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Final Exam: The Hobbit

It’s finals time at NYU. Folks are churning out essays and cramming a semester of information in their heads. So here I’ll be doing something different (but not really): let’s look at The Hobbit.

I saw The Hobbit’s midnight showing at the IMAX here. It was good, clearly. Perfect, nah, not quite. Not Return of the King, but then what is? So where’d The Hobbit go right and where’d it go wrong?’

Right off the bat, it’s a great adaptation. It went right for the heart of the story, then built up  a proper body around it. What was the book about? Bilbo Baggins going on an adventure with thirteen dwarves and a wizard to reclaim a lost kingdom, fight a dragon, a war, and all that. The quest is still there.

Gandalf’s adventure in Mirkwood and Dol Guldur has been fleshed out some (fitting, as Gandalf’s references to the Necromancer weren’t included in the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring). All this serves to give the story more weight. See, now the slaying of Smaug is doubly important due to the risk of Sauron having him on his side. The follow up to the amazing Lord of the Rings Trilogy is now an epic too.

More than that, though, they built on the characters. Bilbo and Thorin especially have really strong arcs, expanding on Tokien’s work. We get Bilbo growing out of being a comfortable, boring Hobbit to the adventurer we all know him as. We see it when he’s taunting the troll, as he slowly grows confident throughout the movie, and ultimately in his actions in the tree at the end. Similarly, we see Thorin’s slow and begrudging acceptance of the hobbit into their company. The core arc of An Unexpected Journey is Bilbo’s growth and gradual adoption both of and by the dwarves. It’s crucial that this happens, due to events that happen later in the book. We absolutely need to have an attachment to these characters and their bond, else later events will have little impact.

Where The Hobbit does fail, however, is in its pacing. Yes, there were plenty of burritos being thrown around, but sometimes there seemed to be a few too many. An example would be the scene with the stone giants. We’ve just left Rivendell and are about to have the run in with Gollum and the goblins in the Misty Mountains. At this point, we don’t need another burrito. There are no character moments (besides Thorin helping Bilbo back up, which could easily be added to another sequence) nor any plot development vital to the scene.

Overall the film could have been tightened to keep the necessities without feeling draggy. Perhaps most of these issues are due to the film being stretched out into three films rather than just two. Adding bits here and being reluctant to cut others yields a movie that feels a lot like setup (rather than the essentially self-contained epics that was each entry in The Lord of the Rings).

The Hobbit, like The Lord of the Rings before it, once again has a point to be made and makes it quietly but effectively. It’s about being wiling to step out of your comfort zone, it’s about finding home, and, pointedly, what exactly constitutes courage. It’s not heavy handed, it feels natural and it works. Also makes for good Facebook/Twitter/tumblr post material.

But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. It’s very different both in tone and in nature. Same world, sure, but The Hangover and Saving Private Ryan are both set in The Real World and are both sixty years apart too. Point is: The Hobbit is a wonderful, if imperfect, movie. Go see, but don’t expect The Fellowship of the Ring.

Oh, and for the record, the riddles in the dark scene stands out as an amazing example of both special effects and storytelling, up to and including Bilbo taking pity on Gollum. Beautiful.

Editors note: Will this ‘Final Exam’  post be repeated in the future? Who knows. But seeing as Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness both come out around the time I have my next bout of finals…

Also: buy my book In Transit! Support my education!

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Throwing Burritos

One of my courses this semester at NYU is one on Science Fiction. In this particular class we had read and were discussing Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One of us commented about how Rachael pushing the goat off the building reminded him of that scene in Anchorman where Baxter gets punted off the bridge.

The discussion continued, and someone mentioned that in Anchorman, Baxter gets punted off the bridge because Ron throws a burrito at a biker; so what was the proverbial burrito thrown that made Rachael defenestrate that goat? Not just what was her motivation, but what interaction with Deckard pissed her off enough (if she indeed was pissed off)? Our homework was to begin work on our short stories, getting to the point where we throw this proverbial burrito.

So what exactly is throwing the burrito? It’s a catalyst for a sequence of events. Not necessarily the catalyst, but one nonetheless.

Like when Pippin knocks over the bucket in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Because of that we get the chase through the mines and Gandalf’s duel with the Balrog. Sending the bucket clamoring down the well sets up the entire act.

A good story will often have many burritos being thrown around. Take Metal Gear Solid. The initial burrito is when Snake gets involuntarily reinstated to neutralize the terrorist threat at Shadow Moses. He gets another burrito thrown at him when he realizes that there is a nuclear-capable Metal Gear that the terrorists intend to use. Oh, and the terrorists are ex-special forces. And Snake’s old friend is now a cyborg ninja. And the villain’s his brother. And Snake’s got a virus in him.

You don’t get all these reveals at once: it takes several hours of gameplay. Each burrito is progressively thrown at the player in a way that rather than being overwhelmed, we find ourselves being drawn further and further in to the story. Metal Gear Solid steadily throws burritos at you, each one setting up another conflict or another reveal. We need these burritos to keep us invested. And it works: Metal Gear Solid is a fantastically paced/structured story that you can’t stop playing. Even when it’s 1am and you have work in the morning.

But there’s a point where there are just too many burritos flying around. The third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, has a lot of burritos flying around. We have three, maybe four protagonists each with their own crazy gambits. Barbossa double crosses Jack to get the Pearl back because Jack figured the pirate king should be Elizabeth who double crossed Sao Feng (only she didn’t mean to) who double crossed Will who in turn double crossed Jack. Sort of. It seems like every few minutes we get another burrito thrown at us inspiring yet another sequence of events. And some of these burritos hardly add anything to the plot. It winds up hectic and it’s terribly easy to get lost in the chaos.

Alternately you could get lost in the fun which still yields a plenty enjoyable movie, so, y’know, there’s that.

Sometimes, the best stories have almost no burritos.Lost In Translation is a beautiful movie that progresses slowly and steadily. The burritos were thrown before hand (Bob took an advertising gig, Charlotte followed her husband to Tokyo). The whole thing’s been set in motion; there’re no big reveals or twists, no accelerations. We’re just watching life happen.

Call it pacing or structure; it’s vital. Don’t throw enough burritos and the audience starts checking their watches. Throw too many burritos and you lose the audience. The story just has to have the right serving size.

Or you could always just eat that burrito.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit!

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