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THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

the argument

Was The Hobbit Boring or Exciting? Two Vulture-ites Fight It Out

Our opinions are not monolithic at the Vulture offices. Sometimes bloggers and editors disagree about a movie, TV show, or band, and this healthy debate only strengthens our sense of purpose and teamwork. But sometimes someone has an opinion that has nothing to do with reality and which boggles the mind to such an extend that the only thing stopping fisticuffs from breaking out is that we are, to a one, fragile little homebodies, and were any of us to throw a punch, he or she would likely break his or her own wrist just from the force of pushing it through the air, let alone landing it. Such an argument recently broke out about The Hobbit. Blogger Jesse Fox and editor Josh Wolk both saw it and came away with two entirely different perceptions, each of which made the other doubt the disagreer’s very sanity: Jesse thought the movie was horribly boring, and essentially made up of little but walking and eating. Josh thought that this was a weirdly skewed view of a movie that seemed flush with action. We decided to have it out on the blog. Let us know who you agree with. (Note: This argument does not address the 48 FPS aesthetic issues. Critics have had their say about that, and just let it be said that both parties here wholeheartedly agree with their disgruntlement.)

JOSH: The backstory: You saw a screening of The Hobbit two weeks ago, and came into our Monday ideas meeting talking about how horribly boring it was. You were so angry that it was as if you had been shown three hours of very dull war atrocities. Your main complaint was that it was all about eating and walking, interrupted by a dumb musical number. “Trust me, everyone is going to be talking about all the eating they do, it’s endless,” you said, and pitched the idea of trying to write down everything the dwarves eat in this movie. Basically, after listening to your rundown, I thought the movie was going to be 75 percent eating, 15 percent singing, and then one good riddle scene and a couple of battles. So when I saw it last week, I went filled with dread at the incredibly tedious time that would await me. Then I got there: Indeed, there was some eating at the beginning, but then after about 40 minutes the adventure began, and the eating basically stopped, save for some jokes about vegetarian elf food. And there was a lot of action! You made it sound like the only action was going to be a few “What’s black and white and red all over?” riddles! Maybe I should thank you: If not for your seeded expectations that I was going to be seeing nothing but dwarf chewing and a lot of walking, I might have enjoyed the movie far less.

JESSE: First, let me say something right off the bat: I went into the movie hungry. (I left very hungry.) Second, I am going to quote you (Is that against the rules? Using your own words against you?): "Then after about 40 minutes the adventure began." Let me ask you: Is that 40 dwarf minutes, which are actually a bit shorter than our human minutes, or are you saying that a movie made me wait 40 human minutes before it started? If we are to take the movie by its title, it is about "an unexpected journey”: So why did I have to sit through 40 minutes of party planning, gluttony, and dwarf song before that journey started? There are two prefaces. TWO PREFACES. (Sorry, I know you hate caps, but when you make me sit through TWO PREFACES before I even meet a dwarf, my caps will be locked.) It's inefficient storytelling and the type of thing that loses an audience. I was that lost audience. No amount of mountain fistfights could change that. (Actually, if there were, say, sixteen mountain fistfights, I probably would've been sufficiently wooed.)

JOSH: Okay, I’ll give you the two preface thing, that was a bit disorienting. (But maybe it’s like the whole axiom of how if you repeat a joke too many times, it becomes unfunny, but if you then keep at it, it becomes funny again. Perhaps if there had been fifteen prefaces it would have become the greatest movie in the world!) But that said, while I could have done without the clean-up musical number that, had you swapped the dwarves out for chipmunks and birdies, would have been perfectly at home in a Disney animated movie, I did not feel like the set-up dragged. The eating was what, about fifteen minutes? Maybe twenty? But it also established the dwarves. I’m not saying I’m always hungry for dwarf establishment, but it did not feel out of proportion. (And for the record, I also went in starving, not having had lunch, so it really says something positive about the movie that I did not either fall asleep or fly into a wild low-blood-sugar-induced rage.) But this is not so much about whether the movie was fantastic so much as your weird perception of it: I just don’t understand how you could obsess with the eating and neglect to mention the major action sequences that propel the last two-thirds of the movie. I think The Fellowship of the Ring had just as much set-up: If you were blogging for Vulture then, would you have come in and grumbled, “It was like 80 percent Hobbit birthday party”? I’m not saying this was as good as Fellowship, but it followed a pretty similar pacing.

And one other thing: You bitched about “all that walking.” Complaining about walking through epic terrain in a Tolkien movie is like complaining about all the talking on a Sorkin show. That’s part of the DNA! You’d rather they just said, “Off to Rivendell!” and then the screen did a flip cut and then they went, “Hello, elves!” They’ve got New Zealand scenery, why not use it?

JESSE: Can't believe you're using The Simpsons against me. Okay, yes, if the movie had fifteen prefaces followed by sixteen mountain fistfights, it would be my favorite movie, mountain-hands down. But sadly that wasn't the case. Instead we had the movie that I saw and I think you saw.

Soooooo, the walking. It's about time we did some talking about walking (no more balking, Stephen Hawking).  I believe I once read in a screenwriting book (or a friend who read a screenwriting book once told me) that you don't show people walking through doors. I think the saying is "start scenes in the middle." In The Hobbit it was more like: "Oh there's a door 10,000 miles down the road and we'll have our characters slowly (because they are short) walk there and then walk through some entranceway and then say hello to someone mystical and then start a scene. But you make a fair point; walking a Tolkien movie makes. So why is the walking worse this time? (Other than it's slower because they all are sooooo short.)

Because it's impossible to care about these little jerks. The Rings movies had stakes (and not just steaks like this malarkey). First, this time the overall mission feels less important. Partially because of how whimsically the movie starts and partially because the Rings movies had a clearer and better-established villain. What am I supposed to care about Smaug's love of gold? Am I remembering that correctly? He loved gold? I'm supposed to be scared of a villain that's a cross between Scrooge McDuck and the least funny Austin Powers bad guy? Second, there is little to no interpersonal conflict. All the dwarves are pals and like hanging out and singing carols about battles and roast beef or whatever. And Gandalf just walks around just chuckling at these hairy shrimps. The one interpersonal conflict – the one the entire movie hinges on – is that Thorin thinks Bilbo isn't up to snuff. We learn this because of two scenes in which Thorin just spells out his problem without knowing Bilbo is around. But it has to be super heavy-handed, because save those two two-minute scenes, they seemingly pay no mind to each other. It's conflict for dummies. Or more accurately, it's conflict for children. BECAUSE THIS MOVIE IS FOR CHILDREN.

Which begs the question: What's the point? What is this movie about? Without real answers, the "action" scenes just feel like some CGI company showing off.

JOSH: Because I am a good person (and you, by the third law of demonizing one's opponent, are not), I will concede that the mission does not have the same crucial sense of purpose as LOTR. As a homebody, I found myself thinking: Why is Gandalf being such a dick about passive-aggressively guilting Bilbo into risking his life to help a bunch of freeloaders get their gold back? What does that have to do with Hobbits? I get why one would ask a Hobbit to come help find a ring that, in the wrong hands, would bring darkness across the entire world: That sacrifice for the greater good makes sense. But I'm not sure why Bilbo never asked the critical question, "And let's say, best case scenario, the dwarves do get their gold back and we slay the dragon. Do my or my friends' lives change in any discernible way? No, you say? Then how about you get the fuck out of my pantry before you need a magic spell to remove my giant foot out of your ass?" (An especially potent threat as while there are counterspells for being told to talk to the hand and for being told that your mother is so fat that her ass has its own zip code, there is no spell in the Tolkien universe that can counter a foot in the ass. It is the kryptonite of the wizard world.)

But once you start dissecting the reality of the plot, you find yourselves debating the plausibility of motive for made-up creatures like dwarves and hobbits and orcs, and at that point you need to take a long look at the mirror and ask what has gone wrong in your life. I recently wrote about how I was annoyed by the nonsensicality of Javier Bardem's villainous plot in Skyfall, and James Bond movies have a long history of necessitating a suspension of disbelief. However, in Skyfall it was an issue of scale: I would have been much more forgiving of the film if there had been a more distractingly explosive, large-scale climax; instead all of the movie's elaborate planning led to a yawnsome spraying of bullets into an old house by generic henchmen. The Hobbit mission might have been flimsy, but I didn't mind because I was distracted by Peter Jackson's whiz-bang orc and goblin battles, with all its spinning camerawork, as well as the Gollum riddle-off. None of which you seem to have seen. You just sat there nursing a grudge about a dinner party scene and then, apparently, pulled your empty popcorn bag over your head and sulked and missed the rest. I am not arguing that the movie was as good as the LOTR films, mind you. I am arguing against your crazytown perception that nothing happened except masticating and hiking, and I think I liked it more thanks to the insanely low expectations with which you sent me to the theater.

And one more thing: Before you start proselytizing about the evils in doors in movies, I would remind you that if you and the writer of this mythical screenwriting book had your way, there would be no The Door in the Floor, Sliding Doors, or The Doors. Do you like that alternate universe? You don’t.

JESSE: Wait, so now we're allowed to plug our old articles to help make our points? Last week, I made a bunch of knock-knock jokes, so...

(FYI, Nori is the name of one of the dwarves.)

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Nori.

Nori who?

Nori-lly, why are we spending all this time having each Dwarf enter the door of your Hobbit shack, Bilbo? This movie is long enough as is.

BOOM!

So how does this differ from James Bond, you ask? It's not about questioning plausibility – it's about questioning why you're questioning plausibility. The fact that I have the urge to question the believability reflects that the movie failed to create a universe that seemed genuine. James Bond seems like a three-dimensional human – where the only thing three-dimensional thing about The Hobbit was the cinematography. Beyond stakes vs. steaks, it's a matter of tension. Action sequences are all about tension: Eeeeek, is something bad going to happen to this fake person I care about? If an arrow were shot at Nori or Ori or Dori, I would have the same reaction were it to then hit their face or a tree. (Actually, I'd probably care more if it hit a tree, because I'd fear it was one of those talking trees from the original movies. Those guys were cool. They should do a spinoff with them and the punchy mountains.) If an arrow were shot at James Bond, I would care (if only for the sake of his suit) because there is heft to his character.

Which gets to my biggest question of all: Why? Just why? Why does this need to exist? To make money? To spend money? To drive tourism to New Zealand? To help Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman kill time between Sherlock seasons? To display a visual advancement that everyone hates? To get children walking more? As a favor to Tolkien fans who are bad at visualizing what they read? For fun? Who's idea of fun is this? Masochists? Set designers? LED ZEPPELIN!?

All art of worth can answer that fundamental question. If not, it's just an exercise. I don't have to spend three hours of my life watching Peter Jackson go through the motions. (I mean, I guess I do have to, since it's my job, but you know what I mean.) I'd rather just watch that episode of The Simpsons six times in a row. Hobbit! My old arch-enemy.

JOSH: As the one who built this post, I reserve my right to have the last word. But I use it not to further my Hobbit agenda, but instead to point out that I don't get your knock-knock joke. Advantage mine.

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures