip to the last one and not miss much.
* * *
Turns out that shit was right about curiosity killing the cat. I believed all the bad shit I’d heard about 48 FPS High Frame Rate Video Tape, but I stupidly had to see it myself. It took me probly 45 minutes to an hour to get fully invested in the movie. That’s partly because there’s an adjustment period, at first the musical scoring and sound effects and everything don’t seem to connect, it seems like you’re playing the LORD OF THE RINGS CD in the background of your home videos. And when Elijah Wood shows up it just looks wrong, like on the STAR WARS Holiday Special when they show Mark Hammil or somebody but it’s a video instead of a movie.
You have to let the Stockholm Syndrome settle in before the language of cinema works. But more than that I think I was just distracted because it just looks so cheap and ugly to me that I couldn’t concentrate on much beyond the question of why anybody, much less a director whose works I’ve admired since the late ’80s, would intentionally make a movie look the way unwatchable backyard horror films of the ’80s looked. Shit, Jackson even made a backyard horror film in the ’80s, and he shot that on film. VIDEO VIOLENCE and SPLATTER FARM came out the same year as BAD TASTE. He could’ve saved himself some trouble if he just shot his on camcorders like those guys did. But back then he knew better.
Alot of people have compared the 48 FPS look to “a BBC mini-series,” but the truth is a BBC mini-series would look better, because they’re made to look cinematic these days. The only reason anybody would make a movie look like this before was because they couldn’t afford film, not as an intentional artistic decision. The reason digital video has been democratizing is that technology has improved enough that even a lower budget production can look more like film, more like a real movie, less like this.
This is the honest truth, not an exaggeration. If this was a BBC mini-series, here’s what I believe would happen: Hey, that mini-series they made of The Hobbit is on BBC America! I gotta check that out. It’s on after this, I think. What is this? Oh wait, this is The Hobbit? Why is it shot on video? Ah, that’s too bad. I was gonna watch that. Hmmm. Hey, STEP UP 2’s on the Family Channel again! Cool! I wonder if part 3’s on next?
Joseph Kahn correctly pointed out that this is a tool that not everyone has to use but a filmatist can choose to for a project where it’s appropriate. Good point, but when would it be appropriate? Only if you’re adapting a sitcom, game show or sports broadcast into a movie and want to stay true to its cheap looking, uncinematic roots. Or let’s say they start releasing commercials in theaters, but they want to make sure it looks like a Ron Popeil one or a local used car lot and not, like, a Nike commercial. 48 FPS will be the way to go.
One defense I’ve heard is that you’ll get used to it after a while. Yeah, you’d get used to wearing underwear on your head after a while but there should first be a good reason to do it. Back in the day I couldn’t always afford to have a color TV, and I got used to watching CHiPs in black and white. But that doesn’t mean it’s better than color. And when I did upgrade to color it wasn’t like “ah, jesus, this looks HORRIBLE!” until I watched it for a while. No, if something looks good you will know it looks good, you don’t have to go through extensive training to learn to appreciate it.
Another defense I’ve heard is no, you think it looks shitty but it’s just because it’s such a shockingly new look, you don’ t know how to process it. I don’t buy it. This is not a new look. This is a look we’ve all seen for decades, and we have rejected it, because it is shitty. You only make something look like this if you have no other choice.
The 3D aspect was fine. I didn’t think it was one of the movies you have to see in 3D like the Robert Zemeckises, but it’s pretty consistently dimensional at least. I don’t think the added frames improved that, though. There was still a little bit of ghosting at times. It’s mostly not too dark – I wonder if that’s why Gollum’s cave is lit so brightly, because of 3D?
It’s weird, the creatures in this movie are literally the most sophisticated version of these type of special effects that have been done to date. They look amazing. And yet there are shots with them in them that look cheap and ugly because of the 48 FPS. Yeah, Gollum looks real, but he’s standing in front of a brightly lit fake rock.
I personally know two people who liked the 48 FPS look, and there’s no arguing with it. I mean, if it looks good to you it looks good to you. Harry Knowles likes it too, and obviously Peter Jackson. Pretty much everyone else I’ve read or talked to about it thought it looked like shit. But even among that majority some still claim “it’s the future” as soon as they perfect a few things, like completely reinventing the 100 year histories of motion picture set building, makeup, sound design and special effects to play better to a terrible aesthetic that most people don’t like.
Well, let’s just say I hope it doesn’t catch on. I like movies. Not gonna switch to just videos.
So I think this is a hugely misguided piece of movie-making hubris, but at least it has some good monsters and a lesson we can learn from it. I think for all of us, whether we are outsiders or fantasy literature scholars, Jackson has given us a fuller understanding of the works of J.R.R. Tolkein. He’s shown us that what we need to do is gather those fuckers up and toss them into a volcano.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.