Why are we so suspicious of shorter blockbuster films?

News Simon Brew
17 Jan 2013 - 07:43

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters' sub-90-minute length has caused suspicion on the web. When did shorter films become a bad thing, we wonder?

Every now and then on our Twitter feed, we post information about confirmed running times and certifications for interesting looking movies. One of those, earlier this week, was Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which we suspect might be a good, concentrated blast of fun. We're not expecting an epic from it, but Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton in an action-filled subversion of fairy tale characters has something to it.

In this particular instance, we reported that the film had been granted a 15 certificate in the UK (none of that 12A pandering here, by the looks of it), and that the confirmed running time was 87 minutes. And it was the latter that got the biggest reaction. That because the film was under an hour and a half, there's a deep suspicion that it's been chopped to ribbons.

Granted, the fact that the film was postponed from its original release date last year adds a little fuel to the theory, but I do wonder if the idea of a big, short movie is now some kind of paradox.

Certainly when you look at the running times of many modern blockbusters, there's a growing expectation that two hours is about the minimum you'd expect. Films such as the Transformers movies, Christopher Nolan's latter two Batman films and Joss Whedon's The Avengers have pushed the boundaries to two and a half. By the time James Cameron's Avatar 2 comes around, we wouldn't be too surprised if an interval will be reintroduced.

I distinctly remember that, once upon a time, long films often used to carry some kind of warning. One Birmingham-based cinema, when I was growing up, even added a note to its listing for screenings of JFK in the local paper, advising people that the film was over three hours long. Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet was listed by some cinemas as having a break in the middle. Now, family movies aside, anything under two feels really rather brief.

It was Woody Allen, as we've mentioned on this site before, who once argued that no film ever need be longer than 90 minutes (you had to go back nearly two decades for the last of his movies to clock in under that level, ironically enough), but sub-90 now seems to spell trouble. Certainly, there are examples where that kind of brevity is testament to a hack job in the editing room. Jonah Hex was bashed down to 81 minutes for its final cut, and the lack of coherence suggests that a focus on telling the story wasn't ultimately the prime objective. Go back to the earlier The Avengers movie too, and that fell under 80 minutes, with large chunks blatantly and clumsily chopped out.

But perhaps, in the case of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, 87 minutes is the amount of time that the filmmakers actually needed to tell the story? I've not seen the film yet so can't judge that, but I have sat through a lot of interesting 90 minute features stuck in the middle of a two hour movie of late. Films that would have benefited from some pruning, and a willingness to bring the running time down.

The problem is that there's inherent negativity in expensive films being short. That our collective tentacles suggest problems, and that there's an inherent fear that no filmmaker in their right mind, making a blockbuster movie, would aim for something so apparently brief. If a film's not at least 100 minutes long, then there has to be something wrong with it, it seems. Never mind the fact that the shortest RoboCop movie is actually the best one, or that films such as Paths Of Glory, Stand By Me, The Iron Giant, Duel and many other classics barely need an hour and a half to tell their story so well.

A bit of me can't help thinking that digital filming hasn't helped here, in that a day's shoot isn't quite as hold hostage to how much physical film is available on a given day. As such, more footage is being shot, and more footage is making it into the final cut of films. It's a crude generalisation, certainly, but I do wonder if there's something in it. That said, the trend for longer blockbuster movies has dated back to the 90s.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters may turn out to be great. It may yet turn out to be a disaster. But I quite like the idea of a modern day blockbuster that doesn't outstay its welcome, and leaves me wanting more rather than waiting for the credits.

Heck, over a third of the movie will have passed by the time Bilbo Baggins walked out of his front door in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And which of those two things is, ultimately, most worthy of complaint? Just a thought...

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