A few weeks ago, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hit theaters, the first installment of a planned trilogy of prequels to his massively successful Lord of the Rings film adaptations from a decade ago that you've obviously watched several times through if you're any kind of self-respecting #Nerdwestern student. Kind of reminds you of another hugely successful, storied fantasy movie franchise with ambivalently received prequels, doesn’t it?
Thousands of words could be (and have been) written about the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which produced more furor than perhaps any other film sequel/prequel ever. In fact, some scientists speculate that fans spewing hellfire about Jar Jar Binks was when the Internet was truly born. Although this second wave of movies contained admittedly awesome scenes to rival anything from the originals, characters like the ridiculous Jar Jar Binks and Hayden Christensen’s insufferable Anakin Skywalker actually tarnished conception of the original movies.
How does The Hobbit compare to those controversial installments? Unfortunately for fans of Peter Jackson’s original LOTR trilogy, it displays several symptoms of the sickness that ailed the Star Wars prequels.
Symptom One: Cartoons instead of characters
Leave it to my dad, one of the original generation of Star Wars fans and someone who may or may not throw darts at a poster of Jar Jar Binks every night before he goes to sleep, to immediately seize on the cartoonish absurdity of some of The Hobbit’s new characters. As we all know, technology advances at an exponential rate, and computer graphics have come an amazingly long way since Return of the King capped off the original LOTR trilogy in 2003. In fact, if you’ve ever spent a sick day marathoning the extended LotR DVDs, you’ve noticed that there’s even a noticeable change in CGI quality between 2001’s Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King. Unfortunately, all this CGI technology appears to be burning a hole in Peter Jackson’s pocket, and almost every new character in The Hobbit, from the dwarf Balin to a trio of trolls, looks very cartoony. The most egregious example of this is the goblin king whose chin looks like, well, a giant scrotum, but the wizard Radagast probably has the most Jar-Jar potential going forward. With his cartoonish appearance, quivering demeanor and sled of rabbits, he actually ends up demeaning even a badass wizard like Gandalf just by association. The fact that (SPOILER ALERT) he’s the first one to discover the resurgent Witch-King results in a confusion of tone not unlike Jar Jar’s silly antics on the field of a supposedly climactic battle.
Symptom Two: Lower stakes
Another jarring trait of the Star Wars prequels was that after the three original movies dealt with the epic, galaxy-wide battle between a heroic rebellion and an evil empire, The Phantom Menace’s plot centered around a trade dispute. Yeah, that’s right: space taxes. Needless to say, no one really understood or cared about the plot, and spent the duration of that movie counting down the minutes until Darth Maul showed up. The Hobbit faces a similar issue, since it tells the story of a glorified treasure hunt rather than the epic quest to destroy evil depicted in LOTR. Although Jackson found a way to justify adapting The Hobbit, the tone problem is still there. It seems that in order to justify its existence, this new movie takes a darker tone about a lot of things than the book, and makes several references to characters and events from LOTR, which brings up the next (and most dangerous) symptom.
Symptom Three: The “Get it? GET IT???” Syndrome
The Star Wars prequels had a lot of flaws, but their biggest was probably George Lucas’ overenthusiasm in filling them with hints and parallels to his original trilogy. Thus in Attack of the Clones the audience gets to see Boba Fett as a child, for no real reason.
It is here that The Hobbit most resembles the Star Wars prequels. The original book is a slim volume, but Jackson is stretching it into three movies by adding material from the appendices at the end of LOTR, where Tolkien provided a timeline of what was going on in Middle-Earth at the same time as Bilbo’s quest. Although he is still just adapting Tolkien, these hints about the resurgence of Sauron don’t create any tension for the audience, since they already know how it ends. Jackson doesn't do "The Full Lucas" and parallel his own scenes plot point for plot point, but there's still no reason for An Unexpected Journey's cast to go to Rivendell except for the potential for nerdgasms at the sight of Elrond (which, who really cares?)
Diagnosis: Wait and see
The first Hobbit movie may have shown signs of the troubles that ailed the Star Wars prequels, but this doesn’t mean the final trilogy will face the same fate. For one thing, Bilbo is portrayed pitch perfectly by Martin Freeman, and Ian McKellen is still around, ensuring that this prequel trilogy will not have to worry about putrid acting. In addition, although complaints abound about how long and boringAn Unexpected Journey can be at times, the scene with Gollum is amazing. Considering the fact that we haven’t even seen the dragon Smaug yet, it’s too early to pass final judgment on Jackson, but be wary.