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Concerning Hobbits

I finally saw The Desolation of Smaug Thursday night, and with that out of the way saw Five Armies yesterday. So it’s time to talk about them as a whole, since the trilogy’s so interconnected you’d think they were supposed to just be two movies and not three.

But first, it has to be said that what the movies do well, they do well. Any scene with Smaug is wonderful; he looks great and Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a fantastic performance. The bits incorporated from the appendices, particularly the White Council’s assault on Dol Guldur, work well. Then there are a handful of scenes with Thorin, Bard, and the other major players that echo the drama of The Lord of the Rings. Lastly, Bilbo, of course, is terrific.

Which makes me wish we had more of him in his movie. There’s a protagonist shift during the trilogy and by Five Armies Thorin has taken over from Bilbo, who’s fighting a losing battle for the role of deuteragonist against Bard and — of all characters — Legolas. This causes a change in the narrative, from it being about a Hobbit stepping out into a larger world and instead one more heavily focused on politicking and warfare. In doing so the film loses a lot of the book’s heart.

Accentuating the divide is that many of the films’ additions do nothing don’t help. Much of the changes made to The Lord of the Rings added; Faramir’s temptation and Aragorn’s self-doubt accentuated the questions of choices and hope, for example. But in The Hobbit they bog the film down.

Tauriel is particularly frustrating. On the one hand, a female character is a welcome addition to the film, yet she’s a narratively unnecessary. A voice of dissent among the elves could easily be conveyed through Legolas (in his odd being of a main character rather than cameo), leaving her in the tired position of a love interest. This already troubling scenario is exacerbated by her being thrust into the center of a lackluster love shape that is sometimes, albeit inconsistently, a triangle. All this contributes to her feeling like a straggler, just there to add some romantic drama while engaging in ridiculous Jedi-esque combat alongside Legolas.

Some of these problems can be attributed to the decision to split the film into three parts, reshoots for which included adding in the love triangle. But most noticeable is the weirdness it gives the pacing. The meeting with Beorn is a short, but strong moment, one that would feel the right length were it part of a single film or even in a duology. But as part of a trilogy as inseparable as this (compare it to Rings, where each movie felt whole on its own), it feels like a blip that’s easily forgotten. This isn’t a major problem with a part like Beorn, but it’s when the same issue applies to Thorin’s growing greed that it becomes particularly painful. Not enough of the three films’ collective runtime is spent with Thorin’s madness. It feels so sudden given all the time it takes to reach it, and his redemption too comes too quickly. It feels like more time is spent on the battle (which is a short blip in the book) than Thorin’s personal conflict. Again, time is relative, and when a story stretches out as long as this, there needed to be more time given to moments like these. The story couldn’t breathe. Too much was happening too quickly, too much of which added nothing to the central narrative.

The Hobbit is not a complex book. Even when Gandalf’s adventures are added in, it’s still a straightforward enough story about adventure and avarice. The films are best when they keep to that, and worst when they stray. I’m looking forward to the inevitable fan-cut where it’s turned into a single film or duology; all the fat excised to leave the core of the story on full display.

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It’s All In The Pacing

Time is relative. Some scientist said that at some point. For my purposes, it means that one minute can seem longer or shorter depending on the context. That minute in traffic is far longer than that minute playing video games before work that got you stuck in traffic in the first place.

Naturally, this applies to stuff like movies too. A two hour movie can feel incredibly long or it can flash by in an instant. Why? Pacing. Pacing is important. Really important.

Let’s look at An Unexpected Journey. It’s a three hour movie but, unlike the prior The Lord of the Rings films, feels much longer. The simple reason for this is for lack of content: the film takes much to long repeating points. The run in with the rock giants, for example, is a lengthy sequence that adds nothing to the plot (except an extra action scene). Sure, there’s a small moment showing Thorin’s growing acceptance of Bilbo as part of the team, but that’s a beat that’s seen elsewhere. Sequences like these bog down a movie and draw it out. The Return of the King and the rest of the trilogy were bursting with story and characters: every scene added another layer to one or the other. Those films didn’t feel bogged down as every beat felt necessary to the movie at large.

Transformers: Age of Extinction feels overlong in a different way: there’s way too much going on. Though visually pleasing (as you’d expect from a Michael Bay film), it’s a narrative mess. There’s no clear antagonist antagonizing the heroes and, as such, the heroes have little plan thwarting to carry out. With no central throughline pushing the story along, the film winds up feeling like a series of vaguely connected misadventures involving giant robots. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we actually gave a crap about these characters but, this being a Michael Bay film, we really don’t. As such, it’s 165 minute runtime really starts to drag after a while.

Guillermo Del Toro, another purveyor of giant robots, had this to say about film lengths: “All I know is that as an audience member, my ass meter starts ringing its fire alarm after two hours.” Essentially, there’s a point where it starts to feel like you’ve spent too long sitting in that chair. If a long movie is paced well it won’t seem long at all, if it’s paced poorly it’ll feel even longer. That said, you’ll probably start to notice how long you’ve been there as the two hour mark fades behind you.

Take Del Toro’s own Pacific Rim as a great example of a well paced movie that doesn’t feel too long. Big set pieces are linked together through emotional beats: The opening and Gipsy Danger vs Knifehead leads to the introduction of Stacker and Raleigh’s arrival at the Shatterdome before we see Mako’s flashback which in turn gives us a quiet character focused chunk before the big battle around Hong Kong. We get another break as Newt and Gottlieb work out the secrets of the breach before the final confrontation. These lulls not only to allow us to get to know and love the characters, but also give us breathers between action scenes and make us long for the next one. Del Toro, ever conscious of the audience’s collective ass meter, ensures that neither character/plot progression or action scene ever outstays their welcome, rather they work together to keep the movie puttering along, keeping us entertained throughout.

The LEGO Movie opts to follow Campbell’s monomyth and wisely never spends longer than necessary on individual beats. Not only does this allow for the movie to move along at a nice slick pace, but it means that when it comes time for it to spend time on something really important — take the conversation between the father/son and Lord Business/Emmet — there’s leeway for it to sink in without slowing down the plot.

At 143 minutes, The Avengers is a comparatively long movie. But it does as Pacific Rim does, stringing together smaller character moments between bigger set pieces, yet never allowing any to last too long. Add that to a group of great characters who you’re happy just to watch hang out with each other and it’s easy to get lost in the movie. And getting lost is the best, because suddenly you forget about time and your ass meter and just enjoy the movie.

Movie runtimes are one thing, how long they actually feel is another entirely. Watching Sex and The City (151 minutes) for class felt like an eternity, whereas The Dark Knight (165) felt just right. Time is relative — especially when watching movies. That’s where pacing comes in.

Note: Of course it’s not all in the pacing, but it is terribly important. Sometimes, a fascinating subject matter and engrossing characters are all you need — see Lost in Translation. That said, this blog post assumes that’s understood

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