THE HOBBIT: An Unexpected Journey TRAILER: Singing Dwarves, Creeping Gollum, but no Mention of Dragons or Spiders

Like all the other J.R.R. Tolkein fans around the world (and we are legion), I’m anticipating the release of Peter Jackson‘s production of the Hobbit (2012). Why then did the trailer give me pause, curl my lip, elicit a “wha?” response? It’s not that the visual realization of Middle Earth disappointed nor that I objected to casting. (Martin Freeman and Ian Holm as young/old Bilbo are ideal.) Rather, I think my WTF moment was with the articulation of story and sales elements, and what seemed a paratactic (this and this and this) structure, rather than a tighter, more directed one.

Now that I’ve watched the trailer a dozen times and thought at length about what it’s trying to do (and what it does), I’ve come to understand and appreciate its skill, artistry and motivation. Still, I credit my taste and subjective response enough to use them as a springboard to analysis and explication.

Lets stipulate that a film like The Hobbit has many advantages: unparallelled source material; built in fan base; ample production resources; top flight production team; world-class cast; huge awareness and desire to see the film; and major buzz online and in social media. As with the later Harry Potter films, trailer makers and their studio clients have to be treading warily, on guard against derailing/dampening the marketing campaign more than aggressively seeking to ignite or enhance it. It’s an enviable position to be in, but not an easy one to negotiate.

Let’s examine the trailer.

At 2:31, the official trailer is on the long side. After the logos of its three production partners, Warner Bros., New Line and MGM, the film opens in the Shire, before the hillside home of Bilbo Baggins (Holm) telling telling his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) details of youthful adventures as yet undisclosed. We meet the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) who visits young Bilbo and invites him to “share an adventure.”

In short order, he introduces Bilbo to a dozen dwarves and Thoren Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the human leader of this band of bold adventurers. The dwarves, cozily crammed into Bilbo’s comfy burrow, proceed to sing “Far over the misty mountains cold,” a narrative poem from Tolkein’s novel that chronicles the Dwarves’ mining and metallurgical skill and their historical defeat by a dragon who occupied their ancestral home and took possession of their fabled hoard of gold, jewels and armaments. The song, which plays at length is partially expository (albeit obliquely) and partially atmospheric. Indeed, the tune is arranged and orchestrated for the grand and epic final music cue.

The first of several cards appears: NEXT DECEMBER, over a sepia toned map of Middle Earth, the same graphic that’s used for subsequent cards.
We see Gandalf exploring an ancient ruin; Bilbo walking through an opulent mansion (castle?) and finding a shattered sword, like the one that figures in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
We cut to Kate Blanchett, reprising her role as Galadriel, stroking Gandalf’s face.
Next, scenes of the journey and dialogue between Gandalf and Oakenshield indicating the peril Bilbo faces.
Then, as the music builds, we see epic longshots of the glorious landscape (New Zealand, presumably?) and scenes of fighting, magic, camaraderie and play.
Cut to Gandalf telling Bilbo before the journey that “you’ll have a tale to tell when you come back,” to which Bilbo asks, “Any promise that I will come back?” Gandalf answers, “no. And if you do, you will not be the same.”
The title card, THE HOBBIT, in gold letters appears as the camera pulls out, after which Gollum, the most interesting and complicated character in Tolkein, makes his first appearance, uttering his trademark “precious” and exposing his abject and uncannily threatening desire to Bilbo.
The trailer closes on the Credit Block, as customary.

As I mentioned above, the trailer never really explains the adventure behind the story Bilbo tells to Frodo. Rather, we see scenes from the adventure without explicit connection to that plot. Of course, the marketers can rely on some familiarity with the source material to explain what the trailer doesn’t, to wit, that the band of adventurers will confront and rob a mighty, fearsome dragon.

And yet the trailer, despite this signal omission, is also a “tell all,” since Bilbo relates the tale as an old man who has clearly survived the adventure. Additionally, we see a shot of Bilbo setting out from home and a matching shot of him returning, as if to underscore the “happy” ending to this epic tale.

Oddly, though, the dragon goes unmentioned, nor are the giant spiders that capture and sedate– preparatory to eating– Frodo, depicted. (I vividly recall that scene from a stage performance of The Hobbit, scene as a 5th grader. It was, and remains, terrifying.) Why, I wonder? Is there dragon fatigue in the land? Are the spiders “old news” since there was one in the LOTR? Or, has Jackson embargoed showing the dragon, out of a desire to hold something back for the ticket buyers? I do not know, and I’d like to. BTW, the Dwarves’ poem tells of the dragon, but that verse is not sung in the trailer.

In this trailer, then, the marketers have a wealth of appeals and they exploit most of them. They sell Peter Jackson. They sell the connection to the LOTR trilogy, a world-wide commercial and critical success. (The sword, the ring and recurring characters establish the linkage between cinematic pleasures enjoyed and those anticipated.)

The marketing team sells visual splendor, beloved source material (implicitly–not explicitly) and a recognizable and revered cast, reprising familiar and venerable roles. And, in the button of the trailer (the part after the Title but before the credit block), the trailer sells Gollum, the wretched, disturbing, degraded Hobbit (and alter ego to Bilbo/Frodo), here voiced again by Andy Serkis and brought to life through the magic of motion capture.

Singing Dwarves is a risky choice for an adult epic and although it doesn’t work for me, perhaps other fans will feel differently. There’s so much going for this movie (and its trailer) that I doubt the issues I’ve mentioned in this post will dissuade many viewers from seeing the film. Still, I’d very much like to know the decision making process that resulted in the omission of the dragon by name or by visual representation.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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