The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson, 2014)
The tagline for the new (and final!) film in director Peter Jackson’s overlong and bloated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s brief and sleek first Middle-Earth book The Hobbit (following last year’s second film in this trilogy in search of a raison d’être beyond the mercenary) is “the defining chapter” (see poster, above). I’ll believe that when, 20 or 30 years from now, Jackson has proven himself worthy of that promise. Since there is still plenty of story and esoterica to be mined from the Tolkienverse (or to be invented by fans of J.R.R.’s writing who aren’t getting their fill from Game of Thrones), I am highly skeptical that this is the last we will see of elves, orcs, dwarves, wizards and, of course, hobbits (if I was supposed to capitalize any of those, well, I just don’t care). Where there’s money to be made and fans to be satisfied, why stop?
I’ll tell you why – because this stuff is getting dull. Really dull. The whole post-Lord of the Rings enterprise has always felt contrived – an exact replica of the successful formula that Jackson and his team had applied to Tolkien’s actual trilogy (and I like those movies, so don’t peg me as a Sauron who’s always hating – I’m more like a Saruman who was once on the side of the heroes but has now turned against them) – only without any sort of script. Yet here we are, and a new movie has come out, so I must review it.
To be fair, after all that, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (despite my love of this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, can we please stop adding colons to titles …) is brisker and shorter than its predecessors. It also starts in media res, so before we know what’s happening, the action is on. What action? Well that is the problem with this kind of opening, since we are required to remember exactly where we left off last time. This is no stand-alone film, to be sure. Perhaps we are meant to have recently purchased the DVD or Blu-ray and just re-watched film #2. I’d buy that as a motivation …
Anyway, as Smaug rises above the lake to blast that wooden town floating in the river, some memory of past events may come back to you. Let me help you: Smaug is a dragon (whose name is pronounced, in this series, as “Smow-og,” though reading the book as a child, I just called him Smog, as in, dirty air), whose lair under the mountain has just been invaded by a team of dwarves (I think I’m supposed to write “dwarfs,” but again, so what?) whom he had originally kicked out of said lair. Bilbo – the ostensible protagonist of these movies (the hobbit of the title … before the colon and all) – spent much of the second half of film #2 taunting Smaug, and though I cannot quite recall what he specifically did to Smaug to piss him off so much, the dragon is on a rampage and blasts the town and its inhabitants all to hell.
It’s actually a well-executed scene, quite frightening, but it soon ends in the expected way (hint: this is not Smaug’s movie), after which we spend two hours among mopey dwarves and a largely missing hobbit. Yes, there are battles and people die, but keep in mind that Jackson has taken the final 72 pages of a 300-page book and tried to make a feature-length film by lengthening scenes that were best left short. The most moving sequences – and they are very affecting, to be sure – are ironically ones that center around a character not even in the original source text: Tauriel the “she-elf” (Evangeline Lilly from “Lost“), who is in love with Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner from “Being Human“). Almost everything else left me looking at my watch.
Perhaps the worst sin of the film is how much Jackson ignores Bilbo or, even worse, makes him such a passive character. Martin Freeman (Watson from “Sherlock“) is always excellent, but his relegation to supporting status here forces us to watch orcs and dwarves square off, and after one battle too many, it all blends together. I think the folks at Weta Digital do great work, but really, it’s story that we (OK, that I) come to see.
And lest I make this review as bloated as Jackson’s movies (it’s contagious!), I will stop now. See the film if you must, enjoy it if you will, but remember that good box office returns will only encourage the man to keep on going.