When “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies” is releases in December, Peter Jackson will have succeeded in turning a 320-page novel into a three-part, 480-minute saga, one that even some fans of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy have begun to grow tired of. But the Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl runs to their defense, glowing sword in hand, arguing that “the ‘Hobbit’ films aren’t indulgent — they’re generous.”
Yes, the “Hobbit” films are garish, long-winded, computer-glossy. Yes, Guillermo del Toro might have carved something lean and urgent and new from this material. Yes, the pictures sometimes collapse into stretches of go-nowhere story stasis: Second-time Smaug viewers know the best time to hit the washroom comes during the meaningless complications of the dwarves’ arrival in Laketown. A friend complained last week, “Do these have to come every Christmas and be three hours long?” And he’s a fan.
All that’s true. And none of that matters, much, because — once they’re gone from theaters each January — the “Hobbit” movies aren’t movies at all. They’re play dates. They’re hours paid for in a vacation time-share. They’re intermediary sessions in an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Reviewing “The Desolation of Smaug” (which I attempted last year) is like reviewing an adventure on the holodeck. Devotees of the art house and Robert McKee alike find the films messy and indulgent. I’ll grant them the first, but I contest the second: Like it or not, Jackson’s second trilogy is the opposite of indulgent. It’s hugely, bizarrely generous.
At least to the people who like this sort of thing.
Whether or not you’re still butt-numbed from sitting through “The Desolation of Smaug,” it’s worth considering the core of Scherstuhl’s argument, which is that in spite of their quest-driven storyline, the Hobbits are basically what Quentin Tarantino dubbed “hangout movies. Jackson, he writes, “erects his monoliths with the knowledge that his audience will live with them for the rest of our lives.”
I haven’t watched the extended cuts of “An Unexpected Journey” and “Desolation” — life is just too damn short — but I experienced something of what he describes watching the extended cuts of the original Rings movies. While I wouldn’t suggest viewing the longer cuts first, the movies are deeper and richer in the longer versions. More importantly, they play differently once you’ve seen the (relatively) tidier, more propulsive theatrical cuts. You’re liberated from wondering what’s going to happen next, and free to soak in their perfume. People often rewatch movies to see what they missed: Watching the extended cuts is like discovering whole rooms in a house you already thought you knew.
The trouble with the “Hobbit” movies is that the theatrical versions already play like extended cuts: They’re baggy and meandering, and if they’re generous rather than indulgent, they’re generous to a fault. The high frame-rate 3D does, as Scherstuhl suggests, give the viewer leave to poke around the edges of the frame, seeking out minor recurring characters the way one might in Jacques Tati’s “Play Time,” if 90 percent of Tati’s characters were grubby-looking dudes with beards. But before we hang out in a movie, we have to be convinced to stay, and Jackson assumes we’re already along for the ride.
By now, it’s clear the person most reluctant to leave Middle-Earth is Jackson himself, who’s been dragging out his departure like he’s five years old and it’s closing time at the zoo. Dedicated fans, of course, are right there with him. But for those who valued the structure of the Rings movies as much as their substance, the “Hobbit” series feels like a banquet than an unlimited buffet, one where you can eat until you’re stuffed and still not feel satisfied.