Holiday movies: Finding three hours to put together

Gollum voiced by Andy Serkis in a scene from the fantasy adventure “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Running two hours and 49 minutes, some critics say the movie is too long. © Warner Bros. Pictures photo, via AP.

With Christmas week approaching, I am looking forward to finally making a date with our 16th president and Middle-earth.

The movie Lincoln, of course, has been out over a month and I’ve yet to see it. Last weekend, I was one of the potential (but, in the end, absent) viewers of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey who kept it from bringing in more than its disappointing $84.8 million opening-weekend box office.

I was psyched to see director Peter Jackson’s latest vision of a J.R.R. Tolkien classic, but there were family events to attend to, gifts still to buy and other holiday responsibilities. Between the job, the kids’ school activities and other demands, it was hard to come up with the time needed to take these cinematic journeys.

Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Abraham Lincoln in the film “Lincoln.” © DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox photo by David James, via AP.

Why? Lincoln is two hours, 30 minutes. The Hobbit is longer: two hours, 49 minutes.

Then there’s Les Misérables, another movie on my to-see list. It opens Tuesday, Christmas Day, and clocks in at two hours, 37 minutes. And that’s not even counting the 10 to 15 minutes of commercials, previews and turn-off-your-cell-phone messages tacked on to the front of features these days.

But this is just part of the contemporary holiday movie season: Prestige flicks stalk for awards, opening just days before the Academy Awards’ Dec. 31 deadline, and challenge our appointment calendars and bladders with their prestigious running times.

This year, I actually started thinking about extensive movie running times in an odd place: while writing about performances of Handel’s Messiah and how Lexington music directors edit that epic piece to make it more palatable to audiences. The top reason they say they edit Messiah is because it runs nearly three hours when done in its entirety. Nobody wants to sit through something that long, the directors think.

Clearly Steven Spielberg and many other film directors believe otherwise. More and more, it seems, any film with a tinge of gravitas clocks in at well over two hours.

Even comedy and action movies, genres that traditionally use 90 minutes-to-two hours as their standard, are succumbing to the trend. Judd Apatow’s new movie, This Is 40, runs two hours, 14 minutes. I love James Bond movies, but I could have trimmed 23 minutes out of Skyfall to get it down to two hours.

Certainly there are stories that take several hours to tell. The Godfather (1972) is two hours, 55 minutes. I wouldn’t begrudge Francis Ford Coppola a frame of his masterpiece. It needs to be that long to accomplish its storytelling goal.

But we all have had those experiences of sitting in a theater trying to see our watch in the dark, wondering, “Did they hire an editor for this movie?”

That seems to be a rap on The Hobbit. The review we published in the Herald-Leader’s Weekender and on, written by Cary Darling of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said The Hobbit “feels every one of its 169 minutes.” That assessment helped wave me and several friends off from seeing it opening weekend.

Particularly with The Hobbit, the runtime seemed gratuitous. The Lord of the Rings movies, Jackson’s first visit to Middle-earth, were based on Tolkien’s massive trilogy of novels. But The Hobbit is a slim book, only about 300 pages. Turning it into three movies — parts 2 and 3 are due in 2013 and 2014 — that run nearly three hours each is a stretch, literally.

I have not heard the same complaints about Lincoln, which despite its length is getting some of the best word-of-mouth reviews of any movie in a long time. (Having read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which the movie is based on, I am surprised Lincoln is only that long.)

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine in “Les Miserables.” © Universal Pictures photo by Laurie Sparham, via AP.

These runtimes, when they feel unwarranted, seem to hark back to that “classic” model of entertainments that last all evening, that you somehow earn more prestige running a movie the length of an opera or one of Shakespeare’s unabridged plays. But the thing is, those forms of entertainment were created in less-busy eras when audiences thought three hours was getting their money’s worth.

That’s not the case now.

In the early to mid-2000s, when I was reviewing movies, more and more films began ticking back toward three hours. Besides yearning for shorter run times, I remember longing for the return of something else: the intermission.

Maybe I’m conditioned by seeing a lot of theater, where intermissions are the norm, but if a need to get out of my seat emerges, I far prefer an assigned time for a bathroom break rather than trying to guess when will be a good time to bow out for a minute.

Movie intermissions used to be standard fare. Gone With the Wind (1939) clocked in at a whopping four hours but included a 15-minute break. At three hours, 11 minutes, Gandhi (1982) was reportedly the last mainstream film to have an intermission.

Joel Edgerton (left) and his brother Nash Edgerton playing two of the SEAL Team Six soldiers as they fly a stealth blackhawk helicopter to raid Osama Bin Laden’s compound in “Zero Dark Thirty.” © Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. photo by Jonathan Olley, via AP.

Of course, nowadays, we have an app called RunPee, which advises moviegoers of the best time to take a break and gives a synopsis of what was missed. (The app’s slogan: “Because movie theaters don’t have pause buttons.”)

I might download it before heading out to see Lincoln, The Hobbit, Les Misérables and other films I am eagerly anticipating, including Zero Dark Thirty (two hours, 37 minutes; due Jan. 11). Still, it strikes me as strange that Hollywood drops some of its longest offerings during the overscheduled, hectic holidays, when it is least convenient for many people.

Then again, I guess studios really aren’t thinking about my schedule when they release movies.

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