Here we are at last. The final Peter Jackson helmed Lord of the Rings film. It sure felt like a while, but the end got here before we knew it. After years and years of false starts and unbelievable hype, we finally have a cinematic adaptation. It honestly feels like just yesterday that my friends and I were clamoring at the bits to get ANY information that we could about these movies. “The Hobbit” has been a long standing favorite book of mine (more so than any of the LOR trilogy due in part to its simplicity) and to finally see it brought to life in such a grandiose way was exciting beyond measure. What we ultimately got however was a mixed bag. Last year, when I did a write-up for The Desolation of Smaug I stated that I loved Tolkien’s world so much that I was willing to forgive how bloated the previous two installments were and that stands true with this one. They are above average fantasy flicks that serve as a passable appetizer to the main course that is the original trilogy.
Like a lot of other people, I went into this with a sense of overwhelming melancholy. On one hand, we get the final chapter in an admittedly disappointing trilogy that will probably be too long. On the other, this is the last time we get to see Peter Jackson direct a Middle Earth movie and veteran actors like Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee in roles that they will forever be synonymous for. Unless someone thinks of a way to condense “The Silmarillion” into digestible chunks that somehow resemble a cohesive film, this is probably the last time we will see Middle Earth on the big screen for a good, long while. I am happy to report that, while far from perfect, the “defining chapter” was an utterly enjoyable ride and a bittersweet final coda on the cinematic opus that is Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga.
“‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ brings to an epic conclusion the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield and the Company of Dwarves. Having reclaimed their homeland from the Dragon Smaug, the Company has unwittingly unleashed a deadly force into the world. Enraged, Smaug rains his fiery wrath down upon the defenseless men, women and children of Lake-town.
Obsessed above all else with his reclaimed treasure, Thorin sacrifices friendship and honor to hoard it as Bilbo’s frantic attempts to make him see reason drive the Hobbit towards a desperate and dangerous choice. But there are even greater dangers ahead. Unseen by any but the Wizard Gandalf, the great enemy Sauron has sent forth legions of Orcs in a stealth attack upon the Lonely Mountain.
As darkness converges on their escalating conflict, the races of Dwarves, Elves and Men must decide unite or be destroyed. Bilbo finds himself fighting for his life and the lives of his friends in the epic Battle of the Five Armies, as the future of Middle-earth hangs in the balance.”
There are A LOT of spinning plates this movie has to successfully pull in order for it to be satisfying before the final credits roll, and for the most part I feel like it succeeds. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a tad emotional knowing that this is likely to be the last time we see Peter Jackson dip his toes in Middle Earth
So let’s start with the good, and rest assured, there is quite a bit to like about this movie.
Right off the bat we are thrown into where we left off with Smaug (voiced to absolute perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch) on his way to set fire to Laketown in an utterly spectacular sequence actually made better by 3-D (but worse by the 48 fps, but more on that later). Honestly I wish we had gotten this sequence at the end of the last movie instead of the unnecessary (yet admittedly cool) fight scene between the dwarf company and Smaug. It makes more sense as a climax and it is really awkward to have something of this scale be at the very beginning of a movie, only to have it resolve itself within 10 minutes. The only real reasoning I can figure behind this decision is that without it being here, the final movie has only one major set piece. I don’t know. I just think there could have been a better way to separate the two movies. Anyway, it is still an awesome sequence and sets the stage for what else is to come.
Which leads me to the titular battle. While not as glorious and on the scale of Helm’s Deep or Pelennor Fields Fields, the Battle of the Five Armies is still fan-tucking-fastic and an absolute victory for Weta Digital. They succeeded in creating a 45 minute action scene that is never boring or confusing. Jackson is truly a master of staging scenes like this effectively. We always know where everyone is, what is happening, and there are enough location changes that prevent it from becoming tedious or dull. Essentially it is the antithesis of the end of the third Transformers movie. Just about each of the major characters gets a stand up and cheer moment except Legolas…he gets his contractually obligated 5 cool battle moments in order to justify his appearance in these movies.
Speaking of the cast, we get a few standouts here. Once again, Martin Freeman proves to be the absolute perfect choice for Bilbo Baggins providing arguably the best performance in any of the Rings films outside of Andy Serkis and Ian McKellen. I just wish he was given more to do. I’m appreciative of the choice to have him actually conscious for a majority of the movie (he is absent for most of the battle in the book) which is more than I can say for Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, who is pushed even further to the sidelines this time around. If there was to be one star of the film as a whole though it would have to be Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield. He spins a majority of the film locked away in the mountain, obsessed with reclaiming his kingdom. The theme of the corruption of greed is carried over from the book, and provides the film with its best quieter scenes. The parallel between Bilbo and Thorin is one of the most compelling aspects of the prequels as a whole and serve as almost a precursor to the one we see between Frodo and Gollum later. The rest of the dwarves kind of just fade into the background (again) but are still welcome faces if only because we’ve spent more time with than than a majority of the other players.
The only actor I really wanted to just go away was Ryan Gage’s Alfrid, who serves only to annoy and as a heavy-handed reminder that greed is bad…which we already knew. We didn’t need more Gandalf, Beorn (the skin-changer introduced in the last film, only to have one 10-second appearance here) or God-fucking-forbid, Bilbo. We needed more of this uni-brow carrying creep. Last film in the franchise (before it is inevitably rebooted) and we need this unfunny and annoying character to have almost as much screen-time as Gandalf.
In order to push past the two hour mark, Jackson and his writing partners, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro, pull supplemental material from Tolkien’s appendixes, “The Silmarillion” and thin air. This leads to some problems but ultimately the pros of these additions outweigh the cons. Such as an early scene in which we get to see members of the White Council (Lady Galadriel, Elrond, and Sauroman respectively) rescue Gandalf, face off against the Nazgul AND Sauron, and kick all kinds of ass in doing so. Sure, it’s shameless fan service and wasn’t in the book but it works for the story in an organic way that not only winks at long-time fans but sets up events to come in way that isn’t awkward. That comes later when our favorite ranger-turned-king is mentioned near the end of the movie…
A lot of the problems these movies have can be traced back to the actual source material. (Save your pitchforks.) I hope I am not stepping on any toes here but I personally do not thing J.R.R. Tolkien was that strong of a story-teller. In terms of world-building he is unparalleled, but his books were not written with intention of being made into films. He gave exactly 0 fucks about story structure or at least didn’t let that get in the way of what he felt like doing. Here’s a for instance: in the book, we meet Bard the Bowman (played here by the dangerously Welsh, Luke Evans) maybe five minute before he slays Smaug. It isn’t Bilbo. It isn’t Thorin. It is this random guy we’ve never met before. That works in the context that The Hobbit is a fairly simple little kid’s book, but that would have been outrageous in a movie that is almost three hours. We need to know Bard before he does something that massive. This is an example of a smart change on the filmmaker’s part.
What I am trying to get at is that a straight-up 100% faithful adaptation of this work would be a very different animal and way too tough to sell to a wide audience that has never picked up any of Tolkien’s books, let alone his most simple one. There are just too many conceits to make in order to make The problem is that the filmmaker’s (and studio) overcompensated. I, and many people, would have been happy with two films at most. I think two two-and-a-half-hour films (which I would happily sit through if they were paced correctly) would have been sufficient in allowing the characters to breathe but without dawdling too much. But we got three movies, and to fill three movies we got a lot of meandering and scenes that ultimately halted the journey. I mean it’s awesome that we have a female badass that actually participates in the action for the most part, but did we need to give her a romance? To me, love triangles will forever be the staple of lazy writing because often they are the product of lazy writing. If you were really on the edge of your seat to see who won Tauriel’s heart, more power to you. I just personally think we could have just had her character instead of her character AND Legolas. Cut out her romance with dwarf Kili, and have her learn about the value of things like love in a way that doesn’t just flat out repeat what we saw in Jackson’s earlier films that weren’t even all that great then.
Why I think these movies are successful (to me at least) is because they lack the cynicism that accompanies a majority of other bloated franchise films we see nowadays. These are the movies Peter Jackson and company wanted to make, and their love of the source material is evident in just about every frame. They are self-indulgent, sure. A prequel, by definition, is pointless. We know the ultimate outcome because we have seen the movie that was the outcome of said prequel. So it’s up to the filmmakers to make what we see actually engaging and have some semblance of stakes. They typically fail because they rely too much on what came before due to the fact that most of the action came then. A great example of a movie doing this well was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Perhaps the best example of a prequel failing is The Phantom Menace which only served to make money and waste the audience’s time. I think The Hobbit trilogy is more of a success than a failure. I love Middle Earth, and I love this crew’s interpretation of it. I’m sad to see it go, but happy that I got to see it happen at all.