Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Devan Scott

Will once described Peter Jackson's mammoth adaptation of The Lord of the Rings as “The most expensive low-budget movie ever made," and I'm inclined to agree. With $270 million to work with, ten hours to fill, an immense world to construct, and a nearly unprecedented amount of visual effects pioneering to be done, Jackson was practically working with a shoestring budget as far as War And Peace-sized epics were concerned; this necessitated an almost documentary-like run-and-gun approach to filming the live-action scenes. And that's not to mention the relative lack of experience of those involved; this was Jackson's first major blockbuster, after all. 

As a result, the camera movements were often rough, the editing was a little jumpy, and the coverage had a freewheeling style. And you know what? The film was more interesting for it. Gone was the polish that characterizes most major Hollywood productions; these were gritty, visceral films. The world, and the characters who populate it, felt tangible. Even Gollum's success was as much a result of this quality as the fact that he represented a huge step forward in motion capture technology.

These limitations extended to the narrative itself. Faced with compressing a famously dense 1000-page tome into ten short hours, Jackson, along with screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, were forced into economizing the plot whenever possible, leaving little room for bloat. 

Much has changed since The Lord of the Rings, however. Since that trilogy proved to be a worldwide success of corpulent proportions, Jackson has effectively had complete creative and financial freedom on everything he's directed since. The Hobbit trilogy, based off of a 300-page book, will likely end up at around nine hours in length with a reported budget of around $450 million. 

And Jackson uses it. Every penny. Shot on what I can only assume is a mightily expensive system of 3D RED Epic rigs at 48 frames a second, The Hobbit looks unlike anything I've ever seen in a cinema. This new look has been called many things: an abomination that makes everything seem like HDTV; a new step forward for the medium; an unwatchable mess. To my eyes, it is none of these things. It is an aesthetic choice, neither inherently better nor worse than a film shot at 24 frames per second on celluloid.

The question of whether it is a good aesthetic choice is where things get interesting. The combination of crystal-clear digital photography and a high framerate gives the film a sterile look, but this is a fantastical universe characterized by knotty trees, crumbling ruins, hardened warriors, and, above all, dirt. This new look that Jackson and company have crafted might play wonderfully when paired with, say, an antiseptic science fiction tale a la Prometheus, but it doesn't fit the aesthetic of Middle Earth in the least.

Most unfortunately, the follies of Jackson's newfound freedom extend into the storytelling itself. Yes, the film is as long and drawn-out as you've heard. And whenever the focus of the film is Bilbo, this bloat never becomes a problem. The issue is the crap surrounding him.

The film opens with Bilbo (Ian Holm, looking considerably older than he did in 2001) beginning to write There and Back Again, a fine conceit with which to frame the film. Problems arise, however, when the sequence is needlessly prolonged to include the obligatory Frodo (Elijah Wood, looking not a day older) cameo, and the pointless reveal that this is happening moments before the opening frames of The Fellowship of the Ring, complete with the party invitations and all that. Knowing winks abound. To round out the prologue, we are treated to a mostly-unnecessary Cliff's Notes history of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor. Then, at last, we are introduced to a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in a fine scene which, in a fair and just world, would have occured a minute or two into the film.

This tumour of a prologue is all too indicative of the bloat that's been introduced to the source material. Too many times are we whisked away from the central narrative to see the exploits of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) or the White Council (i.e. The Middle Earth Security Council), neither of which are very interesting or relevant to Bilbo's journey. 

Which, in the end, is what matters. The film lives or dies on its portrayal of Bilbo Baggins, and here, thankfully, the film unreservedly lives up to both Tolkien's novels and Jackson's previous films. Bilbo, as portrayed by Martin Freeman, is as magnetic and delightful a presence as any character in the series so far; the writing, performance, and direction conspire to absolutely nail Bilbo's long-domesticated-free-spirit-who-longs-to-break-free-but-can't-admit-it nature. 

This, more than anything else, rescues the movie from its many flaws. Yes, the two most grandiose action setpieces in the movie are clusterfucks of visual incoherency. Yes, the film has a troubling tendency to recycle old emotional beats. And yes, Jackson's epic aspirations constantly conflict with the source material's whimsical and at times arbitrary narrative. Yet despite all that, the core of the story — Bilbo Baggins's journey from repressed homebody to liberated adventurer with an identity — is as solid as can be.

That sounds suspiciously like damning with faint praise, but consider this: The Lord of the Rings was almost undeniably the most important cinematic cornerstone of my adolescence. It is so near and dear to me that nothing short of another masterpiece of modern filmmaking can possibly satisfy me completely; yet I liked The Hobbit, and I'll almost surely be returning to see the second chapter, warts and all.


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