Well, folks, it’s finally happened. The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies has arrived, and with it, we’ve come to the end of our time in Peter Jackson’s realization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And, much as I hate to say it, I think that might be for the best…
In this final installment, Smaug the dragon is brought down at long last, the dwarves are the masters of Erebor, and Thorin is restored to his place as King Under the Mountain. But the greed that brought low his ancestors menaces when Bard leads the refugees from the ruined Laketown to seek a supporting share of the vast dwarven fortune, which Thorin refuses, going against his word. The Elves of Mirkwood under King Thranduil and his son Legolas come to demand restitution for Elvish gems held unjustly in the treasure hoard. The dwarves summon an army to stand for them from the Iron Hills. And the orcs of Dol Goldur under Azog come to crush them all, paving the way for Sauron to rise to power once again. It’s an intense adventure of high stakes and a lot of potential for tragedy, adventure and excitement. Note however the one thing missing from my synopsis: a Hobbit!
Keeping an eye on Bilbo and making sure he remained an active participant in the story was always going to be tricky, since in the book he often seems to be swept along, which doesn’t work well in a movie, especially with thirteen other companions to keep track of. That was always going to be a challenge. In movie three, though, the creators almost seem to have given up. Bilbo barely appears except when he absolutely has to, and it just throws itself into doing great big battle sequences, which are pretty good on their own, but would have seemed a lot less workaday if we could have appreciated them from Bilbo’s point of view throughout, rather than the impersonal, History Channel perspective we had through most of it.
Indeed, it seemed like the movie passed up opportunities in the book for Bilbo to have more agency, as for example being the one to detect Smaug’s weak spot. By and large, the most marked issue with the movie is that the pacing is erratic. Smaug is dispatched almost immediately at the start of the movie, whereas the battle scenes go on for ages. Thorin has pretty much already fallen all the way from grace from the start, and comes to his senses at a point where it almost feels too late to count as a redemption. Bilbo, when we get to see him, is the voice of common sense but he also seems a little too politcally savvy for someone still partway through an innocence-to-experience story.
Again, much like in the last movie, there’s almost two movies: one is a broad-strokes adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s children’s novel and the Legendarium that informed it. And, once again, the other half is a cheesy high romance/ninja movie featuring Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lily.
It occurred to me after about the ninth romantically-motivated feat of superhuman combat acrobatics that if Middle Earth had a film industry, the adventures of Legolas and Tauriel would be their equivalent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The high romantic themes and physics-defying fight sequences are almost exactly like a wuxia movie. And those sequences spend enormous amounts of time developing the characters of Legolas and Tauriel, instead of, for example, Bilbo Baggins or Thorin Oakenshield, you know, the actual main characters of the story we’re supposed to be watching! This was exactly the fear I had after Desolation of Smaug: the abiding fantasy love of elves in general and Legolas in particular has caused this subplot to become an almost totally unrelated story that’s overtaking the story we showed up for. Legolas and Tauriel are supposed to be supporting characters, but they almost became main characters towards the end!
Which reminds me: I was, along with others, on the fence about whether Tauriel was an effective inclusion of a good female character in the decidedly lacking Tolkien canon. And now I have my answer: no. And the main reasons I say this are twofold: First, her main character arc is romantic, because she’s a woman, so romance must be her whole reason for being, right? It’s a crowbarred-in romance wherein her combat skills desert her just long enough for her love interest (Kili for some reason) to come to her rescue like a scene out of the Princess Bride. Second, it serves absolutely no purpose to the story, except maybe to ensure that Legolas doesn’t spend a lot of time talking to himself. The love story comes to naught, its significance in the larger story is – indeed has to be – snuffed out for the friendship arcs in LOTR to work. It wasn’t all that convincing a romance anyway – I’m pining for the day when writers of all stripes figure out that romance arises out of getting to know someone, which takes more than just a bunch of singificant glances.
What’s particularly annoying about this is that they passed up some perfectly good opportunities to do this without detouring into a completely different movie: why did Galadriel march nonchalantly into Dol Goldur only to flake out onto the floor when the action really kicked in? Why couldn’t one of Bard’s daughters come to his aid instead huddling in the boat shrieking while the son went off to be all heroic? Why didn’t we get to see more of the women of Laketown taking up arms?
Battle of the Five Armies does plenty of good things: the Dol Goldur subplot is handled really well, with a fight scene featuring some of the most powerful personages in Middle Earth – exciting, unique, memorable and most importantly, short. When Bilbo is around, his performance is the best Martin Freeman has given yet. The performances of the actors are great, whatever else they are. Lee Pace on his Irish Elk was particularly memorable. The design is up to Weta Workshop’s high standards. The music is functional, and the end song by Billy Boyd quite lovely. I also appreciated very much the decision to include a lot of different peoples of colour in the Laketown extras.
A lot of the shortcomings of the trilogy at large are down to haste: the movie was greenlit way later than the Lord of the Rings, which spent half a decade or more just in the design and writing phase. Little details like the use of often-rather-conspicious CGI instead of miniatures and matte paintings, and the fact that Howard Shore’s scores seem to have a rather generic quality seem to be thus explained. There are a few design decisions that might represent shortcuts – my brother and I both spotted a few aspects of the Five Armies’ design that looked suspiciously like elements from the Battle for Middle Earth video games! Others are less easy to excuse: the diversion into fanservice-y stories that take away from the plot we were told to expect; the cheap tokensim; the preponderance of carnival-ride chases and other action sequences; the overwrought action used at the expense of characterization; the lack of confidence in the main character to be the heart of the story, and the resulting loss of the ‘small peoples’ power’ theme established in Unexpected Journey; and the casting of noted character actors in small but important roles, mostly so they can be seen playing themselves playing the characters.
I feel like, at the end of the day, the justification of making three supermovies out of the Hobbit has failed to pass muster. Three regular two-hour movies, or two three-hour movies might’ve been fine, but the current setup just let a lot of fluff into the equation, and the trilogy has a by-the-numbers Hollywood quality that lets down the independent spirit and originality of the Lord of the Rings trilogy before it. Sir Peter Jackson, I think, won us all over for being a sensible, even severe, filmmaker with a great work ethic and a love and understanding of Tolkien. And to me it feels like the Jacksonian filmmaking cadre didn’t really try with the Hobbit. Of course, it seemed like the Hobbit was foisted on them by the studios, so it wasn’t the labour of love that the Lord of the Rings represents. And in the end, I don’t think doing the Hobbit as a companion to Lord of the Rings was ever a good idea; it overstretched the huge creative efforts that made that first trilogy, and is a prime example of how adaptation and remake have become a really bad habit in the film industry. Still, I will be sad to leave Middle Earth at last. Whatever else it was, it was one hell of an adventure. But for me, the journey really does end here.