ShrieksOut -- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

 

"His rage passes description -- the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted "

-The Hobbit

       Alright, look: those of you who read my reviews regularly know that I've made an active and conscious decision to not be That Internet Nerd. You know the one I mean. I'm not angry that they changed the placement of a tree in The Shire, I think it's cool to invent the character of Tauriel, if I miss Tom Bombadil I'll open the book, and I don't care that on page 232 Tolkien writes a detail that contradicts something that Peter Jackson invented. I love movies. I love movies about books. But I walked away from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies -- and indeed this trilogy as a whole -- angry and confused in the same way that Tolkien described Smaug in the above quotation, equally unsure about what it was that was bothering me.

      It may also surprise my regular readers -- who have suffered through gigantic essays on things like The Purge, and who are painfully aware of the degree of my Tolkien fandom -- that I actually don't have much to say about this movie. It exists. It's here. It does the two jobs it set out to do: it ties the two trilogies together and, most importantly, it's making money.

      One thing it doesn't do is adapt Tolkien's charming 1937 novel into a movie. One of the biggest mistakes people make about The Hobbit is to regard it as a Lord of the Rings prequel, rather than its own standalone story. This probably seems like an obnoxious nitpicky nerd point to make, but I promise I'm going somewhere with it. In my review of The Desolation of Smaug (http://geeksout.org/blogs/ranerdin/movie-review-hobbit-desolation-smaug) I actually defended Jackson for going off-page and urged us as viewers to treat this series as prequels to LOTR films and not as book adaptations. I even defended the decision to split it into three films. Unfortunately, even deciding to ignore all of the source material and judge this movie on its own cinematic merits, I'm struggling to find honest praise. And I think it's just because, when it comes down to it, the whole idea of trying to do it this way was inherently flawed from the beginning.

      And this is frustrating, because I enjoy writing about things I love. But from its beginnings at the destruction of Lake Town to its awkwardly tacked on love story to its long drawn out battle sequence, I couldn't stop wondering about who could possibly be emotionally invested in any of this. Yes, as many reviewers have pointed out, the movie looks like watching World of Warcraft on the big screen. But any fan of Final Fantasy VI can tell you that it's just as easy to get emotionally invested in video game characters as it is to care about any other kind of fiction. The problem here is one of storytelling. There just isn't enough story here to have stretched far enough into this third film -- like butter scraped over too much bread, as Bilbo himself may have said. The release of a Tolkien film always brought with it a sense of buzz and excitement, but even the most diehard fans of these movies seem to be experiencing a bit of Hobbit fatigue.

      The problem with expanding this story beyond its original scale and scope is that there aren't really three stories to tell. There's the obvious problem of not having a great villain to focus the story around -- let's face it, Tolkien isn't known for nuanced views on good and evil, but Saruman is fun and Sauron, though a stupid flaming eye, at least sent out the Witch King of Angmar to lend some genuine menace to Lord of the Rings. Smaug is great, but out of the picture for most of this, and Bolg, Azog and the wispy form of The Necromancer don't really cut it. Jackson is great at staging an epic battle, and if you enjoyed Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields in the original trilogy, Five Armies may become your favorite Hobbit film. But this battle goes on for far too long, and I can't see it standing up to repeated viewings. There really is almost a Real Housewives sense of trying to make a small conflict much bigger than it needs to be. With no one bringing the same degree of personality and pathos to the plot that Teresa Giudice would have.

      The Hobbit is, in essence, a short, simple story about one small person finding himself and coming to terms with his place in a world that is bigger and scarier and greedier than he could have ever possibly imagined. Bilbo himself is barely present in this film because he originally spent the majority of the battle of five armies the way I spend most crowded social situations -- passed out and unconscious on the ground. And this is a shame, because I still very much enjoy Martin Freeman's depiction of Bilbo. Throughout this series he's played the role in a very subtle, nuanced, and fascinating way, and actually helped me understand this character in a new way.

      Since the emotional heart of this story wasn't there, Jackson had to look elsewhere to bring some life to its bloated swollen abdomen, and the real star of this film is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage is a fantastic actor, and the way he shows us Thorin's descent into the greed and madness of dragon sickness and the unfortunate way that the acquisition of wealth can corrupt the human (or dwarven) heart is the best part of this movie. There were times in Tolkien's story that I didn't necessarily understand what it was in Thorin's character that inspired such devotion -- Armitage gives the character a regal bearing that made me finally understand.

Yeah, I'd hit it.

      The other heavy lifters here are Luke Evans (Bard, who does as well as he can with the weak material he is given), Ian McKellen (Gandalf, always irreproachable), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel, likewise, and it was nice to see her finally get to do something other than standing around looking like she just popped a molly, even if the scene was completely gratuitous) and the fabulously nasty Lee Pace (Thranduil). I ordinarily can't stand the elves and I have little interest in their gated communities, but there's something so gleefully shitty about him that I love whenever he is on screen -- though I still can't get over that stupid moose.

      One thing Peter Jackson has always done well throughout the course of five movies and continued to do into this last installment with these great actors is give a more developed personality to all of these characters in a way that Tolkien didn't. And it's because of this, and because he had invented so much superfluous material to pad out this third film, that I'm so disappointed that he didn't do more to differentiate Thorin's group of dwarves.

      I'm a loser who likes to speed-name the dwarves in The Hobbit as a party trick (I don't go to many parties). And so the fact that even by the end of this third film I still couldn't name half of the dwarves in the group by sight was a little unfortunate. With so many unnecessary moments (how many times do we see Alfrid of Laketown being greedy? How many minutes does Tauriel spend looking longingly at Kili?) it's a little frustrating that more couldn't have been done to lend some personality to the main cast. Though I did love finally getting to see a dwarf army.

      People have accused Peter Jackson of suffering from a bit of dragon sickness himself, but I'm still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. For better or worse -- and I'd argue it's mostly better -- Jackson has shaped the way that the world sees Middle Earth and brought Tolkien's world to life for new generations of fans. I do believe that he has a genuine love and respect for this story, and wasn't motivated by greed and money (the studios, on the other hand...) I simply think this was a case of trying to recreate the magic of the original trilogy in the same way and failing on account of The Hobbit being an entirely different kind of story than Lord of the Rings. An Unexpected Journey is generally held to be the most boring of these three films, but I actually think it came the closest to finding the balance of capturing the charm and whimsy of The Hobbit while still hinting -- hinting -- at the darker things to come. The Battle of the Five Armies sort of works as a lead in to Fellowship of the Ring, but I can't say that it's a great film on its own. And yet, despite my complaining, I can't escape the fact that there were tears in my eyes when the camera panned up over the hill and showed us Bag End again at the end of Bilbo's journey. And it's a testament to Jackson as a filmmaker that despite its many, many flaws, he still manages to make The Shire feel like home. Rating: C

@robrussin

on December 23, 2014