It’s hard to think of a series in any medium renowned with more critical, audience, and scholarly devotion than J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. What began as a series of novels has grown into an enormous worldwide phenomenon spanning video games, comics, toys, and of course, films. But, while all signs point to the contrary, Ian McKellan, star of Peter Jackson’s highly acclaimed cinematic adaptations, recently became angry with a reporter at a press junket for the series prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for labeling it a “franchise.”
“This is not ‘X-Men,’” he growled.
The “franchise” descriptor carries heavy connotations of factory-like production with cheap values, cheaper gimmicks, and a knack for cunning repeat dips into the pockets of faithful audiences en masse.
McKellan’s frustrations are not unfounded. Has Lord of the Rings ever shared the same receptive space as industry heavy-hitters like Spider Man or Twilight? Peter Jackson’s tender handcrafted a series of arresting whimsy coupled with powerful parabolic implications. What made Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film series stand out from a franchise-obsessed film industry are everything that make The Hobbit look like only a smear of ash cast from a raging fire.
The Hobbit is a prelude to the highly-decorated Lord of the Rings series, chronicling the exploits of Bilbo Baggins, a band of dwarves, and Gandalf the wizard as they seek to reclaim treasure stolen by a dragon, Smaug. Recognizable characters from the series are all here, albeit with presence motivated only by nostalgic longing for familiarity versus any sort of narrative necessity, but since the film is part one of three (as a matter of fact, actors billed in the film’s credits, such as Evangeline Lily and Benedict Cumberbatch, do not even appear in this installment), that still remains to be entirely seen.
The Hobbit takes the simple premise of its source material and stretches it into a nearly three-hour epic of spectacular vignettes, causal relation often thrown to the wind as the film seems keen on molding juicy come-to-life visuals for fans of the literature versus forging a cinematically individual path of its own. For this, The Hobbit works on its most artificial levels, suffering as whole in the process. The imagery is crisp, the production design lush, and the quality of projection some of the finest you’ll see on cinema screens this year. The problem, however, is that these elements work against the film’s credibility as true fantasy, the kind which exists as an ethereal essence versus a noticeably crafted product. The Hobbit’s spectacular qualities (particularly the 3D visuals, as well as the high projection rate at nearly 48 frames per second) nearly always outshine its narrative roots, in short; in fact it is brevity of editing and effective pacing that seem to escape the scope of Jackson’s focus, something that didn’t plague his initial Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Even fantasy requires an anchoring thread of realism, which is present in The Hobbit but altogether stifled by artificiality that emphasizes the presence of the camera and, ultimately, the confines of the audience’s spectatorship. The beauty of the story at heart is hard to grasp when the audience is beaten over the head with 3D gimmicks and film speed that makes even the simplest of movements far too crisp and constructed not to devote attention to. The future of cinema is leaning towards an even greater 3D revolution, and the Lord of the Rings series is one far too rooted in the history of other mediums to be hampered by the cheapest of visual trickery.
Perhaps the film itself is mediocre, or maybe the lense through which we view it is tainted by a film industry overgrown with spectacle over substance, rendering The Hobbit‘s presence trivial and unrefreshing. It then becomes Peter Jackson’s mistake, then, to allow such a visionary franchise succumb to the pitfalls of convention that his Lord of the Rings series rose above over a decade ago.
There’s a scene towards the end of the film which sees a standoff between two characters. One (larger, more intimidating than his challenger) taunts his opponent, mockingly asking him what he’s going to do to stop the blunt force of the impending attack. After an unexpectedly quick slash to the face and stomach from his measly opponent, the large foe humorously quips “well, that’ll do it” before falling to his death. At once, the exchange is funny, and on another, completely out of character for the scene, the film, and the tone of the entire series. It’s hard to imagine J.R.R. Tolkien writing such a shallow calling out to the audience’s conscious, but I guess novels are often described with such qualities that “jump off the page.” It’s an unsurprising shame when, taken too literally with technical bells, whistles, and 3D effects, the same sentiment can’t be trusted to make average cinema truly great.