355 – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies brings an end to Peter Jackson’s second round of playtime in Middle-earth. If it feels like it’s been years that is because it has been. The adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit – a children’s book – has been in development in earnest since the mid-2000’s, and after close to ten years and three movies, it is finally complete. The first part of what became a trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a relatively satisfying film, showing the reluctant departure from his comfy home of titular halfling Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to help deposed dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) reclaim his kingdom from the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and concluding with Thorin’s acceptance of Bilbo as a member of the party. After the first film’s success, Jackson and New Line Cinema decided to split the sequel in half, leading to a second film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, full of bloat and ending with a cheap cliffhanger. The third film looks to capitalize on all of that build-up with what is essentially a two and a half hour fight scene. Return of the King this ain’t, but it isn’t completely without merit.

The film opens right where the last one left off: Smaug laying waste to Laketown after being awoken and angered by Bilbo and his dwarf companions. This dire situaton goes on for some time, but it is ultimately ended in a sequence that could have (and should have) ended the previous film. It would have been a sensical conclusion, and could have set up everything that comes after. Because once Smaug is seen to, Thorin himself becomes the film’s villain for a time, refusing to share any of his new treasures with the men and elves to whom he owes debts. This prompts new Laketown leader Bard (Luke Evans) and elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) to mobilize troops in the hopes of sieging Thorin’s newly reclaimed mountain home. They all find themselves bound together, however, when an army of orcs arrives with their own designs on the treasures within. Meanwhile, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) contends with an evil familiar to fans of The Lord of the Rings, and an elf maiden (Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel) continues to be in love with one of the dwarves (Aidan Turner’s Kíli).

That’s about it. All of that basic information is delivered quickly over the course of the film and everything else is just swords, really; in the words of Ken Watanabe’s Godzilla character, “Let them fight!” And fight they do. On plains, in fortresses, on ice – wherever fighting can be done, fighting is done. And I can’t lie: it’s pretty exciting. Despite being just as long as its predecessors, Battle of the Five Armies, doesn’t feel like its run time is weighing it down.

There is still evidence of bloat of course, most notably an unnecessarily long sequence wherein Thorin attempts to regain his senses. It is an important moment for the character, but it mostly consists of Armitage looking confused while audio from the scene immediately previous replays. It’s the kind of thing that could be conveyed faster if Jackson didn’t feel the need to hit that 150 minute mark. Likewise with the strained love story; Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (Guillermo del Toro also receives a credit, but it mostly seems to be an artifact from his short pre-production tenure as director) were right-thinking in their desire to add a strong female character to the male-dominated story, but ultimately Tauriel’s entire purpose is to be a romantic interest, and in this film that unfortunately presents itself as damsel-in-distress-itis. Tauriel goes from being highly capable in Desolation to being tossed around and saved by not one, but two men in Battle. It’s a disappointing trajectory for what was a promising addition to Tolkien’s original narrative.

Other characters (specifically characters with penises – though I suppose we don’t know that for sure) come out smelling a lot better. The movie features conclusions to strong, trilogy-long character arcs for Bilbo and Thorin, and Freeman especially does some great work, as usual. The actor produces such excellent reactions; one of Smaug‘s biggest mis-steps was its back-burner-ing of him, and while he doesn’t play a huge role in much of the fighting, Freeman gets a little more meat this go-around. Other noteworthy performances include Ken Stott’s wise-dwarf Balin, Luke Evans’s pained leader Bard, and – of course – McKellen’s final turn as Gandalf. It is kind of sad that 2014 has seen the legendary actor play two of his most iconic roles (the other being Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past) for what will probably be the last time.

Other characters appear only as CGI creations (looking at you, Billy Connolly-dwarf), which is indicative of other main problem in the Hobbit trilogy, besides all of the stalling for time. That Peter Jackson and his team think computer effects are effective enough is a real tragedy, because so much of the magic in The Lord of the Rings comes from the use of perspective tricks, makeup effects, and practical models. All of this is accomplished digitally now, and it isn’t nearly as convincing. There are entire scenes where nothing is real; setting, creatures, characters – everything is animated, and no matter how much work goes into it (which I have no doubt is a lot), the final product is never going to look as good as Jackson wants it to look. Surely some of the money in this massive budget ($745 million for the entire production!) could have been used for tactile effects.

Despite all of these faults, The Battle of the Five Armies is still better than The Desolation of Smaug. It wraps up that movie’s story, while effectively telling one of its own. Tolkien purists will continue to cry foul due to all of the filmmakers’ alterations, but the basic plot is still there. It helps if you look at the Hobbit series not as a three-part adaptation of a really short novel, but rather as a nine-hour prequel to Jackson’s other epic trilogy. The movies work better in that light, even Smaug.

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