Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Closing the Book on "The Hobbit"

I have maintained from the start that Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" movies wouldn't be as bad as George Lucas's "Star Wars" prequels, and now that "Battle of the Five Armies" is behind us, I can safely conclude that I was right.  The "Hobbit" movies weren't nearly as bad on any level as the "Star Wars" prequels, and I quite liked the second one, "The Desolation of Smaug."  There were big chunks of the first and third films that I thought werevery strong too.  Overall, however, I have to concede that the "Hobbit" films didn't live up to the "Lord of the Rings" films, and it's perfectly fair to characterize them as having had a pretty negative impact on the film series.  I doubt they're going to be viewed very kindly by future generations.  But while the two shared some of the same problems, the faults of the "Hobbit" movies are very different from the faults of "Star Wars" Episodes I through III.
We all knew that the "Hobbit" novel simply didn't have enough material to sustain a trilogy of blockbuster films.  Most of the worst missteps could have been completely avoided if the filmmakers had simply made one long film or two shorter ones that cut out all the padding and the unwieldy original material that was needed to stretch a 320 page children's book into nearly eight hours of screen time.  There are already Tolkien buffs hard at work producing fan-edits to excise the ill-considered elf-dwarf romance between Tauriel and Kili, the Gandalf storyline, and my nominee for the "Hobbit" equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks, the comic relief character Afrid (Ryan Gage).  The "Lord of the Rings" films benefited from having to cut out some of the book's smaller episodes and minor characters like Tom Bombadil.  The "Hobbit" films easily could have gotten by without the shapeshifter Beorn or even a few of those extra dwarves.  After three films, I still can't name more than six of the thirteen.
As much as I disliked the "Star Wars" prequels, they were alwasy first and foremost the chronicle of the early years of Anakin Skywalker, from his childhood to his corruption as an adult.  Bilbo Baggins is a much better protagonist than Anakin Skywalker, and had the benefit of Martin Freeman's wonderful performance.  However, for much of "The Hobbit," especially in the last film, he doesn't feel like the main character.  Instead, the dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the human leader Bard (Luke Evans) were often at the forefront, and both characters were portrayed as much more classically heroic than their literary counterparts.  I wonder if Jackson was trying to evoke Boromir and Aragorn from "Lord of the Rings," though the characterizations felt so forced that Thorin and Bard weren't particularly appealing leading men in the end.  Then there was all the time taken up by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and their stories.  Sure, all the extra characters made the story larger scale and more epic, but Bilbo ended up a bit lost in the crowd.
I think "The Hobbit" fared better than the "Star Wars" prequels did regarding references to the previous series, though not by much.  I liked the framing device with the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and a couple of the minor in-jokes.  There weren't many instances of the ham-fisted foreshadowing George Lucas deployed.  However, I found that Peter Jackson had a hard time letting the "Hobbit" be its own story instead of another installment of "Lord of the Rings."  He kept reusing bits and pieces from the previous films, including several that he's been criticized for - the the massive CGI battle sequences, the deus ex machina, mucking with basic character motivations, rearranging the story structure, and the addition of questionable original characters.  Watching some of the action scenes in "Battle of the Five Armies" certainly reminded me of "Return of the King," but not in a good way.  Since I didn't care about most of the characters, the warfare just felt tedious and endless, and it was much easier to see the bad bits.  And those ended up reminding me of the flaws from the earlier sequences, which I was no longer inclined to forgive or ignore.  In short, watching parts of "The Hobbit" made me like the "Lord of the Rings" films less.
I feel that one of the biggest mistakes that both Peter Jackson and George Lucas made at the outset was trying to utilize a new technology in these movies that wasn't quite ready yet.  With Jackson, it was the increased frame rate projection systems, which resulted in some very unsettling visuals in the first film.  Fortunately he made the necessary corrections so that the second and third installments fared much better.  However, Jackson  and Lucas also share a more damaging trait: they misunderstand what audiences enjoyed about their previous work.  Jackson brought back everything that we loved about "Lord of the Rings," regardless of whether or not it was a good fit for "The Hobbit."  A good example is Legolas, a highlight of the first trilogy whose appearances in "The Hobbit" movie just served to lessen the character overall.  

And too often, that's how I felt about the "The Hobbit" as a whole.

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