'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies'
Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy might not be as strong as his ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, but at least it isn’t another ‘Star Wars’ prequel debacle. Now that all of the tedious set-up has finally passed, Jackson delivers a feature-length climax that is easily the best entry of this elongated ‘Hobbit’ trio. Everything that’s come before dovetails, peaks and concludes. That’s true of both the good and the bad elements of these movies, but thankfully there has always been more good overall.
The last movie ended on a cliffhanger involving that big ol’ jerk of a dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) flying towards a town that he’s gonna light up like a flaming Christmas tree. This final installment picks up with that sequence, and it’s a hell of a way to kick off a movie given that it’s the most ambitious action scene of the entire ‘Hobbit’ trilogy up until this point.
Then when the Smaug has cleared (apologies for the pun), it’s time for the pace to slow to a crawl for a series of lengthy speeches about good and evil. In the middle of all that, Richard Armitage’s Thorin goes insane while guarding the gold that he’s been determined to pursue for his entire life. That’s a big problem considering how fast news has spread across Middle Earth that the treasure is up for grabs following Smaug’s departure. Soon, the humans from the destroyed town (led by Luke Evans) want a piece, an army of elves show up to claim some precious jewels, a cavalcade of dwarves (led by Billy Connolly!) arrive for their share, and of course a big ol’ stack of goblins and orcs show up for a taste as well. When that many angry armies appear in one place in Middle Earth, there’s only one thing that can happen: a big battle. So they fight and fight and fight for most of the movie. Truthfully, it’s pretty sweet.
As has been stated time and time again, the biggest problem with this ‘Hobbit’ series is that the book simply isn’t substantial enough to sustain three movies (especially when unavoidably contrasted with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which worked perfectly as three epics). That’s obviously not a problem that can be addressed at this point by Peter Jackson and co., but thankfully it’s less noticeable here than in either of the other ‘Hobbit’ films. After all, this is the payoff. It’s a climax made feature-length, and a pretty damn strong one.
All of the characters have their arcs peak side-by-side. For the most part, that’s good, like when Gandolf gets to cut loose with philosophy and fisticuffs, Thorin gets to go insane, and Bilbo gets to fulfill his hero’s journey (until he stands aside for most of the battle, which is a bit disappointing given that Martin Freeman has been the heart and MVP of the trilogy). At other times, it’s not-so-good, particularly when that irritating elf/dwarf/elf love triangle appears and concludes with Evageline Lilly delivering one of the most nauseatingly cheesy lines in the history of useless romantic subplots.
Pacing can be a bit awkward at times since Jackson and his team of screenwriters don’t quite have the same mastery over all of the moving parts that they had in the last trilogy. Yet, when your movie opens with one of the greatest dragon destruction sequences ever mounted and then peaks with an hour-long battle featuring Billy Connolly calling goblins “buggers,” it’s hard to complain too much.
Once again, some of the digital panoramas can feel distractingly fake, both as a result of the fact that they pale compared to the real sets and locations used in ‘Rings’ and because Jackson is pushing the limits of digital technology. There’s something distractingly antiseptic about the High Frame Rate digital photography and effects that Jackson has employed that looks painful compared to the previous trilogy. Part of it is how animated and studio-bound these movies (as well as blockbuster production in general) have become, and part of it is simply that the magic of ‘Lord of the Rings’ just can’t be recreated. You can only breakthrough once.
When Peter Jackson mounted those movies over a decade ago, he revolutionized fantasy filmmaking, gave audiences something that they had genuinely never seen before, and peaked as an unpredictable outsider genre artist (following such subversive triumphs as ‘Dead Alive’, ‘Heavenly Creatures’ and ‘The Frighteners’). Only few years later, the ‘Hobbit’ films can’t help but feel like a bit of a regression for a filmmaker who has essentially stopped growing, and that’s as much of a problem as any of the narrative padding or over-reliance on digital technology. What was once a series defined by a filmmaker fulfilling his wildest ambitions has turned into Peter Jackson giving audiences what they want. It’s still a fun and often even awe-inspiring exercise because Jackson is such a talented director, but this series ends more with a sense of relief than the sense of loss that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies left us with.
For all their flaws, it’s nice that these ‘Hobbit’ movies exist. I’d wager that Jackson’s entire Tolkien series plays quite well when viewed chronologically and without the weight of expectation. Still, the greatest excitement I felt leaving the theater was the fact that Jackson has finally fulfilled his Middle Earth duty and can move onto the next chapter of his career. I can’t imagine what that will bring, but the fact that it’ll be different is more than enough cause for excitement.