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December 16th, 2013

"I cried at Star Trek: Generations. Because it was so bad."
-- DJ and noted Star Trek fan Don Geronino

The film versions of The Hobbit are probably not going to make you cry. I think at some level I was expecting them to. The film versions of The Lord of the Rings did.

We've been told repeatedly, they aren't the same thing. From the beginning, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit has been the light start to what became, in its way, an epic secret history of the world. And it is light; it's shorter, it's the book where Tolkien was more likely to joke, and it's the only LotR novel that's actually meant for kids. As my friend Alicia points out, a lot of kids are encouraged to start LotR earlier than they're really ready for it, but "they're not children's books!"

(By the way, I should re-read The Hobbit, which I first read in the mid-90s during college, and see whether or not Tolkien's light touch in it really is a light touch, or a "just lighter than LotR" touch. Especially now that I've read the lighter-touched Narnia books by Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis.)

So now there's a chance to be overwhelmed by a film. The thing is, I appreciate getting overwhelmed. I got to be breathless more than once with the earlier LotR films; that's how I was in The Two Towers when the Ents -- marching trees, remember, a visual which had the chance to be ridiculous -- massed to attack Isengard. I could even be overwhelmed with small moments, like in The Fellowship of the Ring when we finally see that Bilbo has aged, away from the force of the One Ring. That trilogy was one hell of an emotional experience, and that expanded on Tolkien's work in a great way: the often-buried emotions of the novels become exposed emotions as you see flesh-and-blood actors (and their digital versions, like the brilliant work on Gollum) embody them.

What most consistently overwhelms in these Hobbit films is action and comedy, and especially with the action, the response to it is more likely to be me going "Whoa. Cool." Which I did plenty in The Desolation of Smaug Saturday night. And that's fine. But it's not epic. But the overall film trilogy's still trying to be.

There's a big conflict in Peter Jackson's adaptation of something that's supposed to be lighter and funnier, a conflict coming from Jackson and Company's efforts to tie The Hobbit films more directly into the more epic trilogy Jackson first filmed over a decade ago. Because the Hobbit movies are funnier, but they aren't really that much lighter, with the epic "we must prepare to save the world!" plot mechanics added. I understand and can justify why the fimmakers did that -- the material is there, thanks to the enormous amount of writing Tolkien did to flesh out the history of Middle Earth. (Some of) these events were happening elsewhere while Bilbo had his adventure; some of these events can be justified additions or extrapolations. But those epic touches co-exist uneasily alongside slapstick dishwashing and moments where a dwarf's arms and axe burst through the barrel he's wearing like he's a weaponized Gonk. And many of the touches just seem to be there, as possible distractions. These are oddly-paced films. (Interestingly, I've heard from multiple people that the extended version of An Unexpected Journey that came out after the theatrical version is, indeed, longer and also better paced. I'm not against length!)

This second film of three does ramp up towards the big stakes of the novel -- we must stop a dragon!, which are big stakes but not the stakes that come with we must save the world! -- and the ending, rather brutally, emphasizes the stakes. Emphasizes them by being INCREDIBLY abrupt. A fact I'm kind of glad I knew going in to the film. Yeah: THAT'S going to be a long wait. And yeah, I'll be watching the third and final film. That should earn its overwhelming-ness. I hope. Because I'm not completely sure The Hobbit film trilogy has quite earned that yet.