One of my greatest regrets is that I never reviewed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. That should give you a sense of how few significant regrets I actually have in life, but it’s still haunted me. It’s haunted me so much, that in order to exorcize all my thoughts on The Hobbit, I’ve agreed to watch a longer version of a movie I already hate to write the review.
I really can’t tell what 13 new minutes were added to a movie I saw a year ago and didn’t like much then. We reported that the new cut includes brief nudity, and indeed there is a scene of the dwarves bathing in the elf fountains. For a more extensive breakdown of the additions to the extended cut, I’d like to point you to TheOneRing.net. I wouldn’t want to take credit for any of the work they did documenting each extra line of dialogue. I will only say that the new scenes didn’t exacerbate any of the film’s existing problems, nor did they improve them.
The problems with stretching out The Hobbit into part one of a trilogy, let alone the other two parts we’ve yet to see, and the lack of relatability in the supporting cast of dwarves have been well documented. So I want to focus more on the philosophical problems with The Hobbit. One is that it doesn’t feel like Peter Jackson’s heart is in it. He’s definitely going back to the well, but not even in a “wait, I still have more to show you” kind of way. It feels more like, “Well, we know how to do orcs. Let’s just do The Hobbit.” It’s like when you throw a really great party, and everyone has such a great time that you want to throw another party, but the second party feels a little sad because it’s trying to be the first party and not exactly all of the same people can make it this time and everyone’s still a little hung over from the first party.
The same things that were wondrous in The Lord of the Rings now feel rushed and sloppy. Even Hobbiton looks like a cheap copy of the first film’s Hobbiton, like they just threw some hair on skin colored boots instead of painstakingly applying hairs to the hobbit feet. They did in fact have less time to shoot than the original trilogy, understandably as studio economics and deadlines don’t allow you more leisurely production periods, but it shows. World building was a vital aspect of the success of The Lord of the Rings for audiences who were not inherently familiar with the world of Middle Earth. With a lackluster effort on that front this time, The Hobbit doesn’t even compare to the impressive spectacle of its predecessors.
When it comes to the visual effects, The Hobbit is just embarrassing. I’m sure Return of the King wasn’t perfect, and that itself was quite an improvement over The Fellowship of the Ring, but how does CGI get worse in 10 years? If the wolves in The Hobbit married the wolves from the Twilight movies, their babies would be the wolves from American Werewolf in Paris.
Pixar just made a short that was completely animated and fooled audiences into thinking it was live-action. Weta can’t make stuff look as real as it did 10 years ago. I think I’ve got the answer to this one. There is far less location shooting on The Hobbit than there was on Lord of the Rings. Many of the environments are entirely CGI so instead of having a real environment in which your creatures have to look real, it’s all invented.
I think letting another filmmaker play in Peter Jackson’s world would have been the reason to film The Hobbit. Maybe Jackson knew that and that’s why he held out for so long not to do it himself. Then it took so long that he just went, “Screw it, here’s your damn Hobbit movie.” I can’t presume to know what Jackson was thinking. Maybe he’s thinking, “Yes! This is what it’s all been building towards.” He certainly seemed engaged when I spoke to him. Yes, that still happened and no amount of bad Hobbit movies will take that away.
It’s also sad that they’re trying to take a very different story and make it the same. Why not use The Hobbit as an opportunity to make a different sort of Middle Earth movie in the franchise? Why not try two-hour films this time, or maybe even breezy 90 minute adventures? You don’t have to structure An Unexpected Journey just like Fellowship when the dwarves really are not a fellowship. Really, the big breakthrough is that Thorin admits he was wrong about Bilbo. That’s hardly thematically equivalent to the fellowship overcoming their temptations for The One Ring. It’s a three-hour long “my bad.” I mean, I like franchise continuity but it’s not always relevant.
The Blu-ray looks great, inasmuch as it is a flawless, clear picture throughout, more consistent than even the LOTR Blu-rays. There is a ton of detail in the CGI creatures and the New Zealand landscape, even in the digital backgrounds. That level of craft is there. It just doesn’t look real like LOTR did. The transfer is extremely bright, so that any vivid settings on your TV are really too much. Keep it in standard modes. Maybe this is the problem. The LOTR films were shot on film. The Hobbit was shot on Red digital cameras. Regardless of your technical preference, that is just different. It looks too polished, and it certainly doesn’t connect with the previous footage.
Nine hours of extras are a bit much, but the appendices are up to the high, in-depth standards of the LOTR special editions. A little behind the scenes footage on The Desolation of Smaug introduces some new characters in action and mainly sequences that look like more of the same visual effects. One bit with the dwarves in barrels floating down a river looks potentially cool.
Jackson’s commentary with Philippa Boyens disproves my theory above. He sounds damn passionate as he describes the complex filmmaking techniques in which he pushed cinematography beyond the first trilogy. That still doesn’t justify the content of the dinner scene, no matter how hard he worked on photographing it. Jackson addresses all the extended additions, which I confirmed via The One Ring’s breakdown, and speaks a lot about which elements will pay off and further develop in the sequels. Boyens addresses changes made when the screenplay went from two to three films. That’s stuff we actually want to know!
I think we are witnessing the dawn of a cinematic train wreck here. Jackson has to go down with the ship. He’s already committed to three of these, and to that 48 frames per second fiasco, and it’s not going to look any better in the next two films because he’s already shot them. Whatever is making 48fps look like sped up old timey silent films can’t be fixed retroactively. I don’t even mind that the image quality is different in 48fps. I don’t understand why it would be, because if you shoot in 48 and play back in 48 it should look normal, right? I’m open to different image qualities but it has to look like real time footage, and so far it doesn’t. That’s not a matter of being used to 24fps footage. I’m comparing it to my real life vision. In real life, people move at normal speed, so in movies I expect them to move at normal speed too.
I’m sure James Cameron will come along and fix this technology like he did for performance capture and 3D itself, but watching the extended edition in good old 24fps didn’t make the movie any better. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a creative disaster. I’m okay with fan service too, and if the fans are happy they got another Middle Earth movie, I’m happy for them. I just can’t imagine they could be though, since it’s a rushed and sloppier version of their beloved story.