DISCLAIMER: I did not hate the film. This is not intended to be a straight-up bash so much as an analysis of major differences between it and its predecessors. Also, obligatory pizza roll joke.
To me, the area of 60% to 69% on Rotten Tomatoes is a minefield. While most other segments of the Tomatometer give a good approximation of the quality of a film, there is something about the worst of the "fresh" films that seems to cause great upset. It's usually a pretty easy scale: 85% means you'll probably like it, 40% means it's a rental at best, 5% means it's Razzie material. However, once a film gets 60% of critics to like it, which even in Presidential elections is a highly coveted, almost impossible margin these days, it draws out legions of raging nerds who look upon said film like it puked on their mithril shoes. Starship Troopers
sits at 62%, Heinlein fans everywhere still fume with anger to this day. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
squeaks in at 60%, Douglas Adams fans everywhere throw their towels in rage. The Phantom Menace
held at 64% for a decade before critics got their shit together during the 3D re-release and pulled it safely into the fifties. Spider-Man 3, Godfather 3, Hulk, Signs, I am Legend, Dick Tracy, Quantum of Solace, Watchmen,
same thing. Generally, the warning to take away from this is avoid the sixties. It's safer to disappoint fans with an unambiguous grade than to confuse and anger them with a lukewarm one.The Hobbit
currently sits at 65%. Right in the middle of the Dead Marshes.
Now as a fan of the Lord of the Rings
movies, I'm pretty much obliged to figure out what went wrong. In fact, let's not be polite, I'll just up and say it: Phantom Menace flashbacks.
A prequel trilogy, with many characters that appear to have no business in the movie, either because they were only fleetingly mentioned (Radagast the Brown, the Necromancer), weren't mentioned at all (Saruman, Galadriel), or would not even exist until 27 years after the events of the novel (Frodo, Frodo, and seriously, why is Frodo in this film?)
From the trailer I knew there was something wrong. Various thoughts going through my head included, "Gah! Those colors are way saturated! Wait, where's the dramatic choir from the other three films? Where're the dwarves? Behind those CGI puppets? Oh, okay, there's Gollum. I think we'll be alright." From the start, there was definitely a tonal shift that seemed like a sideswipe for anyone expecting a similar experience to the original movies. At least give the trailer credit: it portrayed the movie pretty accurately. Unfortunately.
So, no problem, after seeing a trailer for something that somehow looked toonier than Rankin/Bass's adaptation, and seeing the "fresh" reviews on the Tomatometer, I'd be prepared, right?Nope. Have some derp characters.
Earlier I mentioned Phantom Menace flashbacks, but leaving it there doesn't really do justice to the bullhorn of harsh memories Radagast the Brown recalled. Out of all the CGI goblins and trolls, he's this film's Jar Jar Binks. Wizards, immortal spirits become men in Middle Earth, paragons among the beings of Arda, who can move mountains with a command and whose physical and mental prowess far surpassed those of mortal men, how have a bumbling eccentric with birdshit streaming down the right side of his face, who mugs for the camera when spellcasting and rides a rabbit-drawn sleigh. There is a reason no one cried over Tom Bombadil's exclusion from Fellowship of the Ring;
no one wanted him. He broke the tone of the novel, pulled the dragchute on the plot to the point where he seemed to actively try to prevent the story from progressing, and was never mentioned again afterwards.
Like Bombadil, Radagast had little bearing if any in the novel, therefore has little purpose being incorporated into later films. Except since they played up that impending Necromancer battle, we'll probably be seeing a lot more of him.No, probably coincidence.
The dwarves, or for more casual readers the main supporting characters in the novels, fare little better. While Thorin Oakenshield retains some dignity befitting a leader of a Middle-Earth race, the other twelve dwarves in the party aren't so lucky. While Gimli was the comic relief of the Fellowship in the film, at least he still carried the weight of a rich family history, strong motivation, and strong friendship, something which couldn't be reproduced with characters that were only described in the novels by their names and the color of their traveling clothes. Literally, save for Thorin, I cannot remember a single reason for any of the dwarves' involvement in The Hobbit,
neither the novel nor the film. Bombur especially gets the ass-end in this parade of caricatures, becoming the token "fat guy." Also, it turns out Thorin Oakenshield got his name because of that one time he used an oak log as a shield. Because everyone knows cylindrical chunks of wood are best suited for shielding against blows.If you look closely, you'll notice one of these is a cartoon.
Somehow, even more established characters in the LotR films seem to have been reduced to their lowest common denominators. Gandalf seems older and more doddering (nevermind he's supposed to be sixty to eighty years younger than in LotR), Saruman was reduced to a running gag where all the other characters tune him out when he starts rambling, and even Elrond seemed out of character, given Hugo Weaving's usually stoic and calculating roles. Is there a such thing as too-good graphics?
One of the major technological achievements of the movie is the format High Frame Rate, or projecting at 48 frames per second instead of the standard 24. While it does lend a certain clarity to the film, it does take away in the same way the omnipresent greenscreen took away in the Star Wars prequels. I loved LotR because of the even mix between practical effects and sets and its CGI. Much of it was shot on location in New Zealand, and what wasn't was recreated in miniatures and on ridiculously detailed sound stages. The lighting was naturalistic, people were dirty, and the cities were right there in the camera lens. Thankfully, The Hobbit
doesn't go to Lucas levels of greenscreen, but this new clarity of picture does make me aware of every molded-resin stone, every strand of spirit-gummed hair, and the placement of every tungsten spotlight. A three-light setup of key, fill, and a rim of a different color temperature seem pretty popular these days.
This raises another issue in that, honestly, I have long since gotten sick and tired of hearing praise lavished on films for their special effects. While that may be a valid point, film producers have taken from it the message that special effects are a substitute for good direction and writing. Film series that got off the ground years back due to their memorable characters and stories now have sequels that bank on the assumption that they don't need to write the characters all over again, and that flashy imagery should suffice in its place. In a way, this is all our fault, again, going back to The Phantom Menace. As much as we proclaimed our disappointment, we still made it the highest-grossing Star Wars film and came back in droves for two sequels. The wallet speaks loudest.How was the book?
I actually immensely enjoyed reading The Hobbit,
even more so than LotR. Maybe it's the fact that as a children's novel written in a laid-back vernacular, I wasn't exactly being intellectually challenged by it. I'll admit it, it took me ten years to finally read through that thousand-page phonebook of bizarre vaguely fantasy-like names, overall not too enjoyable for a guy who tends to prefer writing 140 characters at a time. Since the point of a high-fantasy novel is to provide an escapist experience, The Hobbit
gains points for its accessibility to a general audience. This stands strongly against the detailed scenery descriptions and chapters of unnecessary filler between major action points in LotR, of which I am not a fan. This translated very well in the LotR films in that the need to compress the story to its major points somehow led to a clear plot with enough flavor in the background to make it rewatchable.So, what was the film's target audience?
One critic mentioned that The Hobbit
was not going to win new converts with its sheer length, even more so that they're trying to expand a 300-page novel into ten hours as opposed to compressing a thousand-page series and its appendices into the same length. Therefore, one has to assume that the film was made mostly for existing fans of the last trilogy. Unfortunately, this particular franchise is a pretty bad place to do that because The Hobbit
is a children's novel. The viewing audience for Peter Jackson's films has since aged about a decade, while the prequel represents a regression in appropriate viewing age.
This is a rare case in which the animated films have a leg-up on Peter Jackson in that they were made in a chronological order. It's pretty much the same effect with the novels, as they were written. I get the feeling Tolkien knew that he was mostly writing for fans of The Hobbit,
the same children who read his novel in 1937. Since the audience has aged almost two decades by the time of release, the novels were written for an audience that was 20 years older. Such a series could never have been written backwards. For fans of the films, the same audience that enjoyed a mature, complex story with strong character development years earlier, grew up, and then were exposed to a cartoonish story and characters would feel their intelligence has been insulted.Didn't you like anything, you whiny cynical manchild?
I can't stress this enough, I didn't hate this film. I didn't even dislike it. Just like the other 60% "fresh" films mentioned above, there were qualities to this film that struck a chord with most critics and viewers, even fans from earlier in the franchise. To that effect, there were a few things the movie did well, even correcting a few of the book's failures. Andy Serkis nailed it as Gollum again, and he ended up being the only CGI character that made me feel legitimately sorry for him. I like that they added a little history to the Lonely Mountain, so there was some weight to the implications of Bilbo's journey that was lacking in the novel. While one may complain about that orc that looked like a winter salami who was stalking the party, he and his army did solve the problem of having talking animals in the film. I remember rolling my eyes at the talking wolves and eagles when reading the book, wondering how a writer famous for the complex political history of Middle Earth could stoop to something so childish and pandering. The salami-orc was a dull villain, but he solved it.
Are these enough to save the movie? That depends. Again, for most of us, it did. For me, I think it averaged out well enough, even if it didn't hold a candle to Jackson's other films. For you, that's a journey you'd have to take.
Also, did I mention Gollum? Seriously, he kicked ass.