I’ll be the first to admit that I was very much among the naysayers when it was revealed that Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit would comprise three feature-length movies. I mean, as rich of a narrative as The Lord of the Rings was, however complex, deep and meaningful of a work it might have been, it was far too fucking long. And that was a trilogy of books which were all lengthier and meatier than The Hobbit; essentially a bedtime story written for Professor Tolkien’s children, albeit one with distinct anti-war leanings and lots of idealization of the rural English middle-class. (The Shire, folks. Come on now.)
I’ll also always be the first to admit when I’m wrong, and I’ll be damned if I haven’t had an awful lot of fun with all three of these strange, wholly unnecessary spectacles. So much fun, in fact, that now all is said and done I’m pretty glad they did things the way they did. Could An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug have been judiciously edited and combined into a single picture? Yeah, probably. But they weren’t, and as a result we get two-and-a-bit hours devoted more or less entirely to a single, huge battle which plays out wall-to-wall like Jackson and Co. playing their greatest hits.
From the very beginning this trilogy has occupied an incredibly treacherous middle-ground, trying on the one hand to preserve the emotional weight and dramatic import of LotR, while on the other using The Hobbit’s comparative lightness of tone as an excuse to stage large-scale gonzo action set-pieces with all the goodwill, technology and props Jackson still had lying around. And credit where it’s due: for the most part it worked. Tolkien’s supplementary writings and appendices helped to beef up the fairly straightforward narrative of The Hobbit with asides which were woven into the intricate tapestry of Middle-earth, and some incredibly smart casting choices allowed the films to still acquit themselves admirably when it was time for drama.
Martin Freeman in particular has been a pitch-perfect Bilbo Baggins from start to finish, and everyone whining about him disappearing for long stretches is probably missing the point of a character whose primary distinguishing characteristic is a magic ring which makes him invisible. Even in the book Bilbo is principally an observer all the way up until he’s not, and when he does intercede it is with touching courage and a momentousness made all the more tangible by his frequent forays into the background.
Likewise, Richard Armitage has imbued Thorin Oakenshield with a real sense of individuality, and he gets his chance to shine here as the vast subterranean treasure trove of his people drives him passionately mad with “dragon sickness”. The broad thematic strokes are perhaps overly familiar (what’s that? Powerful trinkets are exacerbating natural greed again?), but Armitage makes Thorin’s internal struggle compelling nonetheless. It seems as though some of his important characterisation is a little rushed towards the end and the apex of his arc is reached a little too quickly in relation to the gradual build-up, but it facilitates plenty of effective scenes with Bilbo as their budding friendship is emotively and often silently strained.
Admittedly The Hobbit still struggles with finding its place in the broader mythology of Middle-earth and the hours and hours of it Jackson has already committed to film. That often translates to rather profound divergences from the tone and intent of the source material, as the motivations of the various interested parties are expounded on for the sake of the overarching continuity. It leaves a straightforward screenplay feeling occasionally bloated as what were simple caricatures in the book are, by necessity, fleshed out into heroes and villains with their own relationships and sub-plots.
Then again The Battle of the Five Armies is the leanest of the trilogy, and is perhaps less concerned with the big-picture canonical context than it is with footnoting the Lord of the Rings trilogy in as spectacular fashion as possible. This is a movie which opens with Smaug descending from the mountain kingdom of Erebor to lay waste to Lake-town like a flaming, scaly tornado, only to be slain about ten minutes later by Luke Evans, of all people. That’s a Godzilla-style giant monster action sequence which in any other movie would function as the climax just slipped in after the opening credits as a kind of scene-setting prologue. By the time Billy Connolly showed up riding a war pig I was totally sold.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always thought that this kind of thing was the whole point of the trilogy: a light-hearted, fan-service victory lap with limitless budgetary scope. It’s like going out with a group of old friends while you’re all high on cocaine; you recognize all the faces, they just seem to be having a lot more fun than usual.
I like the fact that Peter Jackson abandoned the well-placed restraint he maintained for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and got back to his trademark go-for-broke style of filmmaking. That’s how he made his reputation in the first place. I like that no effort whatsoever has been made to have the dwarves look like anything other than regular-sized men in Groucho Marx disguises. I like that an elf king can roll up to battle on the back of a fucking moose. I like that Saruman the White, Galadriel and Elrond, the High Council of Exposition, can finally give their stunt doubles something to do and get into a fight with the Nazgul for absolutely no reason. After spending so many hours in Jackson’s Middle-earth, this is the kind of nonsense I’ve bloody well earned.
Of course it’s not as good as Lord of the Rings. It won’t leave the same kind of legacy, it won’t usher forth a new era of digital cinematography, and ultimately it isn’t even as well-executed. And that’s fine. If the worst thing you can take away from The Battle of the Five Armies is that you’re not entirely on board with the interspecies love triangle though, then you don’t really have too much cause for complaint.
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