Film Review: THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
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THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Billy Connolly, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Graham McTavish, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom
Directed by Peter Jackson
Produced by Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner and Fran Walsh
Screenplay by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro
Based on the book “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien
Director of Photography, Andrew Lesnie
Production Designer, Dan Hennah
Editor, Jabez Olssen
Musical Score by Howard Shore
Senior Visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri
Visual effects and other effects by Weta Digital and Weta Workshop
“Will you fight with me one last time?”
In 1937, amid an increasingly unstable world precariously leaning, crashing and falling toward World War II, talented British fantasy writer and insightful visionary J. R. R. Tolkien released his epic, beautifully literary, poetic, insightful–and unrelentingly exciting and entertaining—classic fantasy novel “The Hobbit,” about all sorts of inventive, original beings and creatures and things inhabiting the world of Middle-earth, a world mirroring that unsteady planet of Tolkien’s Earth during the 1930s. Seventeen years later, in 1954, the literary world would explode yet again, during yet another unstable world caught up in the craziness and paranoia of the Cold War, with the release of Tolkien’s equally-instant-classic “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which was released in three volumes in 1954 and 1955.
The literary world, the fantasy and science-fiction worlds, and popular entertainment and culture would feel the influence of these four epic, classic masterpieces for all of the ensuring decades, in all areas of entertainment and culture. Not to mention literary circles, fantasy and science-fiction circles, writing and book circles—and thousands of college classes and college dormitories, where the discussions of what Tolkien was saying about who, what and where dominated discussions that continue to this day—60 years after the release of the first “Lord of the Rings” book and 77 years after the release of “The Hobbit.”
Then, in 2001—13 years ago—equally talented, inspired and visionary film director, producer and screenwriter Peter Jackson—working with his wife Fran Walsh and an equally talented and inspired cast and crew of thousands, in the grand traditions of the biggest and best Hollywood mondo-budgeted and high-quality masterpieces and spectaculars, released his instant-classic film, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first of what would become three epic films based on the “Rings” books and the first film in an overall series that would eventually lead to three subsequent films based on “The Hobbit.” The first three “Rings” films were released as follows: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” in 2001; “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” in 2002; and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” in 2003. In 2012, 11 years after the first “Rings” film and nine years after the final “Rings” film, Jackson and crew released the first of the three “Hobbit” films. Those films are as follows: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” 2012; “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” 2013, and, now, on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” the final “Hobbit” film and the final of six total films in Jackson and crew’s epic journey through Middle-earth and this particular set of tales from the Tolkien universe.
With no exaggeration or grandiose leanings, no particular genre-based biases, and no lack of perception, context or understanding, it is safe to say, quite simply, that these six films are six of the best fantasy films ever produced; are six of the most impressive films ever produced in all genres, in terms of scope and filmmaking aspirations and achievements in numerous areas; are six films of continued high quality, excellence and devotion to all aspects, levels and tenets of many crafts, not just filmmaking in general; are wonderful evocations of the written word, poetry, prose and dialogue; and, simply, are prime examples of masterful filmmaking operating at the highest quality levels in every area of filmmaking.
It’s safe to say all of this because the films have been well-received at every level—from mass audiences, and not just the Tolkien/fantasy/sci-fi/diehard-faithful worlds; from those Tolkien/fantasy/sci-fi/diehard-faithful worlds; from critics; from those who hand out awards; from filmgoers in countries literally spanning the planet, not just the United States and Tolkien’s United Kingdom; and from people from all demographics—all races, sexes, creeds, religions, cultures, backgrounds and nationalities. Not that Academy Awards are any lone, major indicators of quality—because they often are not—but the three “Rings” films were nominated for a whopping, impressive 30 Academy Awards—and the films won 17 of them, including an astounding, mind-boggling 11 Academy Awards for “Return of the King,” thus making “Return” only the third film in history to receive that many Academy Awards. The others were “Ben-Hur” and “Titanic.” All of this is continually notable and important, culturally and historically, because it is extremely rare for fantasy and sci-fi films to garner this much praise, attention, devotion—and pure love—throughout film history. The “Rings” and “Hobbit” films are a rare phenomenon, in which the high level of devotion and support match the high level of quality in the films themselves—something else that doesn’t always happen in the film world.
Thus, with all of that impressive background and history, it is alas bittersweet and a tad sad to see this particular filmmaking phenomenon arrive at its conclusion at the end of 2014 amid yet another unstable world, this one of the early 21st century, as the modern-day wars against terrorism and fanaticism and greed and corruption continue to shatter the peace and stability that the world continues to strive to achieve. Perhaps it’s fitting that these intelligent, intellectual, inspiring and visionary works and words of Tolkien and Jackson and cast and crew continue to be released amid unstable worlds, as all of the films deliver constant, smart, eloquent commentary and analysis on the world’s continuing troubles, whether it’s 1937, 1954, 2001 or 2014, or all points in-between. Tolkien, after all, was indeed always providing commentary and analysis on modern-day worlds amid his fantastical tales.
It’s also a bit bittersweet to note that, alas indeed, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is perhaps the weakest and most troubled of Jackson’s six Middle-earth Tolkien films, and “Armies,” with its various ticks and problems and slight dents in the armor, is perhaps an indication that this particular filmmaking journey is indeed at the point where it should be concluded. With these dents showing some imperfections in the machinery, for the first time in 13 years and six films, the dreaded feeling arises, somewhat, that now we must take our leave of Bilbo and Frodo and Gandalf and all of these lovable, memorable and well-constructed men, hobbits, elves, dwarves, lords, sorcerers, wizards, creatures and who knows what else that occupies Tolkien’s brilliant portrayal of a truly fantastical world.
For the first time in all six films on a continual level, there are in “Armies” some slight indications of shaky plotting, pacing, timing and dialogue, and that grand eloquence and masterful filmmaking that lifted the previous five films to levels of excellence, well, doesn’t quite hold up as well on a constant level with “Armies.” The eloquent dialogue—a constant of the first five films, thanks often to Tolkien himself, despite the efforts of several screenwriters—is startlingly missing throughout “Armies,” and it’s not being sarcastic to wonder if all of the eloquent writing through five films had simply exhausted the screenwriters as the production of “Armies” rolled around. Or if, perhaps, the participation of the horribly dark and dour Guillermo del Toro, who seems to love to wallow in a depressing, downer style of darkness and despair, contributed to the unwelcome overall depressing cloud that hovers over “Armies.” Or if the filmmakers were simply spent. Whatever the cause, “Armies” falters—a bit—unlike any of the previous five films in the series
The pacing, timing and suspense are lacking. A thin plot suddenly lurches to a prolonged battle that seems to just explode on the screen without proper levels of build-up and suspense, all of which provided a great lead-in to battle in all five of the prior films. The action seems to over-ride the words in “Armies,” when the words and speeches and action complimented each other and shared screen time in the prior films. The battle occurs too soon, there is not enough behind-the-scenes plotting, and that detracts from the suspense.
Oddly, in “Armies,” the protagonists—the characters we want to support, fall behind and charge into battle with, are presented often as crazed (in the case of one particular, once-likeable character), bickering, unsure, deceitful, and crazed again (another character, who is barely likeable, but should be likeable). In other words, the good guys aren’t shown in a particularly good manner or light through much of the film. They debase themselves and fall back down to the level of the bad guys, which isn’t exactly entertaining, when filmgoers are looking to rally behind their heroes in “Rings” and “Hobbit” films. It’s difficult to rally around heroes when the supposed heroes aren’t acting particularly heroic. Among many things, the “Rings” and “Hobbit” films are moral tales of good versus evil, and good over evil, and, again, when the good isn’t acting so good, and the bad is horrific, it’s uncomfortable and not necessarily entertaining to watch the good falter and stumble through much of the film.
All of this is not to say that “Hobbit” is not a good film or not recommended—it is a good film—not a great film—and the film is recommended. Filmgoers should indeed turn off their computers and gadgets, drive to the nearest theater—you do not have to see this film in IMAX or 3D, by the way, to enjoy it—and see “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” in a real movie theater. The film is worth seeing, people should see it, but expectations should be lowered a few rungs, and at the very least, “Armies” should be seen because it does remain, despite its imperfections, foibles and dents, a good film, with pockets of visual, creative and action excellence appearing here and there.
“Armies” picks up the story soon after the events that concluded “The Desolation of Smaug,” in which a group of dwarves had unwittingly released a truly terrifying fire-breathing dragon, Smaug, from its lair, where the dragon had stolen and dwelled over literally small mountains of gold and treasure that the dwarves are rightfully and legally trying to regain for themselves, as the great treasure is indeed their property. They are also trying to re-capture their historical homeland, which was also stolen from them. The likeable hobbit Bilbo Baggins (lovably and humorously and, still heroically, played by Martin Freeman) has joined the dwarves, at the request and prodding of the great wizard Gandalf (lovably, humorously and heroically portrayed by Ian McKellen, who still commands and dominates and fills the screen in this role as he has done in all six films). Meanwhile, and this is not a spoiler, the usually-heroic leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield (not so lovable, not humorous at all and, sadly, not heroic for most of the film, and played by Richard Armitage), has succumbed to some type of Wall Street-ish and corporation-CEO-ish mental illness, and he turns against everyone, against the better wishes of enjoyable filmmaking, good storytelling and a general entertaining time at the movies.
This plot point—having the central hero of the prior two films suddenly devolve into some hermit-like hybrid of Gollum, Howard Hughes, Donald Trump, Norman Bates and Dr. Frankenstein, thus leaving the film without a central hero of the main band of protagonists, the dwarves—is simply bad storytelling, and brings the film to a thudding halt too soon. And the film takes too long to bring Thorin out of his funk and back into the real fantasy world. There is another hero alongside Thorin, the down-to-earth Bard the Bowman, who was recruited to help the dwarves and has some genuine heroic qualities, but Bard is too human, too real, to be the real heroic anchor. Bard leads a small, scruffy, blue-collar army of humans still standing after Smaug destroyed their town. He’s also not a once-and-future king, which Thorin is in this tale. Meanwhile, the elves, themselves led by a similarly shaky and unstable and generally deceitful leader, Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace, doing well with an unpopular, unlikeable character) arrive to bring a downer situation down even more—oddly demanding ownership of part of the dwarves’ treasure, and even threatening war if they don’t get their share. The dwarves refuse, opting instead to go to war with a group that should be their allies. Bard and the humans are somewhat stuck in the middle, seeming more like uninvited guests at the fantasy world war talks.
There are scenes, thus, in which the protagonists bicker, whine and moan and fight each other, while Thorin sulks and mutters and wallows in his sickness—while all the time, the viewer knows that the real forces of darkness and evil, the orcs and wargs—living, walking and talking demons, messengers of the evil Sauron and embodiments of pure evil—are marching on the dwarves’ newly-re-captured kingdom, intent not just on the dwarves’ treasure and land, but on simply wiping out everyone in their path. That provides some level of suspense, but it’s scattered, and oddly paced, and the suspense is dampened somewhat by the inherent fighting of the dwarves, elves and humans.
As always, and it’s a good thing, the story rests on the wisdom, insight, vision—and common sense—of the great Gandalf, who arrives to talk some sense into everyone’s heads, and to make the point that they should all forget about some piles of coins and focus on fighting the real enemy, and fighting to save not only their lives and land, but the entire Middle-earth. Soon, everyone comes to their senses, and the huge, sprawling battle of five armies takes place, enveloping much of the film’s second and third acts. Ian McKellen has shined as Gandalf in all six films, and the combination of his voice, body, presence, wise eyes, great costuming, and intelligent combination of smarts, humor, insight, congeniality, toughness, compassion, sense of fun and fatherly and grandfatherly stature combine to create not just an excellent acting performance, but a wonderful, classic, foundation character for the ages—our ages and Middle-earth’s ages.
Armitage, Freeman, Evans and Pace all shine, also, and there are brief snippets here and there of familiar characters from prior films, but they are fleeting—welcome, and fun, and applicable to the story, but fleeting nevertheless. The main story and action center on Gandalf, Bilbo, Thorin and Bard, and their immediate cohorts, comrades in arms, families and armies. All the acting, as usual in these films, in excellent, and Armitage, Freeman, Evans and Pace all embrace and celebrate their characters within the proper fantasy world context that they are acting in. One quality of these films is that the characters take their mission and their allies and their leadership stature very seriously, and the mocking is kept to a minimum. When you’re fighting for nothing less than the future of good and the future of your world, that demands heroes who are serious about leading their people into battle. The humor is there, but it’s kept in check, and the heroic qualities of the heroes are left to be mainly serious, to imply the over-arching seriousness of their battles.
The main problems with the film occur with the aforementioned plot points, pacing, time and suspense. Also missing are the beautifully-written, heroic and inspiring—and thought-provoking—speeches, monologues and calls to battle that dominated the previous five films. Using a combination of Tolkien material and material from main scriptwriters Jackson, Walsh and Philippa Boyens in the past, the three “Rings” films and the first two “Hobbit” films contained some stupendously eloquent spoken passages, by hobbits, dwarves, elves, men, wizards and other characters. These literary passages provided some relief to the action, doom and suspense, provided some beautiful moments, provided moments of introspection and analysis on everything that was going on, and were just great moments of entertainment, as all well-written speeches should be in any medium. But those types of passages and moments of insightful are sorely lacking in “Armies,” and the film needs them.
The production design—not just the amazing visual effects, but the sets, backdrops, costumes, weapons and armor, props and make-up—are exceptional throughout “Armies,” and often, continually dazzling, amazing and startlingly impressive on a grand scale. The dwarves’ kingdom—exteriors and interiors—is simply amazingly portrayed, and scores of creatures, on land and in the air, are displayed at an impressive rate. And the visual effects—as in all of the “Rings” and “Hobbit” films—are at such a high level of consistent quality, filmgoers need to realize how much work went into these films’ effects, utilizing the skills of literally hundreds and hundreds of artists with Jackson’s Weta Workshop and Weta Digital companies, mirroring the same level of groundbreaking in-house work that George Lucas used with his own in-house Industrial Light and Magic.
The crew members are to be commended for their dazzling work–director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; production designer, Dan Hennah; editor, Jabez Olssen; musical composer Howard Shore; and, of course, senior visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri, and his crew of hundreds. They’re all working at the top of their game, ably led by Jackson, who co-produces and directs, and their efforts need to always be noted and applauded. The visual effects in all of the “Rings” and “Hobbit” films are just superb, from start to finish.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is a good film, and it is a film to be seen, cherished and enjoyed in a movie theater. This holiday season, take that trip to a theater and visit once again with this courageous, heroic and, in the end, lovable group of hobbits, dwarves, men, elves, wizards and creatures. It’s sad that we have to say goodbye for now, but it’s great to know that we’ve had years of great memories with these great films, great filmmakers, great stories, great actors and great characters. And it’s always great to know that, for one last time, we can visit again and enjoy the thrill of heroic characters fighting the good fight again, in the name of honor, valor, courage, heroism, leadership, good over evil and the general strength, energy and vitality of living to fight again another day.
And that is what Peter Jackson and his cast and crew have done during the last 11 years—on a filmmaking level, they have lived to fight another day to provide us with hours of quality, masterful, memorable and enjoyable entertainment. We bid hail and farewell to all of our friends from Middle-earth, but we should all take with us into the future their simple lessons of courage, honor, valor, integrity, good over evil—and living every day to fight the good fight once again.