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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014): Written Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, directed by Peter Jackson.  Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom.  Running Time: 144 minutes.  Based on The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. 

Rating: 3/4 

            Well folks, this is it.  Two massive trilogies, each filmed back-to-back-to-back, costing a collective $1 billion to produce and generating over $5 billion and counting in box office revenue (both very rough estimates), 36 Oscar nominations and 17 wins (with at least few more nominations probably on the way), and it all comes down to this; the third installment of Peter Jackson’s still-hotly-debated trilogy of The Hobbit.  Was it all worth it, in the end?  Has the big-screen re-imagining of Middle Earth been enhanced or tarnished by several hours’ worth of extrapolation and narrative add-ons stuffed in by Jackson and his team?  How damaging of a miscalculation was it on the studio’s part to force Tauriel, easily the best invented character in all 6 movies (and I will fight you on that one), into an obviously shoehorned-in love triangle?  In the end, which wins out, the soaring high points, or the tiresome low ones? 

            For me, it’s the high points that come out on top.  I have loved too many moments and felt that sweet sting of nostalgia too often over the past 3 years to regret having seen each film multiple times in theaters.  Middle Earth is one of the greatest imaginative worlds of the past century, a land that has been filled with a history that so perfectly captures the indescribable sensation of something beautiful and essential beginning, reaching its time, and then leaving.  There is a power in the narratives Tolkien has crafted that can shine through any interpretation, no matter how faulty.  The Hobbit movies are not perfect- though truly, nothing is- but they are earnest endeavors, and I feel confident in saying that they will surely stand the test of time.  The Battle of the Five Armies effectively and movingly wraps up what will likely be our last filmed adventure in Middle Earth, and although I can certainly nitpick these films with the best of them, I am sad indeed to see them go. 

            It’s interesting to note that, for all the gripes that have been made regarding the wisdom of turning this slim volume into a trilogy and the issues of padded length that wore down the first two films somewhat, The Battle of Five Armies is actually the best-paced, quickest, and most tightly-written of the three films.  After a brief opening sequence showing Smaug’s enraged attack on Laketown and his subsequent death at the hands of Luke Evans’ Bard, the film settles down to its main focus- putting the pieces in place for, and then jumping gleefully into, the final, massive battle for control of the mountain between the human survivors of Laketown, the army of Elves under King Thranduil that arrives soon after the attack, Thorin, Bilblo, & co., the forces of Thorin’s cousin Dain, and a massive army of goblins and orcs, led by the Great White Albino himself, “Mad Dog” Azog. 

            Although the massive sequence of the battle never reaches the emotional heights of the Battle of Gondor in Return of the King, it is perhaps the most visually comprehensible battle out of all 6 movies, with the establishing shots well-utilized to show the tactics, maneuvers, and locations of each side of the battle.  Jackson stays quite true to his word of not straying for more than a minute or so from any of the main characters, but neither does the whole affair devolve into an incomprehensible brawl, for which I am immensely grateful.  And while it stretches the bounds of the battle’s context within the book, it builds up to an excellent climax on top of a frozen waterfall, a final confrontation between Thorin and Azog.  Fellow lovers of the book know what ultimately transpires here, but there is a nice touch that Jackson adds- the fate of one of the last sword fights rests on a conscious, sacrificial decision by one of the heroes.  Like many of the film’s best moments, it is small, but not unnoticed, one of a few gestures of genuine grace in a film filled with a great deal of admittedly unneeded noise. 

            Speaking of sacrifice, if there is one thing that kills many of the emotional vibes the movie succeeds in building up, it is the tragic treatment of Tauriel.  As I said above, Tauriel is among the best additions Jackson makes to the books, a tough-as-nails female fighter able to go toe-to-toe with Legolas, who in this movie reaches even higher levels of impossible awesome.  She was able to shine despite being the focus of an awful love triangle in the last movie, but sadly, the romance aspect in this one overwhelms everything else she is given to do, and the conclusion of her character arc is easily the weakest aspect of the otherwise very solid wrap-up at the end.  Evangeline Lilly did great work with what she was given, and deserved better.  

            As far as the wrap-up itself goes, no, it is not as drawn-out as the end of Return of the King, but it does almost feel a bit too cut back, as if Jackson was in a hurry to wrap things up, which is a shame, because as excellent as many moments as it has, including Bilbo’s reaction to the death of one character, his goodbye to the dwarves, and a perfect final scene back at Bag End, I could have used a bit more gravitas, or a few more quiet moments to add to the emotional weight.  Which is a shame, because this film actually succeeds in having far more and far better character moments than the last one, especially with Bilbo and Thorin.  Richard Armitage has really made Thorin his own character.  Overcome at the beginning of this by greed for the horde they have seized in the mountain, Thorin finally confronts his own demons in one of the series’ finest scenes, staring down at the golden floor created at the end of The Desolation of Smaug and imagining himself being swallowed whole in its shimmering depths.  It very nearly excused the drastic lengths the last movie went to in order to put the damn thing there.  All of his scenes with Bilbo are filled with emotions that make the film’s start color pallet glow with warmth.  They are too few and far between to lift the film from good to great, but their power is not diminished by that, and I am grateful for their presence. 

            In fact, I think that’s the best way I can sum up my mixed feelings towards the series as a whole; scenes or sequences of real brilliance and genuine cinematic magic, diminished somewhat by others that are less inspired and are, occasionally, atmosphere-breaking in their absurdity.  They never could measure up to LOTR, but I never expected them to, and that, perhaps, is one of the keys to my enjoyment of the films.  Another is my very strong love for the world of Middle Earth itself.  Ultimately, I love these movies simply because they allowed me to spend another 6 hours exploring the realms of dwarves, elves, hobbits, goblins, and men.  For such opportunities, I will endure very near anything.  My favorite of the trilogy is probably The Desolation of Smaug, mostly because of how excellent Smaug turns out.  I understand those who do not like them.  But I do, and it truly does pain me that this is likely the last journey we will get to take to Middle Earth on the big screen.  At least until the promised 72-part adaptation of The Silmarillion starts production. 

-Noah Franc

            

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