Peter Jackson’s new film, “The Hobbit, Part I,” is another perfect example of why you should never give a successful filmmaker unlimited money and hand him a project that’s “dear to his heart” without having a gimlet-eyed, ruthless Editor with the unlimited Power of the Scissors standing nearby.
Successful filmmakers with unlimited money almost always succumb to the dreaded malady of Rococoization: the mistaken belief that if one is good, twenty-five will be better. No. It’s not. But turning everything Rococo is a common affliction. Even George Lucas was not immune.
The first problem with the Hobbit, Part I is the fact that it is a Part I. “Lord of the Rings, the book, was a complex story told in three volumes. “Lord of the Rings,” the movie, was a complex story told in three films. “The Hobbit,” the book, was a modest quest adventure story told in one volume. “The Hobbit,” the movie, is three, three-hour films. You see the problem? Yes. How do you spell, P A D D I N G.
Even stranger for a filmmaker as skilled as Jackson, whole chunks of “The Hobbit” are told with endless scenes of yak-yakking, blah-blah-blah, exposition and ‘splaining, with actors sounding like they’re reading off huge descriptive chunks from the book. In a film, you don’t ‘splain, you show. And you hold the unnecessary details to the minimum needed for coherence. The audience doesn’t need to know the endless begats and begins and backstory; you only need to babble a bit about the Great Knights of the Nodding Trees, then get on with it. You’re not reading a book to the audience, you’re making a moving picture with the key word here being . . . moving. (To see how it’s done, go watch the original “Star Wars.”)
As for the movie being suitable for kids? No. Instead of a clean, exciting quest adventure with exciting-scary orcs and trolls, a movie that would be suitable for kids (which is who Tolkein was writing “The Hobbit” for in the first place – his children ), Jackson, typical of modern fantasy filmmakers, has loaded up the screen with head-ripping violence, drooling, snot-dripping grotesqueries with every wart and wattle rendered in greatest detail, with camera-focus zeroing in on every dripping tongue, salvia-drenched tooth, and, of course, overwrought battle scenes that simply turn into visual chaos – can’t tell the dwarves from the orcs and after a few minutes, who cares? Which is another result of Rococoization – when you fill every square inch of the screen with squirming images, instead of exciting action, you end up with a visually static frieze.
Oddly, the use of 3-D did force Jackson to create one visually exciting scene that was a duplication of the ore car, roller-coaster ride in one of the Indiana Jones films – our heroes running and leaping and zooming through the orc’s huge caverns. The necessity to take advantage of the 3-D effects forced Jackson to zero in on focused movement to track the characters, all of which helped create a hierarchy of movement and point of view.
In short, the movie was a bloated mess. And instead of using pruning shears – Edit! Edit! Edit!—Jackson just kept adding endless scenes that looked like outtakes from the “Lord” trilogy – repeated infill shot from a zooming helicopter of our hearty little troop of heroes scampering over hill and dale, utterly dwarfed by the rugged New Zeeland landscape. Up loud heroic music. Oy!
But all was not completely lost. The price of admission was partially redeemed by the scene where Bilbo meets Gollum (and his “precioussss” ring of power). It’s brilliantly realized, thanks to Andy Serkis and his extraordinary acting abilities. Andy, wearing his motion-capture suit and face camera, has managed to create an extraordinary character and deliver an amazingly moving performance. Gollum, pitiable, dangerous, heartbreaking, funny is one of the few characters in the film worth caring about. Thanks to Serkis, he’s the most real fake character on the screen. That kind of extraordinary performance was first delivered by Serkis in the “Lord” trilogy, as well as his astonishing turn as the lead ape in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and now “The Hobbit.” Reason enough to hope that the stodgy Academy will finally understand that those performances weren’t “animation,” they were acting, and will give Serkis his much deserved Academy Award for best supporting actor.
Like another waterboarding session, parts II and III will lumber into town for the next two years to inflict their torture on the returning fans (and extract every last precioussss nickel from their pocketsessss.) I suspect I may reluctantly drag myself to the theatre if only to see what Jackson has done with Smaug, the dragon. Knowing the wretched excesses he’s ladled on the orcs, I’m not heartened. But Gollum will surely creep back into the remaining films and those scenes will be worth sitting through all the rest.