Review: The Hobbit Trilogy

I like to imagine that there was a point in production when Peter Jackson sat down for a good final read of the script for The Hobbit, tilted his chair back, reflected, and greeted two small figures over his shoulder. One, on his left, told him to cut things down, be diligent, expend a little blood if need be, and create a snug, tight little three or four hour finished product. Another, on his right, had other ideas. I’d like to think Jackson spent a good long time making the decision. I’d like to think that. But I don’t know. What I do know however, is that he made the wrong decision, and for the finished product, that is all that matters. The Hobbit, taken together, is an indulgent mess, and a particularly depressing example of what happens when a talented filmmaker is given oodles upon oodles of money and told to rivet the masses. He or she loses any sense of rigor or form, and grows fat and flabby with gluttonous wealth and mass, assuming anything they do will be worthwhile and thinking “I am talented, each minute of my filmmaking is good and well thought out, and therefore, the longer I make my films, the better they will be”. The Hobbit exists for an audience of one: Peter Jackson. Anyone else need not apply.

Considering that Peter Jackson filmed his three Hobbit films simultaneously, it is not a surprise that they are of a quality together. That quality: indulgent. Yet, if each film is entirely indulgent, they are indulgent in different ways. An Unexpected Journey, the first, was mostly just three hours of throat-clearing. The Desolation of Smaug – the second film and thus expectedly the one where things might go off the rails as Jackson spends too much time slowly crawling forward before his big climax – is in fact not slow at all. In fact it is a mess of subplots and chaotic tomfoolery, stopping when it should start and starting when it really ought to slow down and catch its breath. The Battle of the Five Armies, the final film, finally released after a laboriously overworked eight and a half hours and three years, is really just a battle and nothing more. One would suppose the battle’s strengths live and die on Jackson’s ability to muster up some fine grandstanding kinetic grandeur for his thrilling climax. And one would be right,  but Jackson fumbles as often as he succeeds.

The simple fact of it is this: each film is far too long, and far too insistently misguided about its length, to work individually or together. The first film feels like a prologue, the final film an epilogue that wishes it were a climax, and the middle one a chaotic mess that refuses to tie the two together. The end product is a particularly egregious example of directorial freedom and unrestrained passion at its worst; someone needed to give Jackson and his yes men producers a stern talking to, but it seems everyone was too busy being on their best behavior to raise a little dust and bring about a storm.

Really, the problem with the three films is obvious: The Hobbit is a simple story, simply told. It’s essentially a travelogue curio about a diminutive, easily flustered cantankerous sort, Bilbo Baggins, who finds himself bedeviled at the thought of adventure when he is inexplicably recruited by a party of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield, to serve as their thief on a mission to reclaim a specific treasure that holds the source of an ancient dwarven power. That treasure, along with the mountain stronghold it holds together, had been confiscated by a particularly nasty sort – a behemoth of a dragon, Smaug – and the dwarves, along with wizard Gandalf the Grey, must do anything in their power to return the mountain to its rightful owners. Along the way, Bilbo learns that, deep down, his disagreeable, lazy nature hides a true rapscallion spirit, and a thrill for something more than his picturesque home in the Shire can offer.

It’s a slim, light read, not much more than a fable of adventure and derring-do lacking all of the heaving import of the later Lord of the Rings books. It doesn’t call for a three hour movie, honestly, let alone three films of that length. Alas, Jackson had other ideas, and if they don’t wholly sabotage the spirit of the novel, they weigh it down and come close to smothering it. An Unexpected Journey says everything it needs to about the series’ faults in its first hour, which painfully, artificially drags on and on with such a dumbfounding sense of aimlessness it’s almost impossible to believe (but then, this is Peter Jackson after all, and bid budgets have never give him reason to tell efficient stories). Its defenders would say the film’s slow-going, lackadaisical tone is necessary to establish the film’s many characters as individuals and a collective; if so, their argument has a serious flaw: the film doesn’t succeed at this at all, even if you squint to make it so. The dwarf company is drawn out so superficially it amounts to the film spending an hour to tell us, in a nutshell, that “there is a fat one, one with weird hair, a pretty one, and some others who don’t much matter but look funny and alternate between aloof cartoonisms and self-imposed ultra-seriousness with no sense of rigor or honesty at all”. Things pick up, eventually, but it is no coincidence that the first film’s best scene – riddles in the dark – centers Bilbo and another once-hobbit, and there isn’t a dwarf to be seen.

If An Unexpected Journey took a little too much time to stand up, wipe the dust off its shoulders, smoke a pipe-load or two, and take off at a curmudgeon’s pace, The Desolation of Smaug hits the ground running. Unfortunately, it proceeds to run in every which direction it can, and every time it’s on the verge of finding something, it changes direction. Any sense of character gets lost in all the arrows flying into skulls. I guess we can’t blame the film for this, especially when those characters have defining traits as wildly diverse and deeply felt as “dwarf who’s a little skinnier than that other one to the right” and, my favorite, “dwarf whose facial hair covers his mouth just a tad bit more to make it difficult for him to eat”. We get the sense that Jackson may have over-corrected for the first film’s slow-pacing, and lost any sense of cohesion whatsoever. If the first film insists on detail to the point of missing the forest for the trees, the second one sees the forest, then turns to the mountains, the desert, some tundra, a Chuck E. Cheese, and then back to the forest again and expects we haven’t noticed.

At least, if nothing else, the second film is the most unencumbered of the three films, and the least consistent about standing up every two minutes to remind us how important it thinks it is. Portions of the film rekindle the sort of fluffy, grand ol’ adventure serial spirit of the light and tight novel, the kind filled with spiders, orcs, elves, and dragons. And what a dragon it is: scary, imposing, Shakespearean, with no small thanks due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s baritone pipes, here having a little fun with Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman during their time off. As the two verbally duel and Smaug encircles Bilbo, Jackson lets his camera glide around the two and gives us a feast for the eyes. It’s the kind of sequence one can’t but stand back and admire. But admire is probably inappropriate for a sequence that strikes directly at the heart, something of grand awe we can’t help but get sucked up in. It’s a scene of almost operatic proportions, and for once, that’s a good thing. Here we’re living the adventure, not watching it.

Elsewhere, the second film’s best highfalutin shenanigans is probably a mid-film scene where the dwarves ride around in, and out of, barrels in a violent river that’s as dangerous as the orcs attacking them. There’s a jolly, off-the-cuff, free-spirited nature to the scene, as if Jackson is saying, “yeah this is all a bit long right, but let me have one more swordplay bit while I’m at it”. Up to a point, at least, he’s not wrong. However, he passes that point a few minutes in to the sequence, and then it drags on and on for another fifteen that feels like a year.

The concluding film, recently released, shifts tones again, elevating the material to the stuffy self-seriousness of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course, there isn’t much else for it to do except insist in this way; the narrative of this one quite literally boils down to a particularly rousing rendition of “there will be a battle”, followed by a somewhat less rousing “there is a battle” encore. It’s the shortest of the three films at 150 or-so minutes, but it could have been 50. The titular Battle of the Five Armies, in particular, trades only on scope and threatens to lose any human touch. It regains some of it when things wrap up in a series of one-on-one show-downs. Even then, because they focus on the tossed-off Legolas and the haphazardly characterized Thorin rather than the film’s heart and soul – Bilbo – they work only as pleasantly entertaining whiplash more than emotional spikes to a floundering franchise.

At the same time, if Jackson mostly fails in the big picture of developing narrative with form and rigor, he’s still a more than capable director of sequence and scene. The series is usually at its best when it’s aiming for a chilly, spook-fest atmosphere to threaten the too-wide-eyed landscapes of the rest of the film. The closer the film gets to Mordor, the better. There are a number of lovingly created mini-haunted houses in each film, especially in Smaug, where Jackson’s ears perk up. It’s perhaps telling then that the second film’s best sequence, barring its stupendous dragon-encounter, is its earliest full action sequence, and the series’ action scene that most borders on horror. I’m talking about the scene with the Mirkwood spiders we all saw coming. But perhaps more-so, I’m talking about the discombobulated, maze-like trek through the nightmarish-Oz that is Mirkwood. Here, he uses dense atmosphere, saturated color, unnerving noise, and jarring camera angles to create a true location here, not just a plot device or a set. In its unreality, its surrealism, it feels truly real, as real as these movies ever got. It’s creaky and tactile in a way the rest of the series never even approaches. You can almost feel the cobwebs.

And, wouldn’t you know, the same is true for part three, when the chilly, opaque snow and the translucent fog role in to give the climax a hard edge the rest of the film lacks entirely. Generally, in fact, each of the films ends on its highest note, with the final action sequence of each the respective highlight of the films containing them. There’s a simple reason for why most of the action flails around instead of punching to the gut. In basically every action scene in these films, the dwarves attain a super-human (super-dwarf?) sense of just where all their companions are at any point in time. Whenever one of them is about to face death, out of nowhere comes the weapon of another dwarf to take out the attacker in some stylish way. This is fun, don’t get me wrong; it not only adds to the sense of derring-do but effectively presents the dwarves as a cohesive team who care about each other even when the scriptwriters forgot to make them compelling individuals. But it also lulls us into a sense that they’re not really ever in any danger, that something is always there to save them at any point. Combined with how poor the characterization is for the dwarves, it saps most of their scenes of energy and impact.

There is a fairly strong three hour film hiding somewhere in the midst of this nearly nine hour train-wreck, but some diligent editing is necessary if it is ever to come to fruition (I have no doubt it will, considering Jackson’s insistent popularity among fan-boys to this day). Actually, “diligent” isn’t the word. It wouldn’t take much to cut Jackson’s laborious epic down to size, for whole cloths of it are so obviously inessential and poorly focused. Really, any editor worth their muster could cut a whole film out of here on a first pass. Take out most of the material centering the dwarves and focus on Bilbo, and you might have something. Martin Freeman gives by far the most feeling performance in any of the films, and his character also has the most fulfilling emotional arc. Too often, however, Jackson chooses to focus on his dwarves and their own grandiose quest. Bilbo, the center of the book by a mile, has the smallest, but the most complex and most personal journey. It’s the best center for a book. The film’s producers apparently felt it wouldn’t be best for a big budget epic film version. Would that they had thought again. It would have been the first step to creating something altogether tighter and more intimate. And Jackson is at his best when he is tight and intimate; it allows him to be playful and strips the weight of a crowd-pleasing blockbuster off his shoulders. Would that he had realized it.

Score: 6/10 (if reviewed individually, the second installment might bump up to a 6.5, but the difference is splitting hairs)

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