Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Hobbit: The Long and Short of It

It's fairly safe to say that the latest Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, is a polarizing film. It seems like for every viewer who loves it, there's one who detests it. The US stock market looks steady and consistent compared to the ratings on this movie's IMDb user reviews. That's nothing new for Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy, but one thing that most of the reviews for this film appear to agree on is that it feels way too trimmed down and even incomplete.

I just got back from seeing the movie myself, and while I of course loved it...I do kind of have to agree with that complaint. I don't know why The Battle of the Five Armies ended up being so much shorter than the other Hobbit films, but I think its 144-minute run time suffocates it a bit. A lot of storylines and characters don't get the closure that they need or deserve, including a few that don't come back in Lord of the Rings. The movie is so conspicuously edited down that even before its premiere, Peter Jackson announced that 30 minutes of footage would be restored to the film's Extended Edition.

This brings me to my topic: the Extended Editions. Releasing these versions in their elegant, book-like cases with disc upon disc of special features has been a tradition since the first Lord of the Rings movie, and while they can be tougher to view in one sitting than their theatrical counterparts, they are much more in-depth and truer to Tolkien's source material. It's no surprise that the book fans tend to prefer them.

It should be noted though that their bonus scenes are usually just that -- bonuses. They enrich the movies but aren't necessarily required in the story. The only bonus scene from the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions that I would call necessary is Saruman's death in The Return of the King, as it finally gives a proper send-off to the most prevalent villain from the first two films. Other than that, the Rings Extended Editions don't have to prop up the theatrical ones too much.

The Extended Editions for The Hobbit have been a slightly different matter. Sure, An Unexpected Journey was satisfying enough even without that 13 extra minutes of fun sprinkled onto it, but the 25 minutes added to The Desolation of Smaug practically gave us a different film. Entire characters with entire subplots were added, sporadic character decisions were explained, and seemingly pointless characters were suddenly given reason to be there. It's the biggest skyrocket in quality that I've seen from an alternate version since the Assembly Cut of Alien 3.

The obvious question then is why so much of that material was cut. The commentary by Peter Jackson and Screenwriter Philippa Boyens seems to point the finger at pacing issues, and while that likely was part of it, I think the answer can be hit a little more on the nose. The reason was probably box office reports.

One of the biggest criticisms of An Unexpected Journey was how slow and meandering a lot of people found it to be. Since its earnings also reflected a drop in viewer interest from Lord of the Rings, the studio likely pushed the filmmakers to shorten the next film in an effort to restore those numbers. Thus we got the theatrical version of The Desolation of Smaug...which actually earned even less money.

Luckily, DVD's don't have to worry so much about pacing, so a lot of that cut material returned in the Extended Edition. You can still argue that most of the bonus footage isn't necessary to the plot, though it does make for a much clearer and less rushed product.

And then there's The Battle of the Five Armies. My theory again is that the studio panicked over the previous film's drop in revenue and (still feeling that brevity was the way to go) pressured the filmmakers to make the third one even shorter. The problem is that while skimping on closure can work in Part 1 and Part 2 of a trilogy, it doesn't work in Part 3. There are no more parts after that to save the closure for.

That's part of why The Return of the King's Extended Edition ended up being an hour longer. Too many subplots, albeit minor ones, didn't have endings in the theatrical cut. Yes, I just said that The Return of the King didn't have enough endings in it. Not so many people objected to those loose ends though because The Return of the King was by far the longest installment in the series. The filmmakers made it as long and as sufficient as they possibly could for a theatrical release and eventually just had to stop.

The Battle of the Five Armies, on the other hand, is by far the shortest installment in the series. What's more, it was made that short for reasons beyond the filmmakers' control. Why would they announce anything about the Extended Edition so early if they were happy with the film they put in theaters?

This leads me to a belief that I think a lot of fans have had for a while: that the theater is not the right venue for these movies. Jackson and his crew have to cater to that venue first since it's where most of their budget money is made back, but those watered-down versions of their films only play for a month or so. Then they can release DVD's of the original longer versions, which will be around forever. I think that hardcore Middle Earth fans will likely look back on the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogies not as films that were followed by Extended Editions, but as films that were preceded by condensed editions. 

And no, The Battle of the Five Armies hasn't had a scene of Ori showing Bilbo his journal yet. That just gives me something else to hope for next November.

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