Is ‘The Hobbit’ the Biggest Disappointment Since The Phantom Menace?
The sixth and final Lord of the Rings film – Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies – will be released in theaters on December 17th, and we can all now breathe a hefty and well-deserved sigh of relief. After what seems like a straight 24 hour marathon of film, this series is finally at an end (well, provided Jackson doesn’t elect in future to somehow dramatize J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Silmarillion).
Just To Make Sure We’re All On the Same Page…
We are all kind of let down by The Hobbit, right? Is it okay to hate them yet, or has the statute of limitations not run out that notion yet?
What began its cinematic life as a pop culture tentpole lauded by critics and frothed over by fans has now become a wearying obligation. People will see The Battle of the Five Armies to be sure, and some critics will even praise this final chapter (as of this writing, the film enjoys a vaguely respectable 72% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but I imagine most fans won’t be attending the film in order to see the grand conclusion to an epic story. They will be attending because they are essentially required to finally see this through; pop culture fanatics can no longer merely skip the tentpole releases for any reason.
I find the three Hobbit movies, as a whole and as individual chapters, to be a massive disappointment. While I am perhaps not the biggest fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies – I find them to be far, far too melodramatic, and I’m not fond of the rote fantasy book cover production design – I still greatly admire the towering ambition of the series, and stand in genuine awe of the sheer breadth of the entire project. Many of my critical peers, however, have – perhaps rightly – compared the Lord of the Rings movies to the Star Wars movies, citing them as the central cinematic fantasy that would inform genre fans’ standards for years to come.
First, let us draw the release-structure parallels between Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, shall we? Both series began with a powerful trilogy of films, told over a condensed period (Wars: 1977-1983, Rings: 2001-2003). Both series had extended hiatuses (Wars, 16 years, Rings, 9 years), only to return with a second trilogy of prequels, also told over a condensed period (Wars, 1999 – 2005. Rings, 2012 – 2014). Both prequel trilogies were made by the directors of the originals.
Critically speaking, however, with both Lord of the Rings and with Star Wars, the prequel trilogies were overly complicated (both visually and in their screenplays), technically overblown, certainly perfunctory, and wholly unneeded additions to a previously beloved series that colored our memories of the originals for the worse. The respective trilogies all took place in the same universe as the originals, but told a story that didn’t need to be told; they didn’t add to the richness of the universe. These were all productions based in bare cynicism and nostalgia exploitation.
Combine that with the fact that the movies are – let’s face it – simply not good. The Hobbit movies can handily be considered to be this generation’s Star Wars prequels. Bigger budgets, more director control, and super-duper special effects made for a crap product. Even fans of the extended director’s cuts of the original Lord of the Rings movies openly agree that making a trio of 150-185-minute feature films out of a single rather slender novel was indulgent. The slickness of the production couldn’t cover the fact that the storytelling was artificially prolonged.
If you were to point to the single definitive error in the so-often-maligned Star Wars prequels, what would it be? I would say that it was too concerned with the real-world pop history of its own mythology. Let me explain what I mean by that. The Star Wars prequels were not so much about adding to the in-universe mythos of Star Wars, and expanding the story of a sci-fi epic, but intentionally exploiting well-known characters, story beats, and audience-loved imagery strictly for nostalgic purposes. The Star Wars prequels were a gigantic explanation as to how Darth Vader became who he was, and expanded the importance of his character into something inappropriately important to the existence of this universe.
Since 1983, Darth Vader has become an icon to fans, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the films started to treat him that way. Is Darth Vader really all that important to the galaxy where Star Wars takes place? Is he like the Messiah? No. In the original films, he was just an enforcer for a Nazi-like Empire. But because he was such an iconic villain to the audiences, the prequels began to expose him as a Messianic figure.
That same error is on display in the Hobbit movies. In the original films, Peter Jackson was deft and careful to dramatize as much of Tolkien’s original novels as possible, even adding gigantic battle sequences not included in the books. Handling these movies was a careful matter of handling any potential geek rage. As such, the original movies were going to be exacting, very long, and designed just so.
But when it finally came time to revisit the material (as I suppose we had to eventually do; can’t leave a cash cow alone), the Lord of the Rings universe had inflated into something much larger in the minds of the fans. People had recreated the costumes, re-watched extended versions of the films, and came to accept that “longer” and “bigger” were just a part of the Lord of the Rings milieu. A defining feature of Lord of the Rings became sheer volume. So with The Hobbit, all of a sudden what was once a quaint children’s story required EPIC treatment. The filmmakers inadvisedly expaded something that was previously small an natural into something overblown. Overblown to match fan expectation. The Hobbit was never meant to be an adventure of this magnitude.
Origin Story Crap
This extends from the previous point.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting mighty sick of the notion of the origin story. Sure, some films do it well; I think we all are instantly thinking of Batman Begins. But too many recent movies and TV shows have tried to tell the tale of how a pop culture icon came to be the way they are. The Star Wars prequels were a Darth Vader origin story, all geared toward setting up the original films. The only truly original notion in the Star Wars prequels – that The Force was actually made up of microscopic life forms – was roundly rejected by fans.
The Hobbit can easily be seen as an origin story as well. Call it Sauron Begins. The Hobbit himself fell by the wayside for much of these movies, and too much time was spent wuth Gandalf and Galadriel and other characters who did not appear in the original novel, all talking about how the evil Sauron was going to be “a thing” any second now. The Hobbit was an origin story for, in a meta way, the upcoming movies. It wouldn’t have surprised me when, at the end of the third Hobbit film, Peter Jackson himself appeared on camera, announcing that “Big movies are nigh.”
And that what both The Phantom Menace and The Hobbit did: They didn’t just tell origin stories of their characters. They told the origin stories of business franchises.
This obsession with all-too-familiar origin tales doesn’t pertain to just Star Wars and Lord of the Rings either. Rather than tell a new story about a new character, or perhaps have new adventures and new lessons for an older one, filmmakers and studios are repeatedly relying on nostalgia exploitation. The stories require that we know original films intimately. There are decades of pop culture pretense in place now, and the filmmakers are going to make darn sure you know they know it. As such, many films have become, well, pretentious.
A Short List…
Here’s a short list of fraudulent origin story prequels that are all based entirely in nostalgia exploitation: Maleficent, Casino Royale, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Oz, The Great and Powerful, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Godzilla, Godzilla, Prometheus, Pan, the upcoming Transporter movie, the upcoming Smurfs movie, The Thing, Minions, Monsters University, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Halloween, Leprechaun: Origins, Hannibal Rising, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 300: Rise of an Empire, Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.
Drunk with Power
Two filmmakers, Peter Jackson and George Lucas, became drunk on their own power. They became a little too strongly convinced of the significance of their own movies. True, both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are now woven into the pop tapestry forever, and geekdom would perhaps not exist at all were it not for these two particular properties. But these were once stories being told/interpreted by people who had a creative need to tell/interpret them. It seems that Lucas and Jackson became fanboys of their own works. And now they revisiting the material as fans rather than as filmmakers. They are not asking “What do I need to say?,” but “What do fans want to see?” These are not directors who are trying to continue with their stories because they were itching for new ways to explore their universes.
These were big-budget, high-profile examples of how lazy their creators had become. Let’s give the fans more of the same! They’ll eat it up! We’ll make lots of money! Story? Atmosphere? Purpose? General narrative? Interesting plot and characters? That stuff will all fall into place along the way… I hope. Let’s rush these into production because they will automatically be hits. I get the sense that studios – and maybe even many of the filmmakers involved in both Lord of the Rings and Star Wars – probably said something like “We’ll make money, even if it’s bad.”
Here’s another curious comparison: The Phantom Menace was a technically impressive film, featuring more extensive CGI than any previous production. Director George Lucas also used the inevitable popularity of his film to push the cinematic world from the analog to the digital, asking that the nation move from film strips and film projection to, well, what we have today. Peter Jackson tried (and kind of failed) to push an increased framerate onto the world with An Unexpected Journey. Lucas at least managed to achieve his agenda. Using 48fps as our standard may yet be years away.
So on Wednesday, go ahead and see Battle of the Five Armies. Feel the dulled thrill of something you used to love kind of petering out. And recall that you had that same odd sense of obligation when Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith was released over a decade ago. Is the third film the best of the prequels in both cases? Indeed. Does that mean any of the prequels are, strictly speaking, worth your time?