Movie a Day Blog feels that no one must feel more relieved by the end of THE HOBBIT trilogy than Peter Jackson. After all, he has spent the last 13 years creating his own cinematic mythology from J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS and its slim predecessor volume, THE HOBBIT.
Come to think of it, there are many of us equally relieved that Jackson can’t inflate any more 300 page books into three over-sized and overstuffed feature films like those he has wrung out of THE HOBBIT. Be prepared, spoilers abound below.
Actually, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014, Theatrical), the current and final chapter, is relatively engaging and entertaining, albeit overlong and over-digitized. Jackson’s work seems to lend itself to the frequent employment of the adjective “over,” and with these six films under his belt, he’s had plenty of practice.
Jackson starts BATTLE with a surprise: the dragon Smaug, who dominated THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013) thanks to vocalizer Benedict Cumberbatch’s oily snarl, lays waste to a lovely lakeside village in the spirit of the Allies’ bombing of Dresden in World War II. Of course there is a hero (Luke Evans) who single-handedly slays him, but their entire battle is over in the first 10 minutes of the film, and we wonder where Jackson can go from here.
As Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell sang, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” so Jackson adds scale and density to a story that has to constantly keep peaking just to stay interesting.
Everyone’s got an army in this tale: the Dwarves, led by a brooding and effective Richard Armitage, aided by his kinsman, a delightful Billy Connolly with tusks in his beard; the Elves, led Lee Pace (Orlando Bloom has less than a cameo appearance), have a full army, contrary to Tolkien mythology; although beleaguered, Evans’ Lake People and their ragtag group are willing to fight; and then a whole bunch of bad guy legions, identically fearsome digital creations who are so multiplied as to be ridiculous at a point.
That point is reached early and typified by the overuse of the Orcs, who have to be the all-purpose villains since Tolkien’s equivalent of the Devil, Sauron, shows up once and bows out way too quickly, given the presumed stakes. Of course the fate of all Middle Earth is once again at stake — remember, this is the prequel to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which Jackson also turned into three movies.
We need to take a step back and give Jackson credit for spending the creative energy to create two distinct trilogies, almost equal to the accomplishment of one of his inspirations, STAR WARS creator George Lucas. Jackson was borrowing Tolkien’s material, of course, although its questionable whether the original author would still recognize his motives in writing THE LORD OF THE RINGS as a historical and linguistic exercise. Still, it’s an incredible achievement in movie history, and I doubt Jackson will be fully recognized for his accomplishment in his lifetime.
Having opened with a bang, BATTLE settles in for a relatively long narrative slog before anything truly dramatic happens again. Armitage’s moody Thorin gets infected with the gold sickness that Tolkien took quite seriously — it seems as if New Line and Warner Bros. have been likewise infected. Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is caught in something that looks like a New York subway exit, but he gets freed thanks to the positive energy contributions of Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee as fellow wizards. (Lee does amazingly well for a 92-year-old actor!)
There is endless marshaling of troops by all involved, with Bilbo Baggins, relegated to a backseat in what originally was his own story, playing a bit like John Kerry as shuttle diplomat, with about the same results: nil. Everyone wants their share of Smaug’s gold, but Tolkien and Jackson have already hammered in the greed is bad message, best typified by Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001); Andy Serkis, who made Gollum come alive through the magic of motion capture, doesn’t have a role here, although he directed the extensive second-unit work in New Zealand.
Emotional moments are few and far between in the extended HOBBIT saga, which felt less bloated while I was watching it than it does in retrospect. All the actors deliver effective performances, although Ryan Gage is particularly irritating as an unctuous civil servant. But as has been increasingly apparent in the progression of the Tolkien opus, Jackson seems more more interested and involved in the special effects sequences than he does with the flesh and blood actors emoting before him.
The opening assault by Smaug is balletic in its violence and the horrible consequences for the fleeing, flaming humans. Nothing emotionally can equal it, not even Bilbo and Gandalf’s meant-to-be-touching-but-isn’t farewell upon the Hobbit’s return to his beloved Shire. We get a quick snippet of Ian Holm as the elderly Bilbo, and that reminds us that THE HOBBIT really is intended as a set-up for the drama that will unfold in THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
Thus, it seems doubly peculiar for Jackson to have done the saga in essence backwards. It made all the commercial sense in the world, of course; millions of copies were sold of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, not THE HOBBIT, always a second choice on the bookshelves. So Jackson did his best to inflate it to blockbuster proportions, full of the same techniques he had perfected over the RINGS trilogy.
That puts BATTLE in perspective as neither the best nor the worst of the six-film story skein; it moves along nicely, some of the effects are jaw-dropping, and the final battle between Armitage and the Chief Orc on an icy lake is clever and original, if a bit prolonged. But so were all six movies — Jackson is a master of turning excess into success.
It will be interesting to see what he does with the TINTIN movie he’s been announced to direct. Steven Spieberg couldn’t breathe movie life into the popular European cartoon character, so Jackson faces a new challenge after 12 years of more of the same. Paging Smaug.