Saw the first Sunday and the second for Christmas. Found myself thinking a very similar thing during both: these are two movies made to please their anticipated audiences.
It’s particularly striking in The Hobbit, which will inevitably be unfavorably compared to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was made for a mass audience. The mass audience will care less about all the extra details and scenes that have swollen a simple children’s book up to a second trilogy of three lengthy movies. But we’ve seen enough from Peter Jackson by now to know he can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. On the other hand, he can definitely create a tour de force that keeps us engaged another three hours(okay, the final battle sequence could’ve been shorter), he can enchant us with more of Middle Earth, he can give us chills, by providing us with the context for the book’s stories that Tolkien probably hadn’t yet worked out all the details of back when he wrote the book(one of the pivotal moments during the last part is Bilbo’s sparing Gollum; which this trilogy doesn’t include the significance of, but fans know how important that is already), and he can definitely give the more devoted fans special bonuses(turns out Lindir was in the original trilogy; we’ve just been calling him Figwit). This movie doesn’t even hold together that badly as an episodic movie(and let’s face it, in an era when the adaptation of series’ final book will inevitably get split into two movies, episodic movies are here to stay); you get a series of themes to get resolved and character arcs and even if we end on a tease of what’s to come it feels like a contained whole.
But while The Hobbit is expanded to please fans, Les Miserables does the opposite for similar purpose; the only real addition the movie makes to the original stage musical is the addition of the new song no doubt created mostly to contend for a Song Oscar, which makes the song regardless of its quality very useful in making one of the musical’s two plot leap-forwards slightly less huge. Otherwise, it’s mostly the songs with really neat scenery attached. Though they do make it more interesting by their experimenting with live singing on camera, which might have also encouraged them to dispense with the more taxing stage-singing until my dad was left convinced that none of them had any signing ability, even though Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway certainly do. But when done well, in the more intimate medium of film, it’s powerfully effective. By the time Hathaway returned as ghost!Fantine at the end, I’d started to wonder if her presence had started evoking an automatic crying reaction; I had tears in my eyes whenever she sang anything, it seemed. One inevitably difference between stage and screen here is that the high technical singing combines with the absurder plot elements on the former and keeps the viewer from taking Les Miserables too seriously. Lose the stylization and even if some of the absurder plot elements remain, they only blunt the emotional wallop so much. Still, the large lack of original scenes made the movie feel like a package of musical-related goods than a movie. One well worth the price for its content, but still not worthy much extra as a movie. That’s kind of disappointing. Also, while the camera had a lot of tricks for filming the live singing, the clear wish to have some of the numbers sung through by the actor or actress uninterrupted occasionally made the film lag as slower numbers were shown with one shot of the singer’s face the entire time. If they keep doing musicals with live singing, directors will have a lot to learn from this first attempt.
Meanwhile, if you like fantasy, Tolkien, musicals, or just good music and/or breathtaking visuals, this movies are certainly worth sitting for. But they are not something every human being in the world need to see.