The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy has ignited controversy and disenchantment, much of it vented by those who praised him to the heavens for his work on the first. The Hobbitses aren’t quite the equivalent of George Lucas’ much-maligned Star Wars prequels, but few would deny there is a noticeable step down in quality from The Lord of the Rings. The main bones of contention remain ever-present in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
There are the invented characters and unnecessary encores for known ones that shouldn’t be there. There’s the over-use of CGI employed to engineer frequently ludicrous action sequences, which are rendered devoid of tension as a result. There’s the expansion of a slim volume to the point where it isn’t quite clear what the picture is about any more. I enjoyed the previous two films (the second more than the first), but it was a stop-start enjoyment, whereby Jackson could be relied on to throw something in the mix at intervals that was tonally glaring or even woefully misconceived.
While I fully expected this to follow suit, I also had limited expectations for the third instalment based on the retitling; Battle of the Five Armies would be an extended dust-up, one that becomes wearisome through repetition and a lack of places to go with its story. In that respect I was pleasantly surprised. The film is much more balanced than its name suggests (There and Back Again would, admittedly, be a misfit), both in the amount of time it takes to get to the fighting and in engaging the viewer with the different strands of the melee itself.
This is a solid adaptation, one possessed of a familiarity that has long since ceased to invite superlatives. It hangs together much better than one would expect, given that it represents the afterthought of the series; Jackson’s not-at-all-cynical-honestly expansion from two films to three. Its unvarnished genesis is most evident in the leaner running time (by about twenty minutes) and the dispatching of Smaug in the opening sequence. I’m not sure the latter decision really services any aspect of the story, outside of the home viewing of the trilogy arena, since Smaug is the tale’s biggest character and the most iconic presence. Having built up the dragon’s threat effectively, Jackson managed to dissipate the tension and break the rhythm by ending The Desolation of Smaug on a cliffhanger. The sequence itself is effectively staged, but it would be more so as one unit.
Luke Evans, who has not always been well served in his film roles, makes a strong showing as Bard throughout; he’s a more accessible leader than the impossibly noble Aragorn. The only trouble is that as he assumes the mantle of leader so his screen time diminishes to make way for more dwarfish matters. He also gets a typically dumb Jackson rescue sequence atop a runaway cart (Bard’s sufferance of not-so-comic-relief weasel Aldrid – Ryan Gage – also serves to undermine him slightly.
Better served in the humour stakes is Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown; at least, I liked his line where he regrets not saving more people because “they’re just not worth it”.) During the course of the battle itself, we get to see Billy Connolly riding a pig (the CGI mounts in these films have become no better realised in ten years) and a skydiving bear. The comedy in Jackson’s post-splatter films has always been variable (I don’t think the Beorn is supposed to be funny) and more often than not, he misses his marks. Sylvester McCoy, who was surprisingly okay in An Unexpected Journey, is onscreen for about two minutes.
As I say, I’d expected the battle to be a stodgy and overstuffed pudding. Yet Jackson takes well-judged time getting there (although many would say he takes far too much time and liberty getting everywhere in these three films). The release of Gandalf occurs with perfunctory ease, and there is something of a greatest hits package about the arrival of Galadriel (including dark Galadriel revealing her monochrome fury), Saruman, and Elrond, fighting the Nazgul and eliciting a Sauron cameo. At times, the Lucas trap is set for all too see in The Battle of the Five Armies, not only in the over-reliance on CGI where once there was physicality and weight, but also – in scenes such as this – taking unnecessary pains to interlink and reference what is yet to come. I enjoyed the sequence, but Christopher Lee all but winks at the camera when Saruman say he’ll go and deal with this (his super-acrobatic fighting skills are a definite improvement on his Dooku moves).
So too, Lee Pace’s Thranduil when he suggests Legolas seeks out Strider. Who may be some sort of super-special kind of fellow but Thranduil’s not telling quite how. Jackson is over-egging the pudding, just as the effect of bookending the adaptation with Ian Holm denies the story an identity in its own right. The Hobbit will forever exist in reference and deference to The Lord of the Rings, which may not impinge on the latter, but it is definitely deleterious to the former.
Orlando Bloom’s presence in this trilogy is easily the most glaring and egregious. No one was demanding he return, apart from Bloom and his agent, and Legolas’ waxy-fake rejuvenation fails to convince at any given moment. Worse, the already artless CGI acrobatics of his original appearances are now augmented beyond any rhyme or reason. Does Jackson think it’s cool to have the irksome Elf hitch a ride on a bat? Or is he, perversely, clutching the cheesy fakery to his prodigious bosom, just as he did when Legolas slid down an oliphaunt’s trunk in The Return of the King?
At least the fight with Bolg has some mano-a-mano energy, although it too falls prey to busyness and pixelated video-game defiance of feasibility (leaping up falling rocks). What bothers most about the whacky CGI Jackson frequently indulges in The Hobbits is that it destroys the illusion, collapses any suspension of disbelief. Middle Earth is no longer an encompassing, immersive world.
The Elvish are also where my other big beef with Battle of the Five Armies arises. I don’t have a problem changes to the source material as long as it doesn’t adversely affect the wholer picture. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel was fine in the previous pictures, partly because Lilly was a strong and commanding presence, easily eclipsing Bloom, and partly because she was used reasonably well. That is, up until the point Jackson decided to intimate the love that dare not speak its name between a dwarf and an elf.
Obviously, it had to be a photogenic dwarf (Aidan Turner’s Kili) and not a fugly one with a prodigious proboscis (Tauriel’s romance with the fat ginger one Bombur really would have been ground-breaking). Star-crossed besottedness becomes Tauriel’s defining characteristic this time out, and it leaves her ineffectual and hopeless. Their passions have been inflamed after about five minutes together, but neither the actors nor Jackson is able to sell this. It’s particularly laughable that Thranduil, having read her the riot act, should be persuaded her feelings are in fact genuine and pure. Most damningly, Tauriel also becomes another moon-eyed damsel in distress who needs Legolas to do the man’s work for her.
Other elements work as well as you would hope, though. If Thorin’s dragon sickness echoes and previews Boromir’s, then it feels appropriately so. Richard Armitage musters a compelling portrait of a noble character brought low by greed; it’s the kind of substantial motivation The Hobbits have lacked through being (naturally) slight and slender pieces stretched beyond their means. It also works as an effective twist in a third film, as Thorin has been marked as effectively the classical hero of the trilogy. His face-off with Azog finds Jackson on strong form, and includes a superior sequence as the Orc floats beneath a sheet of ice.
The battle is well staged for the most part, and all-the-more effective for the detours into one-on-ones with Azog and Bolg. While there’s a nod to the novel’s Bilbo being out cold for the duration of the conflict, Jackson wisely makes better use of him, providing a sequence with the ring and so ensuring we keep in our minds how much influence it has on him. Without it, the malign hold would seem more casual than cumulative.
Nevertheless, Bilbo really is incidental here, and I have to admit that, as dependable as Freeman is, he doesn’t take on the dimensions or presence of Elijah Wood or Ian Holm’s eminent hobbits; this might be because I see past roles too clearly in his performance. As familiarity goes, Ian McKellen Gandalf’s parting lines to Bilbo, verging on admonishment, are up there with his best, but otherwise the wizard is an entirely familiar part of the furniture; a piece placed in the corner of the room with a few coats piled on it.
Jackson doesn’t include about 10 different endings here (there are three), so I expect the extended addition will include a few items that need acknowledgement (Bilbo’s share of the treasure, the fate of the Arkenstone). I’m not expecting great things, but I’m curious to view the extended versions back-to-back; perhaps they will prove greater than the sum of their parts. With the exception of The Fellowship of the Ring, I didn’t find the original trilogy entirely satisfying until it landed in longer form.
I also suspect time will be kinder to The Hobbit than it has been to the Star Wars prequels. Brickbats were out for both, but, while the disappointment with Jackson’s tonal liberties and visual incontinence are understandable, there are still many things here he gets right, and much to enjoy throughout. They won’t ever be seen as classics like The Lord of the Rings – they lack the sweeping scale, the emotional journey, and the clear sense of identity, apart from anything else – but they will probably become accepted as likeable if slightly over-nourished relatives. Which should see them through until the next versions are made in another thirty or forty years.