Recently, I have watched two films that have been questioned, and even criticised, regarding their running times. Both The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Django Unchained have been condemned for their substantial length, which in each case is approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, but I ask, is this a bad thing. Doesn’t a long running time allow for more depth within the story, added character detail and doesn’t the customer feel they are getting more value for their money, especially with the consistent increases in ticket prices. With the dawn of big budget TV shows, which have the luxury of time to flesh out plot, aren’t people now used to being more patient with story development?
Personally, I thought one of the movies justified its running time more than the other. I believe that Django was interesting, captivating and entertaining enough to sustain my patience and enjoyment throughout the best part of three hours while The Hobbit, unfortunately, felt too bloated in places and in desperate need of an editor.
That’s not to say I didn’t like The Hobbit, not by a long shot, and I expect to give myself multiple viewings before I come to a definitive conclusion, considering the amount of detail within. However, what ran through my head throughout is if this was two Hobbit movies, like originally thought, maybe it would be great instead of good. Perhaps it would be sharper, more intense with an ever moving narrative that kept you excited.
For every compelling scene like a Riddles in the Dark, we have yet another naming of the swords, which in a way is adding more characters into an already overbooked cast list since we’re being introduced to them. For every trademark Jackson battle scene is a superfluous appearance from Elijah Wood or big CGI rock monsters throwing big CGI rocks at each other, which looks like a textbook Extended Edition scene. Maybe, the lack of brevity could be from the success of The Lord of the Rings, and because Jackson is now trusted and the studios know there’s a lot of money to be had, they allowed him that extra film, which meant this one was elongated accordingly. I stress again, I quite liked An Unexpected Journey, although it didn’t wow me and I think that is in no small part to it being a walkthrough of six short chapters of Tolkien’s text which in turn created a lack of necessity to edit whilst allowing for slight overindulgence on the part of Jackson.
Django, on the other hand, had a wonderfully flowing, linear narrative. Tarantino didn’t feel he needed long establishing shots, as he assumed his audience were familiar with the milieu, whilst any cameos, such as traditional Michael Parks appearance, was subtle instead of sounding the ‘Look its Frodo’ claxon. And yes, I did think Tarantino’s own cameo was fine, even somewhat entertaining. It embraced its running time to allow us to revel in the wonderful performances whilst each character fulfils their own arc. The Hobbit cannot yet complete the character arcs until the finale of the third film, which is why the conclusion of Unexpected Journey still seems unsatisfying. Every dwarf, Gandalf, Radagast, Bilbo and even a group of characters who have yet to enter the story still have two thirds of their journey to go on, another six hours.
Talking about revelling in Django’s performances, it is probably one of the best ensembles in recent memory. Foxx’s turn from stuttering slave to bounty hunter extraordinaire is skilfully handled. Christophe Waltz shows why he is one of the best actors working today, his delivery of dialogue is delicious and I think the majority of audiences could have listened to his poetic dispatching of Tarantino’s lines throughout the running time. Di Caprio plays Calvin Candie flawlessly, even pure evil, he is intriguing and terrifying in equal measure. And Samuel L Jackson is despicable yet impossible to draw your eyes away from.
All great performances and what is done so incredibly is the introduction of each of those characters all comes in stages, so we see Foxx then Waltz, they are given their time together so we know them as characters, then Di Caprio enters a bit later, and then Jackson, and they all have their moments and aren’t grappling for screen time. The pacing is perfect, the tension builds to an uncomfortable level before it is paid off by an intense set piece and the script is sharp at all times without digression. This is how I want to spend my time throughout any three hour film.
The mindset of many films is that is they are long, they are regarded with more credibility and are more likely to be seen as an epic. This stems from when cinema was a huge event and television was rare seeing movies like Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur dominate the box office. Cinema is now competing with a myriad of mediums and so that ‘event’ sense is used to draw people in. With 3 hour epics like Titanic, The Dark Knight and The Lord of the Rings people could enjoy the spectacle of cinema and see how it differs from the everyday. These films were competing using their big screens, big sound and spectacular effects as their weaponry.
However, the audience still needs to be engrossed throughout. It is not enough to have some great effects and extend your running time to three hours. The script needs to be absorbing and relevant to the story and any digressions need to be pretty terrific to keep the audience with you. There also needs to be a flowing narrative whilst there is defiantly no excuse for weak character development because the viewers are going to be spending a lot of time with these people and need to be behind them. And, the main thing, be entertaining. I love a three hour running time along with so many people but they need to justify that running time. It’s a long time to commit to a film and audiences should therefore be rewarded with a great story.