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Film Review – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014; Directed by Peter Jackson)

There’s a small but perfectly-pitched moment near the end of The Battle of the Five Armies, the final film in Peter Jackson’s hotly-debated trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1930s children’s novel The Hobbit, that demonstrates the filmmaking instincts of Jackson and his team at their best in their rich, detailed, and deeply humane cinematic visualization of Middle Earth. Following the staggering slaughter and wrenching loss of the titular battle, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) sits down next to a stricken, shell-shocked Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). He says not a word, busying himself instead by fastidiously cleaning his pipe. McKellen handles this quotidian act with such a fussy absorption and grace that Bilbo is comforted in his stunned grief, and the hobbit and the wizard share a weary smile.

Such moments formed the emotional bones of Jackson’s historic trilogy of film versions of The Lord of the Rings. I wrote a year ago about the depth and unconscious recognition created by the artistic heritage visible in the design of those movies and its contribution to the erection of a simulacrum of cultural authenticity. But Jackson’s Rings movies also resonated with such a large audience because he made them feel something; like many great filmmakers (Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Kurosawa all come to mind), Peter Jackson at his best is a master manipulator of emotion: pain, joy, longing, sadness, goodwill, and above all that ephemeral, giddy rush that movie fanboys (and fangirls) experience when something in one of Jackson’s endless action sequences leaps to that apex of the geek-pyramid of awesomeness.

Watch the elegiac slow-motion during Boromir’s last stand in The Fellowship of the Ring, the near-tantric build-up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers or the exquisite water-torture-like segue into Kong’s protracted fight with the T-Rexes in King Kong. The feelings engendered, like the unspooling image onscreen, may be superficial, fleeting, but they can be intense nevertheless. Perhaps it’s more strictly accurate to say that Peter Jackson, when working at the peak of his filmmaker powers, is a genius at sparking and directing the reactions of an audience. Even in his wild and woolly juvenilia, he possessed this innate ability: whatever else you might say about the depraved puppet romp of Meet the Feebles, you cannot say that it doesn’t create a strong reaction in whoever watches it.

You might have noticed some hedging references to Jackson “at his best” in that preamble. I’ve been more favourably disposed to The Hobbit project than many critical voices, as the record will show. As the trilogy draws to its spectacular close with The Battle of the Five Armies, however, even its most ardent defenders must admit that it has not lived up to the lofty promise of Jackson’s previous Middle Earth texts. There are many reasons for this that go beyond sniffing dismissals of Jackson’s filmmaking prowess. Most fundamental is The Hobbit‘s inherent paucity in character and narrative impact compared to The Lord of the Rings, which no amount of padding out by Jackson and his co-writers Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro could adequately compensate for. Del Toro, of course, was originally intended to direct the films, and his departure from the project left Jackson holding a multi-million Tolkien trilogy bag that he had been quite clear he did not want to oversee again. Peter Jackson has an inhuman work ethic, however, so he pressed on as he does, but make no mistake: The Hobbit was not the movie project that he wanted to be directing, and that’s rarely the prerequisite for inspired work.

Jackson and Boyens have also spoken in the DVD supplemental materials for the first two films about how they strove for a lighter, more comic tone for The Hobbit, to match that of Professor Tolkien’s text. Hence Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) with his bunny sled, recreational drug use, and birdshit-encrusted hair, the ribald dwarven humour, and the super-broad satire of political opportunism offered by the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his toady Alfrid (Ryan Gage). On a basic level, these have been sillier movies than Rings, with Jackson deciding not to rein in his overgrown adolescent tendencies as frequently as he did with his greatest screen accomplishment.

From its opening sequence, however, The Battle of the Five Armies strives for a much less flippant tone. Picking up moments after The Desolation of Smaug‘s cliffhanger with that film’s titular dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) swooping down with fiery catastrophe on wooden Laketown, The Battle of the Five Armies is a relentlessly paced wringer of a dire war movie. Unlike the book, in which Bilbo gets a bump on the head and naps through the meat-grinder of the battle, Jackson shows us thousands of beings breathing their last (some of which we might even have come to care about) and does not treat the slaughter with anything less than a stiff-lipped seriousness (mostly).

Smaug’s burning of Laketown demonstrates how it will be: buildings aflame crash into the frigid water as Smaug’s massive, lightning-quick bulk roars overhead. Jackson gives us the Master and Alfrid greedily making off with the The-Hobbit-Battle-of-Five-Armies2town’s gold hoard on an overloaded barge while the heroic Bard (Luke Evans) scales a tower to shoot down the beast with the aid of his son Bain (John Bell), all while sylvan elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), her potential dwarf lover Kili (Aidan Turner), three other dwarves (Dean O’Gorman, John Callen, and James Nesbitt), and Bard’s daughters (Nesbitt’s daughters Peggy and Mary, who get more screentime than he does) evade the inferno in a small boat. Fans of the book will know that Bard spots the dragon’s fatal weakness and exploits it skillfully, although here it has more to do with Bard’s keen eyes than with a messenger thrush. There will be several death scenes in this movie, but you won’t miss any of the departed quite as much as Cumberbatch’s eloquent, psychopathic Smaug as he plunges lifelessly from the sky.

This movie misses Smaug, too, and keeps him alive with callback line quotations throughout the descent into the near-madness of dragon-sickness suffered by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, fully justifying his casting at long last). Having won back the sought-after Lonely Mountain kingdom at last, Thorin loses the plot as he broods over the vast, dragon-infected treasure of Erebor and drives his company to the breaking point in search of the King’s jewel, the prismatic Arkenstone (whose look I can’t say I much like). They won’t find the Arkenstone in the hoard, of course, since Bilbo burgled it at the conclusion of his stand-off with Smaug; a flashback confirms this act, which was unnecessarily teased in The Desolation of Smaug.

Bilbo means to give it to Thorin; it is, after all, his purpose on the mission, and he wants this stubborn, self-important dwarf lord to have what he wants. But as he sees Thorin losing his mind even in its absence, he decides to withhold the desired object, even at the risk of alienating someone he now considers a good friend (for some reason). The gauntlet of battle scenes that dominate the last half of the movie sweep aside this psychological angle, and it’s not exactly Jungian in its sophistication anyway, but it’s still welcome and is generally executed quite nicely. There’s a fine scene on the reflective solid gold floor created by the dwarves’ attempt to destroy the dragon at the end of the second film in which Thorin’s greed and desires and powerlust and doubts rush him all at once and threaten to pull him down into the gilded void.

Thorin’s dragon-sickness blinds him to the gathering crisis outside of Erebor’s gates. Bard has rallied Laketown’s ragged, traumatized survivors and lead them to shelter in the ruins of Dale, the city of Men at the foot of the mountain; Alfrid has survived too, and Gage provides rather patchy comic relief with his constant incompetence and cowardice (with so many winks and nods to the Rings movies, I was half-hoping for a hint that Alfrid skulks off to Rohan to grandsire Grima Wormtongue). The preening, uncompromising Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) has also descended on Dale after hearing of the dragon’s demise. Both men look towards the Mountain and its putative king for compensation: Thranduil wants some lovely white gems back, and Bard wants a cut of the treasure to rebuild the lives of his folk, as Thorin promised to provide when the Lakemen aided his company on their way to the Mountain. Thorin parleys with Bard through a channel in the makeshift rock gates in a highlight of Armitage’s gold-sick nuttiness act, but despite appeals to honour his word, Thorin is unmoved and prepared to fight the superior forces of Elves and Men rather than part with a single piece of the treasure.

Matters are getting more complicated, however. Gandalf has been freed from his confinement in Dol Guldur at the hands of the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch), who he has realized is no mere sorceror but the returned Dark Lord Sauron himself. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) strides into the crumbling stronghold and, with Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) holding the ghosts of the Nazgul at bay, banishes the Flaming Eye to cower menacingly behind the walls of Mordor. She does so with the same green-tinted wind-machine and vocal-echo effects that constituted the worst 30 seconds of the otherwise world-beating Fellowship, so it’s hard to say that this scene is anything but a disappointing end to an undercooked subplot indulged merely as a prequel set-up to the core conflict of the Rings movies.

battle-of-five-armies1

Agincourt ain’t got nothing on this outnumbering.

Anyway, the important thing about all of this as far at the Lonely Mountain situation is concerned is that Gandalf has seen orc legions marching from Dol Guldur under the command of Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett). He rides to Dale to warn Thranduil and Bard of the coming storm and to dissuade them from attacking Thorin’s faction, even while Woodland Elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel discover another orc force marching from the northern fortress of Gundabad under the command of Azog’s nasty offspring Bolg (John Tui). Gandalf is soon joined by Bilbo, so disenchanted with Thorin’s fall to madness that he’s given Bard and Thranduil the Arkenstone to barter for peace. The gambit simply ratchets up the tension, especially when a dwarven army arrives under the command of Thorin’s cousin, Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly).

Wielding a warhammer and a veritable dictionary of Scots taunts and insults, and riding astride an armoured war pig (a wacky-cool Jacksonian touch if there ever was one), Connolly’s Dain practically begs for his own spin-off movie. Just as his troops are about to clash with the elven ranks, however, gigantic earth-digging serpents burst through the nearby hills (Jacksonian, again) and Azog’s orc army follows them out. From this point to the Bilbo-centric denouement (which, heavy as it is on Martin Freeman’s excellent performance, is a strong closing), the battle is on. It’s tremendously exhausting, from colliding ranks on the open ground before Erebor’s gates to pitched street-by-street battles in Dale after a troll breaches the wall with the battering ram that is its head.

As all hope seems lost for the forces of relative good, Thorin shakes off his dragon-sickness in the nick of time and leads a rallying charge. He then mounts armoured big-horned ibex (where did they come from? Who knows? This is pure Peter Jackson feverish subconscious at this point) with Fili, Kili and Dwalin (Graham McTavish) and rides to the snowy overlook of Ravenhill to confront Azog for the long-promised final showdown, which for spectacle, drama and pure masculine-contention thrills (Thorin and Azog slug it out on a frozen river above a waterfall) cannot be said to disappoint for imagination.

Not all of the dwarves survive the encounter (don’t worry Extended DVD fans: Mark Hadlow’s Dori is fine, but I don’t think he gets a line in the whole movie), but unfortunately neither does the resurgent quality of The Battle of the Five Armies. A pair of subplots resolve on Ravenhill along with Thorin’s narrative arc and they demonstrate two of the trilogy’s most ill-begotten missteps. Legolas’ confrontation with Bolg, anticipated by their visceral fight at the end of The Desolation of Smaug, has some wicked action beats, and the big orc’s end is wonderfully satisfying in a way that Azog’s defeat is not, at least not to the same extent. Even as Legolas empties his personal arsenal to take down this particular foe on a precarious tower spanning the gap of the frozen waterfall, there’s a slowed-down video game moment that jars, and still hardly enough resolution to make the character’s presence in these movies worthwhile.

A far more egregious resolution, however, is that of Tauriel and Kili’s star-crossed interspecies love story. Any romantic subplot between a dwarf and an elf shoehorned into this story was always going to spark the ire of a male-heavy fanbase, but some of the establishing writing in the last film did not grate terribly and there’s a suitably tragic end to builds towards here. But the exchange between Tauriel and Thranduil which concludes the storyline finishes with a line so epically, stultifyingly awful that it calls into question the competence of Boyens and Walsh as screenwriters. Why do the storyline at all, let alone create the Tauriel character to inhabit it, if you’re going to end it with a generic rom-com stinger like that?

One could quite easily extend that specific critique to a more general one: why do this trilogy at all, we might ask Peter Jackson? Because the momentum of an anticipated, surely profitable production proved irresistible and compelled him to take the helm and make the best of it, might be one answer. You can never say that Jackson is not engaged in The Hobbit world, at least, and he utilized the project to advance his technical processes that will serve him on better material and push for format innovations in film projection that may one day revolutionize the medium (I didn’t see any of The Hobbit movies in high-frame-rate presentation, but found the 3D hit-and-miss; there’s one shot in particular on Ravenhill where Thorin looks like he’s on a Playmobil set). And like The Lord of the Rings, these are magnificently designed, well-acted, and often wildly imaginative movies packed with many diverting and absorbing delights.

But I fear that The Hobbit trilogy will enter into movie history as a diminishment of Peter Jackson’s previous cinematic accomplishments in the Middle Earth milieu. Much of that comes down to a story that is not as resonant and a group of characters that are simply not as sympathetic as Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Theoden, Eowyn, Gollum, and all the rest of the Rings principals. Bilbo grows to be enormously fond of Thorin in a way meant to compel our empathy, but let’s be honest: Thorin’s a jerk and he doesn’t deserve it. His flaws are not quite so endearing, and as good as Armitage is, he suffers for it.

But this problem, like all of The Hobbit‘s problems of narrative and affect in literary form, have been exacerbated by the decision to expand the story to three two-hours-plus epic films. Though I find the dismissive hive nerdthink opinion that The Hobbit should never have been stretched like butter scraped over too much bread as tedious as others do, there is some truth to it. The trilogizing has extracted a steep narrative price, necessitating padding like Legolas’ presence and the Tauriel-Kili love story and Azog the Defiler and Jimmy Nesbitt’s daughters and Alfrid Overload and the White Council cameos. There are three intermittently exciting, impressive, funny, and even moving films to be drawn out of The Hobbit, Peter Jackson and his team have generally shown us. But the enduring aura of these movies might skew towards probing questions about whether or not it could have made for two even better films (possibly directed by an original visionary like Guillermo del Toro, even). As Peter Jackson draws the curtain on his version of Middle Earth (unless the Tolkien Estate has a drastic about-face concerning the remaining rights to the Professor’s work), he does not do so with the finality and closure that might have been desired by legions of filmgoers. But, after all, there are many paths to tread, and Peter Jackson most definitely followed his own to film immortality.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 2, 2015 at 3:09 pm
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