Monday, December 22, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD! Also, feel free to revisit my earlier Hobbit reviews here and here.

Sheep Ride of Destiny. That is one of the things I will always take away from the Hobbit saga. Sheep Ride of Destiny. Proof, in other words, that the strange goofy details of this trilogy persist even at the grimmest and most portentous moments. Thank you, sheep!

There we have it, then. The final Tolkien film, assuming they don’t start adapting The Silmarillion. The end of an era, although it’s hard to get choked up when the original Lord of the Rings trilogy felt so much more end-of-an-era-y. Some marketing schmo decided to label The Battle of the Five Armies as “The Defining Chapter,” which is very silly, because what does it define? The bridge between the Hobbit saga and LotR? Sorry, but a brief Sauron song-and-dance number and an overly smug reference to Aragorn do not equal the be all, end all of prequels. As I have said again and again, the Hobbit films are best when they do their own thing, worst when they scream, “We’re PREQUELS! Look at all these LORD OF THE RINGS REFERENCES! All this RETROACTIVE FORESHADOWING!” Not needed. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit blissfully unaware of what he would soon create. Team Peter Jackson is all too aware of what they have already created.

For the third time in a row, I loved the movie. I can be cynical but I can’t not be smitten with Jackson’s Middle-Earth. But I’m not blind to the people who dislike the Hobbit films. I confess, it’s a letdown that this trilogy cost so much more, yet looks cheaper. And I really wish Jackson hadn’t gone the lazy CGI route. And I wish Guillermo del Toro had stuck around. But to compare the Hobbit saga to the Star Wars prequels? Too mean. The worst Middle-Earth film is loads better than the least unbearable Star Wars prequel. And it’s in large part due to the actors.

Again, we pick up right where we left off. Smaug the dragon, royally pissed, unleashes fiery doom upon Lake-Town in a scene far more traumatic than any Roland Emmerich destruction porn could ever be. Not much of a spoiler to say that Smaug exits stage right very quickly, thanks to the bravery of Bard, who becomes the makeshift ruler of Lake-Town’s refugees. They seek shelter and mercy from Thorin and his Dwarves, but unfortunately, the allure of gold has turned Thorin into Middle-Earth’s biggest jerkface, and he refuses to give anyone the time of day. Thranduil and his Elves show up, also seeking treasure, and meanwhile, Nasty Albino Orc Dude is leading his legion of assorted lumpish ogre-type things toward Erebor, and more Dwarves are galumphing to the rescue, and it would be the battle of the ages if we hadn’t seen better battles in LotR. What we have is a 2.5-hour movie covering one fourth of a book. So the narrative is pretty damn padded out. When the titular battle begins, it’s very exciting and epic, but it also takes up at least half the movie and all the fighting wears ya down.

Meanwhile, in the other swift cliffhanger resolution, Gandalf is rescued from the eerie fortress of Dol Guldur by an all-star lineup of Middle-Earthians, including Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman. (If I may use a nerdy Dungeons & Dragons analogy, they’re the epic level party.) As previously noted, the evil Necromancer of Dol Guldur is actually Sauron, the big baddie from LotR, trying to regain power. This is unfortunate. Yes, it’s official canon, but it also forces the filmmakers to undermine Sauron’s effectiveness. There’s a huge gap between “dude lurking in a crumbly old castle” and “incredibly powerful godlike entity of evil and destruction.” What Team Jackson should have done is make this Sauron more cringing and pitiful, like the earlier versions of Voldemort -- a foul spirit barely clinging to corporeality. Instead, they try to recreate some of Sauron’s fiery terror, and it doesn’t really work in this limited setting. The Ringwraiths get an odd makeover, we see the return of Scary Green Galadriel (not exactly the most beloved image from LotR), and Sauron is ultimately more like a Final Fantasy boss. And not even a major boss. One of those optional bosses you can track down if you’ve leveled up enough. Yeah...what I said about tiresome prequel hijinks. Pity.

 You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Bilbo at all. That’s because he is infrequently in the movie. When he’s there, he’s delightful as ever, but (as with the entire saga) the Hobbit falls into everyone else’s shadow. This trilogy has racked up a very long list of characters, and that was before Billy Connolly showed up. Everyone needs screen time, even if it’s only a few seconds’ worth (sorry, Beorn). Thorin needs to face Nasty Albino Orc Dude! Legolas needs to face Son of Nasty Albino Orc Dude! The interspecies love between Tauriel and Kíli needs to resolve, one way or another! A lot of loose ends to tie up, and they still don’t hit every single one, except perhaps in the land of Deletedscenetopia. So I missed Bilbo. However, I did appreciate Thorin’s arc. It’s a hard one to pull off, because he has to suddenly turn into a paranoid, hateful creep, then just as suddenly rediscover his nobility and save the day. Richard Armitage plays this transformation with a kind of dazed horror, desperation in his eyes, as if some parasite (a Gollum, if you will) has taken over his body. This movie has a strong point to make about the things greed does to people. One character is killed by greed, another glosses over his greedy motivations, a third wastes the chance to be a better man. Only Thorin overcomes the worst in himself, and his battle with madness is well done.

The whole film is well done. It’s great entertainment. I know that the Hobbit films are not, nor will they ever be, as good as Lord of the Rings. There’s just not enough material, and, to be frank, Peter Jackson didn’t seem as committed. But the actors were committed. The art designers, the set and costume people, they were committed. Heck, even the CGI guys were committed. Yeah, okay, the video game physics are back in full force -- especially with Legolas, who bounds across collapsing bridges and hitches rides on monsters while we wait for “Press X to Not Die” to flash on the screen. But, y’know, the climax, which involves a mere handful of characters and takes place on some kind of frozen outcropping, has some moments of real, true, unadorned tragedy and poetry. I may not remember nor care about Nasty Albino Orc Dude’s motives, but the final moments between him and Thorin did not disappoint. As for the Kíli/Tauriel thing, I had a pretty good idea where it was going (spoiler alert: nowhere happy), but it had impact. Why they needed to dump this upon the only major female character is another story (the entire Middle-Earth film saga fails the Bechdel test). But all I have to say is: still better than Aragorn and Arwen. Yeah, I went there.

 I don’t feel like this is “the end,” even though, supposedly, there will be no more Middle-Earth films. Partly it’s because I found the finale of The Battle of the Five Armies to be a tad rushed. It’s like they heard all the criticism about Return of the King taking forever to end, and tried too hard not to repeat themselves. I could have used a better send-off for Bard, and also for all the auxiliary Dwarves, who may not have gotten much dialogue but were still the heart and soul of the trilogy. Along with Bilbo, of course. We end up where we began, back in cozy Bag End, waiting for the next great adventure. Now I get to rewatch the Lord of the Rings trilogy and bask in what are not only better movies, but also part of a grand saga that remains a delight. I see the Hobbit trilogy as a more than acceptable addition. They may stumble as prequels but they dazzle in their own right. I got what I asked for. So thank you, Peter Jackson. Thanks, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage. Thanks to everyone who made this happen. I’ll take a flawed Hobbit adaptation over a lifetime without it, wondering what could have been.

They took us there. Now we’re back again. And happier for the journey.

No comments:

Post a Comment