Coming off the back of the Lord of the Rings series, the Hobbit was always going to have to live up to high expectations. Still, it was was a disconcerting when the reviews for An Unexpected Journey first started rolling in. In the end the film attained a measly score of 58 on Metacritic, nothing short of a disaster. Indeed, even in private the film was much derided. A number of my own friends oft ridicule it. Myself, I thought the film was flawed, sometimes cheesy, sometimes slow, but there is no denying I enjoyed watching it.
While The Desolation of Smaug is generally getting better reviews than its predecessor, the consensus is still pretty disappointing. It’s strange because many of the problems that I see critics list are just as prevalent in the Lord of the Ring‘s films. After all, these are all Peter Jackson movies. So the question is, why is there such a gulf between the reverant reception to which the Lord of the Rings was released and the deriscion to which the Hobbit was?
First I should address the critical response to the Hobbit movies to establish what I mean when I say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy has many of the same issues.
One of the main criticisms of the first instalment was that it was long and bloated, especially in reference to its first hour. This of all other criticism confounds me the most. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is riddled with these sorts of moments. The Fellowship of the Ring‘s first hour is similarly bloated, and really drags on repeated viewing. As for the conclusion of The Return of the King, well, enough has been said on that already.
The newest entry has also come under fire for its clutter of sub-plots. In particular critics are taking the film to task over its romance, which many see as pointless and under developed, myself included. However, I believe that it is a hell of a lot more developed and interesting than the Aragorn-Arwen romance which had its place in all three of the Lord of the Rings movies. It had no purpose and unlike the love triangle in The Desolation of Smaug, it lacks anything to make it unique or even slightly engaging.
Then there is this from Mike LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle, who, according to Metacritic, is one of The Desolation of Smaug’s harshest critics:
If you see [The Desolation of Smaug], notice the transparent effort made to render dramatic and full of import the minor pulse beats of … not even a story, but a thin sliver of a story. Notice the intrusive soundtrack, swelling to instruct us how to feel, as the camera moves in suddenly on Gandalf’s face for the grand pronouncement: “They mean war!”
When in the same review he wrote this:
Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” should never have been made and doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
LaSalle seems to be under the impression that the Lord of the Rings films were models of subtle filmmaking. Far from it. They too had the “intrusive soundtrack” and “transparent effort to render dramatic and full of import”. As I have mentioned, these are Peter Jackson movies, and as such these sorts of elements come part and parcel. I can understand them not being to someone’s taste, but I don’t understand being able to accept it in one instance and abhor it in another.
As is apparent, for all its faults the Lord of the Rings trilogy received glowing praise in the press where, so far, the Hobbit series has not. There are more to a film than its failings, but I think that the Hobbit series has all of the wonder and excitement that made its predecessors so popular. This lack of consistency is what I find so baffling.
So why the discrepancy?
As humans we are all guilty of having our prejudices. Though I was quite young, I remember the excitement that surrounded the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There may have been some doubts about various casting descision, but generally there was a sense that the series was going to be something special. Lo and behold when The Fellowship of the Ring was finally released, it has greeted with a rapturous reception from cinema-goers and critics alike.
Jump forward 10 years and it is announced that there will be a Hobbit trilogy. There was certainly some excitement surrounding this announcement, certainly after the success of the first trilogy. But, certain circles started to ask, does such a small book really need three films? This quickly escalated into a major issue. Many accused the studios of trying to milk the series for money. At this point the success of the first trilogy was actually a detriment to the Hobbit. People started to believe that it would never be able to live up to the legacy of The Lord of the Rings. So, when the reviews first came pouring in, and they were less than glowing, there was a sense that this was predetermined, that ‘of course the films were going to be rubbish’. I believe this negativity and bias has gone some way to colouring the harsh criticism these films have been getting.
What I believe has really influenced reactions to the two franchises though, is the differences in the audiences to which they were released. In the decade between the release of the two franchises much has changed. The economic struggles have turned into a full on crisis. It seems impossible these days to turn on the news without watching a story about how the worst is yet to come. All is doom and gloom. As a result it has become the vogue for modern thrillers and action movies to be dark and brooding. For this we can thank Christopher Nolan and his Batman movies.
I believe that a certain amount of wonder has been lost in the audience since the release of the first trilogy, in its place is a level of cynicism. Case in point, Superman. If ever there was a character who need to be taken with a pinch of salt, it was him. But now it seems he must be serious and brooding like the rest. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but when so many films have the exact same tone, things start to grow stale rapidly.
For me the Hobbit series has been a breath of fresh air in these times. But for others maybe it just isn’t cool anymore. Maybe when other films of the time are so realistic and grounded, it is hard for audiences to accept a film that relies so heavily on them to suspend their disbelief. Whatever it is, there seems to be a disconnect somewhere. Such fun loving tales don’t seem to find the same audience as they did a decade ago. Although I will concede there are some exceptions to this. Take The Avengers for example.
In truth it might my own bias and predilection for epic action and exotic locales that means I, for the most part, only see the good in these new entries in the Middle-Earth saga. I am willing to acknowledge that. But I am not willing to accept that the films are any where near as bad as some of the dire feedback from cinema-goers and critics would have us believe. Maybe the films will be re-evaluated in years to come. Whether that would be to their benefit or not is to be seen. As it stands now though the films will continue to maligned in their contemporary period. After all of that I find myself asking, why do I care? All that matters in the end is that I enjoyed them.
I wish I’d come to that conclusion earlier…