Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

hobbit_freemanThere’s something truly exceptional at the heart of what Peter Jackson has accomplished this past decade with his undeniable love for the works of J.R.R Tolkien, mostly in how he has masterfully and flawlessly created a known, palpable, and fully realized fantasy world that rivals the best of the epic Universe builders including Cecil B. DeMille, George Lucas, and Sergio Leone. Jackson takes his fantasy seriously and presents it—for better or worse—with a mix of intimate detail and visual splendor, whether it’s the hairy feet of its renowned Hobbits or the opulent landscapes of New Zealand that have now become synonymous with Middle Earth. Most of these positive observations, however, can be applied almost exclusively to Jackson’s first trilogy in The Lord of the Rings, which was financially limited and forced to create its impressive goals with creative ingenuity, visual tricks, and realistic budgetary considerations much like George Lucas had to compromise with A New Hope. This relatively modest process gave that original trilogy a true sense of magic that has all been lost with the unnecessarily elongated and overindulgent trilogy of Tolkien’s shortest book The Hobbit, which ends on a weak note of obvious fatigue with its final chapter The Battle of the Five Armies. And as you’d expect from the title the entire film is one long, tedious, unrelenting CGI monstrosity that embraces pure Jackson excessiveness, an aspect of the filmmaker’s craft that is filled with unashamed absurdity, ridiculously cartoonish action sequences, and strained emotional outcomes. What’s so unfortunate about the existence of The Hobbit, in all of its three interminable chapters, is that even with a running time of seven hours and fifty-four minutes it fails to grasp the sensation of Tolkien’s simple yet wondrous book. The Hobbit used to be about a small, comfortable world of complacency opening up into a bigger and stranger world of danger, wonder, and magic instead of a story that begins in expansive grandeur and only gets bigger without any rhyme or reason to establish some narrative or thematic intent. With The Battle of the Five Armies it becomes clear that this trilogy’s predicable and hollow foundation results in a whimpering conclusion to a franchise that is steeped in shallow characterization, prearranged revelations, and a perfunctory sense of fantasy.

It has been mentioned before but should be repeated for effect that dividing Tolkien’s shortest adventure into three separate meandering chapters isn’t just a callous business decision of blatant Hollywood greed, but also diminishes the dramatic momentum within the book itself. Most of the tale was already told through the bloated in exposition of An Unexpected Journey and the far nimbler The Desolation of Smaug covering everything from reluctant protagonist Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a clown car of interrupting dwarves, eccentric wizards, mountain trolls, the abduction of the ring from Gollum, dangerous spiders, deceptive elves, greedy humans, and of course Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch). What’s left to reveal in The Battle of the Five Armies is a curious amalgamation of trying to relive Jackson’s haunted past of The Lord of the Rings as the bridging of events, character circumstances, and prominent themes becomes a desperate exercise in making the new resemble the familiar. Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitrage) becomes a Macbeth like king who is corrupted by greed, power, and stature (reminiscent Return of the King’s Denethor), Elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) covets “gems of pure starlight” with murderous intention, and a reluctant hero emerges for the humans after Bard the Bargeman (Luke Evans) slays the towering dragon Smaug (echoes of Aragorn). Amidst this entire ironic soapbox musing on avarice and repetition on character themes there’s barely any room for central protagonist Bilbo who becomes a side character in his own story as overly staged battles, an overwrought interspecies love story, an avalanche of unnecessary characters, and a focus on CGI spectacle leave his sincere charm and earnest humanity absent from the tale. To be fair, The Battle of the Five Armies doesn’t promise thoughtful character introspection or a fulfilling character arc of friendship for its supposedly leading man because it only promises fighting with a 45 plus minute sequence that mixes the length in time of both The Two Tower’s Battle of Helms Deep and Return of the King’s Battle of Pellenor Fields without the actual grandeur bringing the franchise’s forward motion to a debilitating and soulless halt. While An Unexpected Journey failed in its expository breadth leaving even fans of the Silmarillion rather detached, The Battle of the Five Armies fails to bring a consistent tone and emotional bookend to an already invalid series.

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If The Hobbit shares anything with its superior predecessor trilogy it’s the undeniable visual consistency of Jackson’s Middle Earth, which remains an exceptional aesthetic treat in its lavish landscape settings, detailed creature makeup, hectic to a fault action sequences, and intriguing building designs that bring this world to tangible life. Andrew Lesnie’s sweeping cinematography captures Dan Hennah’s elegant production designs igniting that nostalgia we carry to experiencing the wonders of Middle Earth in all of its fantastical uniqueness. However, the entire Hobbit series has continuously deviated from the foreboding consequences and tragic sacrifice that defined The Lord of the Rings and through this current trilogy’s cartoonish slants it has become emotionally inept and unrepentantly chaotic that drastically affects this final chapter’s chosen tone. The humoristic quirks and most of the comedic outlandish aspects of the two previous chapters are now officially gone as The Battle of the Five Armies becomes dire and grim quickly drifting the series away from its previously established mood. Consistency isn’t on Jackson’s agenda and neither is giving us any emotional weight towards the actual losses experienced here as some major characters join the choir invisible without any audience participation of feeling in their demise. It’s only when Thorin faces off against the Orc chieftain Azog on an icy summit when an actual sense of danger and skillful showmanship enters this overly produced equation—an aspect that has always been missing from The Hobbit whether it was a ludicrous barrel on the run sequence in The Desolation of Smaug or everything Legolas does from using a troll as battering-ram or running on steps as they are falling under him—but that moment comes too late in a series that feels exhausted from its length as much as it is from its visual presentation. Perhaps the series lacking emotion has to do with the artificiality of the series both in its basic narrative and character constructions, but also in the film’s embrace of the 3-D, high frame rate action that makes sitting dramatic sequences seem visually like a soap opera while the action seems delayed, overtly choreographed, and uninteresting. And uninteresting action is rather a devastating anchor of enjoyment on this overindulgent chapter that only seeks to explore the gargantuan possibilities of pure CGI driven spectacle that simply becomes too grating to enjoy and too overdone to admire.

Throughout The Hobbit we’ve been practically inseparable from the thirteen dwarves that comprise Thorin’s loyal crew from the elf loving Fili (Dean O’Gorman) to the wisdom spewing Balin (Ken Stott) for the duration of the trilogy and yet none of them feel as organic or fully realized as any of the major, or even minor, characters throughout the original Lord of the Rings. Every one of these fine actors are left disabled by a lazy script that thinks overt statements, exposition driven dialogue, and convenience of circumstances equates actual character development. Whether it’s the forced relationship woes between Fili and elf huntress Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) or the over pronounced use of a despicable Lake-Town deputy Alfrid (Ryan Cage) to underscore the venality of humans every character as the seeming quality of being  a one-dimensional entity with absolutely zero depth or dramatic freedom. Of course some utilize their screen presence more than others, whether it’s the literal scene chewing menace of Benedict Cumberbatch as the shortly lived Smaug or the delectably operatic Lee Pace as Thranduil, Elvin King of the Realm. But villains don’t need to be exceptionally layered or overly explained, which is why the Orcs despite their fake CGI presence seem infinitely more believable in motivation than most of the characters in Jackson’s The Hobbit, including the sudden erosion of sanity of Thorin who parrots the familiar sentiments on the corruption of greed that we’ve seen done numerous times before. But the most glaring of sins, specifically that of The Battle of the Five Armies, is the lacking presence of Martin Freeman as the perfectly casted Bilbo Baggins whose sensible approach to the reluctant Shire adventurer gives the series its sense of humanity and wonder. With his absence comes the absence of our entire reason for being at the gates of Erebor and the immense battle on the outside between five digitally constructed armies, which is that even the smallest of people can make a difference. “You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all,” states Gandalf (the always remarkable Ian McKellan), and that’s true physically and figuratively in Jackson’s world as Bilbo evaporates from protagonist prominence only to observe his story instead of living it.

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Officially The Hobbit franchise has come to an end with its final chapter The Battle of the Five Armies, and what’s truly sad is that its conclusion is probably its most unrealized chapter that lacks both the exposition detail of An Unexpected Journey and the arguably fun swiftness of The Desolation of Smaug. Without any story to be ventured, truly developed characters to explore, or a protagonist to follow, The Battle of the Five Armies eliminates the thematic achievements of Tolkien from his work as it becomes pure Peter Jackson, a blend of cartoonish exaggeration and daunting spectacle that inevitably erodes the original sense of fun that the series had from the beginning. What’s thoroughly surprising is how off the mark Peter Jackson comes to finding the true intent behind The Hobbit in the first place, which is enticing a sense of wonderment to a world larger than ones tiny self. Even at a running time of seven hours and fifty-four minutes Jackson’s The Hobbit doesn’t even come close to finding its truth even when a seventy-seven minute animated TV version from Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. succeeded in doing so. All The Battle of the Five Armies succeeds in doing is delivering Jackson’s unparalleled spectacle of exceptionally detailed battles and overproduced set pieces never finding any emotional clarity since it sits atop a coldly constructed, emotionally hollow, and thoroughly predictable foundation. As it was with the unnecessary Star Wars prequels The Hobbit trilogy will also be considered an opportunistic venture into excess instead of an equally loving adventure that sought to one more time invoke that lasting sense of wonder.

Grade: C-

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