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How to watch The Hobbit (and savour the MasterChef trolls)

Date
Two hobbits: Peter Jackson and Martin Freeman.

Two hobbits: Peter Jackson and Martin Freeman.

JOURNALISTS are not supposed to tell their stories in chronological order. We’re supposed to start with the most interesting detail, and later explain how it came about. So I hope my students and colleagues will forgive me for telling this tale in the order it happened, to background you on how I became Australia’s greatest living geek on the subject of Peter Jackson’s movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and why I can advise you on appropriate viewing behaviour.

It was advertised as a 2pm session of The Hobbit in 3D, but at 2.20pm the curtains still have not opened and the audience (200 people) are getting antsy. A spotty youth enters the cinema and says: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are having some technical difficulties.  We should be able to start the movie in about ten minutes, and when we do we will go straight to feature. We won’t show any of the ads.”

Audience cheers. Ten minutes later a young woman enters the cinema and says: “Ladies and gentleman. We would like to apologise. We will be unable to show you the Hobbit in 3D today. We can only show you the 2D version.” Audience groans and takes off 3D glasses.

The Gollum cult at Wellington Airport.

The Gollum cult at Wellington Airport. Photo: Getty Images

Somehow the projector has shed an entire dimension. But while there is none of the third dimension, there is more than enough of the fourth.

Three hours later, as the end-credits start to roll, the lights go up and the young woman returns with this announcement: “We will give everybody a refund on their ticket and a complimentary pass to any movie in this complex.” Plus we can keep the glasses. Audience cheers and starts discussing whether they should see The Hobbit again or use the pass for Les Miserables. It’s a PR coup for Hoyts.

Next day I use my pass to attend the 10.30am session of The Hobbit in 3D. There are only 22 people in the cinema. Curtains open promptly, and over the next 28 minutes we are shown five trailers, two of which are for the same movie (Zero Dark Thirty), and 22 ads, which are very loud, presumably to enable a rush of relief when the movie proves to be slightly softer.

First time around

First time around Photo: Reuters

Driving back from the multiplex, I drop in on my local video store and tell the man on the desk “I’ve just been to see The Hobbit …” He interrupts: “… And you want to compare it with Lord of the Rings?” Yes. “The extended directors cut?” I guess so. “In Blu-Ray?” Yes. “That’s the only way to see it! Have a good time.”

The Fellowship of the Ring box-set contains five discs, but to my relief only two of them involve the actual movie, now stretched to four hours. I spent the past week watching it, and also the extended director’s cuts of Two Towers and Return of the King. Based on 17 hours of research, here are my answers to your questions …

Is 3D better than 2D? Every good story deserves embellishment, says Frodo, and Peter Jackson obviously agrees. But for me, this particular form of 3D diminishes rather than embellishes the story. Some scenes look like episodes of South Park, with flat cardboard figures moving about two metres in front of a flat cardboard landscape. And it’s too dark. In 2D the hobbit hole has a warm glow, while in 3D it has a stark sharpness.  The extra dimension was essential to Avatar, and helpful in Hugo, but with The Hobbit it’s an annoyance.

Life of Pi: Smarter use of 3D

Life of Pi: Smarter use of 3D

Is The Hobbit more entertaining than Fellowship of the Ring? Fellowship had emotional complexity, from the joy of the opening party to the despair of Gandalf’s fall into shadow, from the passion of Aragorn and Arwen to the agony of Frodo’s stabbing. The Hobbit has only humour and suspense, plus a brief moment of male bonding.

To add emotional depth, Jackson needed to kill or seriously wound a couple of the dwarves (most of them are pretty annoying anyway). It’s absurd that every character goes through battles and avalanches and bridge-collapses with barely a scratch. Perhaps Jackson was seeking to appeal to a younger audience, but he leaves adult viewers unsatisfied. (If you’re looking for emotional manipulation, try Les Miserables, but carry a big box of tissues.)

So should I just wait for the DVD? No, you need to see The Hobbit in a crowded cinema. It’s delightful to hear the buzz as the kids realise Gollum is about to appear, and to join the laughter at Martin Freeman’s double-takes.

The trolls

The trolls

What’s the pop culture reference this time? In Fellowship, Gimli shouts “Nobody tosses a dwarf!”. In Two Towers, Legolas uses his shield as a skateboard. They fit the context, but deliver a bonus chuckle. In The Hobbit, we get the MasterChef trolls, debating whether the umami of spit-roasted dwarf would be boosted with a touch of sage. You don’t need to look too closely to identify Matt, George and Gary.

How many times do we hear the line “I think we’re safe now”, only to have something worse happen? I lost count. But it has become Peter Jackson’s signature trope, just as George Lucas is identified with “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”.

If I'm only seing one film these holidays, should it be Life of Pi, The Hobbit or Les Miserables? Definitely Life of Pi, but only if you can see it in 3D. Ang Lee uses the extra dimension playfully, to emphasise the surreality of the story.

Will The Hobbit be as popular as the original trilogy? As you can see from the table below, the three Rings films are among the ten biggest moneymakers of all time in Australia (they’re also among our 20 top selling DVDs of all time). Fellowship sold 5 million tickets in 2001, when average admission price was $9. To match it, The Hobbit will need to make $80 million, at the current average ticket price of $17.

In its first eight days, The Hobbit made $22 million. Will it get the repeat business and word-of-mouth to quadruple that by the end of its run? This column's first foolish prediction for 2013: That’s not going to happen. Not even close. What do you reckon?

THE ALL-TIME AUSTRALIAN BOX OFFICE (to December 31, 2012)

  1. Avatar (2010) $115.6 million
  2. Titanic (1997) $57.6m
  3. The Avengers (2012) $53.3m
  4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) $52.6m
  5. Shrek 2 (2004) $50.4m
  6. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) $49.4m
  7. Crocodile Dundee (1986) $47.7m
  8. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) $47.4m
  9. The Dark Knight (2008) $46.1m
  10. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) $45.6m

For twice weekly box office and analysis of everything cinematic, you should try the excellent urbancinefile.

For the top 100 ticket sellers of all time, go to The Tribal Mind Archive.

You have just read the Who We Are column, by David Dale. It appears in printed form every Sunday in The Sun-Herald, and also as a blog on this website, where it welcomes your comments. David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of The Little Book of Australia -- A snapshot of who we are (Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.

48 comments so far

  • "To add emotional depth, Jackson needed to kill or seriously wound a couple of the dwarves. It’s absurd that every character goes through battles and avalanches and bridge-collapses without even a scratch. Perhaps Jackson was seeking to appeal to a younger audience"
    Or perhaps he was trying to stay faithful to the source material (whish was written for a younger audience). Jackson has a serious fallability in this area as it is considering what he did to major story elements in LoTR. Bumping off dwarves before the battle of Five Armies would be an even more grievious insult.
    It is interesting how various hacks around the world think having a movie under their belts or having few column inches printed give them the right to just change the work of a master.

    Commenter
    mik
    Location
    newcastle
    Date and time
    January 05, 2013, 8:06PM
    • Hey Crocodile Dundee should be second on the top 10 list as Crocodile Dundee made $47.7million in 1986 and that in today's dollars would be closer to $100 million. Also that amount was made WITHOUT 3D prices

      Commenter
      Mark of Adelaide
      Date and time
      January 06, 2013, 12:30AM
    • If you click on this: The Tribal Mind Archive  you will find the calculation you are talking about -- ticket sales at the time of release rather than dollar earnings. And you're right -- Croc Dundee appears higher on that list.

      Commenter
      David Dale
      Date and time
      January 06, 2013, 6:40AM
    • I can the second film being the pick of the three. It will have some of the epicness of TLotR Trilogy as Dol Guldor will surely heat things up and put the rest of the flick in its proper perspective. If not then Jackson will have failed miserably and should have left this as one film only...

      Commenter
      Boohoo
      Date and time
      January 06, 2013, 1:05AM
    • Agree, mik. I find it amazing that so many critics,who appear to have not read The Hobbit, critique the movie by comparing it to LOTR. The Hobbit is a children's book, LOTR isn't. Comparing the two as books and films doesn't make sense. The Hobbit isn't a particularly deep book, but it's captivating and magical. It's much lighter than LOTR, and comical in many places eg.the trolls and the characterizations of the dwarves, and to make the film as dark as LOTR would be changing the spirit of the book.
      As for seeing it in 3D 48fps, I really recommend people make sure they do. Why some critics didn't like is beyond me. It was pure magic. I felt I was really there witnessing the companies' adventure. The best way to describe it is like seeing one of those outdoor plays where you follow the actors around 'in' the sets,except The Hobbit is on a grander scale. The result: I felt I was experiencing a 'real' wonderfully magical fantasy, and it doesn't get better than that. Because of this, I didn't feel the movie too long at all.
      There are some things that I found disappointing, such as Radagast's character being portrayed as incredibly silly when it didn't need to be, and one of their 'escapes' was a bit over the top. Otherwise, I thought PJ captured the spirit of the book very well. Bilbo and Thorin were excellent, and Gollum too of course.

      If you go expecting LOTR and a rigidly faithful adaption of the book, or little imagination, you'll be disappointed. If you go expecting the spirit of the book and is filmed in a way that is wonderfully magical, then you'll enjoy it.
      It's not for younger children,though.

      Commenter
      Bubblewrap
      Date and time
      January 06, 2013, 10:13AM
    • Jackson did change the work of the master, Tolkein. It is a while since I read The Hobbit, but I don't remember questioning the survival of every character the way I did watching the film. The sheer scale of the battling mountains and the number of orcs killed on the way out from under the mountain (not to mention various falls from great heights) made the action unnecessarily cartoon-like in a way that the book does not.

      Commenter
      Tiny Troll
      Date and time
      January 06, 2013, 7:22PM
  • I really wasn't looking forward to watching it, in any dimension. But, I did. In 3D. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Commenter
    Julia
    Date and time
    January 06, 2013, 1:26AM
    • I was very disappointed. Nothing like the book and a clear attempt to milk as much money as possible from the exercise. A Hollywood sell-out by PJ.

      Commenter
      Steve
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      January 06, 2013, 2:11AM
      • From a different angle it looks like a very successful film which also incorporates a lot of lore, back story, and setup for LoTR from the books of lost tales, the silmarillion, and other tolkien works.
        Although there were minor differences (eg the timing of Radagast finding the necromancer etc), it was executed very well indeed and gives a lot of context to the events of LoTR which, while not in the hobbit itself, is still contained in Tolkien's other works and incorporated here seamlessly.

        Commenter
        Roaster
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 06, 2013, 7:03AM
      • Drawn out (and that's just the first of three episodes); losing much of the charm of the book behind an overblown spectacle of endless Orc Carnage. To be fair to Jackson he was just repeating the LOTR film formula, probably at the producers insistence.

        Commenter
        Graeme
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        January 07, 2013, 11:42PM

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