The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Editor’s Note: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens in wide release December 17th.
With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the third film in his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim children’s book, Peter Jackson completes his devolution as a filmmaker. Like its two previous predecessors, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies offers an overabundance of bloated, green-screened, CG spectacle at the expense of the relatable characters, epic story, and thematic depth that made Jackson’s earlier adaptation of The Lord of the Rings into the apotheosis of mega-budgeted fantasy filmmaking, not to mention an Oscar-winning series. It didn’t have to be that way, but somewhere along the line Jackson decided commerce, not art, would dictate his decision-making on The Hobbit series. Not that some, less discerning fans will notice or even care, but bloat is bloat and nothing - except perhaps the not unwelcome fan cut we can expect in a year or two - can change the degradation to his legacy (and Tolkien’s) that Jackson has accomplished by unleashing The Hobbit series into multiplexes around the world.
…somewhere along the line Jackson decided commerce, not art, would dictate his decision-making on The Hobbit series.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Jackson made the late-in-production decision to divide his adaptation of The Hobbit into three, not two, films (one would have actually sufficed), cheating audiences of the desolation promised by the middle film’s verbose dragon villain, Smaug (voiced once again by Benedict Cumberbatch). Awakened from his slumber inside Erebor, the dwarf kingdom located inside a mountain, Smaug does what any dragon would do: he descends on the nearby Lake-town and does his desolation thing, bringing fire, but not brimstone, to the innocent villagers of Lake-Town. However, Smaug doesn’t last long. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans, Viggo Mortenson’s virtual stand-in), a brave, self-sacrificing hero type, saves the day, more or less. Shot mostly on a soundstage and greenscreen, the attack on Lake-town pales in comparison to even the most minor skirmish found in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Lake-town proper (buildings and such) doesn’t survive, leaving Bard, the newly unelected leader of Lake-town’s survivors, to make a call on Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the rightful heir to Erebor’s throne and treasure. Already driven near-mad with greed (insert Tolkien’s finger-wagging about the perils of wealth accumulation), Thorin goes back on his no-longer sacred word, leaving Bard with little choice but to turn to Thranduil (Lee Pace), a relentlessly smug stag-riding Elven king. Impatient and with a claim on some of Erebor’s (stolen) treasures, the dwarf-hating Thranduil readies for war or, more to the point, the battle of the film’s title. That, however, leaves two armies unaccounted. One army won’t be spoiled here, but let’s just say the fifth army swoops in at the last minute, Tolkien-style. Tolkien’s go-to villains, orcs, constitute the fourth army. Led by the colorfully nicknamed Azog the Destroyer (Manu Bennett), the orcs make for a formidable foe of brute force. It’s not long before the dwarfs, humans, and elves realize the need to temporarily put aside their petty and non-petty grievances to take down the orcs.
Despite the title, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) often slips into bit player or background in his own narrative, content to play peacekeeper/chief negotiator between the warring sides before the orcs arrive. Post-orc arrival, he is usually retreating to a safe zone, hacking and slashing on the rare occasion that an orc wanders into view. Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) suffers from a similar affliction. He spends a good portion of the first hour in captivity, the prisoner of the newly resurgent Sauron (Cumberbatch) at an abandoned mountaintop fortress. Eventually, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) make an appearance, less to save Gandalf than as fan service and reminders of their far more significant roles in The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade ago. When he returns to the fight, Gandalf does little, if anything, to influence the course of battle. For his part, Saruman turns into an acrobatic, staff-wielding martial artist, a nod, intentional or not, to Yoda’s similar transformation in the Star Wars prequels.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has its share of leave-takings and good-byes too, of course, but they never resonate emotionally…
By the time The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies reaches its unsatisfying conclusion, including the unnecessary resolution of the ill-fated dwarf-elf romance between Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), the battle has gone on (and on) for the better part of an hour, the best CG armies money can buy thundering and clashing, ultimately meaning nothing, except perhaps the thankful end of Jackson’s sojourn in Middle-Earth (more due to objections raised by Tolkien’s family than Jackson’s personal inclination). The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has its share of leave-takings and good-byes too, of course, but they never resonate emotionally, lacking the emotive connection audiences developed for the Tolkien’s other heroic characters in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maybe Jackson will find his footing as a filmmaker again. If he does, it won’t be in the vacuous, soulless big-budget spectacle that’s become, for better or for worse, his trademark as a 21st-century filmmaker.
Like its two previous predecessors, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies offers an overabundance of bloated, green-screened, CG spectacle at the expense of the relatable characters, epic story, and thematic depth that made Jackson's earlier adaptation of The Lord of the Rings into the apotheosis of mega-budgeted fantasy filmmaking, not to mention an Oscar-winning series.