Review: THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

Once again, a Hobbit film is critically flawed. Once again, I do not care.

Farewell, Master Burglar. Go back to your books, your fireplace. Plant your trees, watch them grow. If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.

–Thorin

This is not going to be an objective review. In fact, it’s barely a review at all. I apologize for the misleading title; at this point, we know exactly what to expect from a Hobbit film, and the trilogy-capper The Battle of the Five Armies does exactly those things. It may be misshapen, bloated, ridiculous, and wholly unnecessary, but it is also grand, sweeping, exhilarating, emotional, and wildly fun for long stretches. It’s Peter Jackson’s last visit to Middle-Earth, and he leaves it all on the field. Whether you like it, and subscribe to his vision, is a matter of opinion.

Picking up the moment where The Desolation of Smaug ended, Five Armies finds the hamlet of Lake-town getting blitzed by the pissed-off dragon, a white-knuckle pre-credit sequence that (80-year-old spoiler warning) ends quite conclusively as the bowman Bard (Luke Evans) achieves legendary status. But with Smaug dispatched, all the eyes of the North turn to Erebor, where the stadium-sized hoard is now up for grabs. Elves, Men, and Orcs converge on the Dwarf city, where a dug-in Thorin (Richard Armitage) is becoming increasingly, frustratingly obstinate, blinded by the madness of greed they call “dragon-sickness.” After a period of grim foreboding, the battles rage (and rage), loyalties are tested, and beloved characters die. These final chapters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim novel make the shortest film yet in Jackson’s Middle-Earth Saga, but there is still no shortage of additions and elongations.

could be truly honest here. I could talk at length about how this never needed to be a trilogy, as the result may be have been great fan service, but three ponderous, not-very-great films. I could talk about how, as prequels, the stakes never feel very high, and many of the characters are too one-note for us to truly care about them. I could talk about Jackson’s over-reliance on CGI, smashing waves of video game characters against each other with reckless abandon, including turning perfectly wonderful physical performances into cartoons for no discernible reason (Dain, now just voiced by Billy Connolly, is particularly egregious). I could talk about how there’s not nearly enough Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in this Hobbit, and way too much of the sniveling Alfrid (Ryan Gage). I could talk about how Orlando Bloom looks and sounds a 40-year-old lifelong smoker, but traverses a crumbling bridge like Mega-Man. I could talk about those things, give the film a bad grade, and leave it at that, as others have (too gleefully) done.

Screw that noise. That’s for cynics, and people who get paid to be “objective.” I am neither.

Instead, I want to talk about imagination. The vicarious thrill of watching Peter Jackson play with his toys, in this world that he knows as well as Martin Scorsese knows New York, as well as John Ford knew Monument Valley. I fervently believe that he has never done this for the money, and calling this lesser trilogy a soulless cash grab is disingenuous at best, and insulting at worst. He adores this material, and there is a loving craft that goes into every frame, every piece of armor, every corner of set. I want to talk about the titular Battle, which takes up the bulk of the film: it’s armies upon armies — remember that sublime middle stretch in Return of the King, that rollicking roller coaster that found a pause in the action every time a new force would crest the top of the hill, changing the momentum? Five Armies is that, again and again and again — here come the eagles; here comes Vince Vaughn and the Channel 9 news team — and I never got tired of it. Battle fatigue? I expected it, but it never came.

Jackson deploys every weapon in his arsenal, from ugly trolls to very ugly trolls to giant Dune-like “earth-eaters,” a too-short cameo appearance from Man-Bear Beorn, and more dwaves, elves, and orcs than you can shake a wizard’s staff at. And that happens, too — in a showstopping sequence at the top of Dol Guldur, Middle-Earth’s biggest kickers of ass team up to rescue Gandalf and drive a non-corporeal Sauron away into the East. This naturally never occurred “on-screen” in the novel, though it was frequently referenced later in Tolkien’s works, and to see it brought to life now is catnip for nerds like me. This is what we’ve been looking forward to since Jackson announced his expanded trilogy. We see Elrond taking on groups of wraiths; Saruman (Christopher Lee’s stunt double) exhibits some wicked wizard-fu; Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) is straight FLAME emojis, blasting that hideous eye over the horizon with a terrifying display of power.

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None of this matters, however, if you don’t feel anything. We’ve become so inoculated to computer-generated spectacle, that cool fights and clever camera moves and super-powers are expected every time we visit the multiplex. (“If everything’s EPIC, nothing will be.”) So many modern sci-fi/fantasies have copied Jackson’s style, you can forgive him feeling like he needed to go even further over the top. Yet we need the grounding of strong characterizations and performances to find the real heart amidst the action, and make it mean something. Fortunately, Five Armies gives us a bevy of individual confrontations, paying off seeds sown in the previous films. Some of them end tragically, and Jackson locates a pathos this new trilogy had yet to exhibit. The deaths really do hurt. Even better, some concepts that didn’t seem like they would work at all — looking at you, Tauriel & Kili — ultimately land in satisfying, emotional places. Evangeline Lilly earns much of the praise on that score, taking a made-up character (and bait for fan vitriol) and giving us a much-needed warmth and unpredictability. She’s a much better actress in these films than she ever was on LOST, and indispensable here.

As family-man-turned-leader Bard, Luke Evans also rises to the occasion, as the only man on the battlefield who’s not in it for the gold and gems, but to protect his people. On the other side of the wall, Richard Armitage’s Thorin is more interesting than ever, glowering through hallucinatory sequences that illustrate how much of a hold the treasure has on him. Armitage is unafraid to take the character to dark places, repelling his friends with his Arkenstone obsession and his paranoia. It’s to the film’s credit that you’re not sure if he’ll be able to pull himself out of the spell; we may have never really been invested in him the way we were with Aragorn or any LOTR character, but this final film goes a long way to humanize (dwarvenize?) him, and the conclusion of his arc is entirely earned.

You can’t say enough about Martin Freeman as Bilbo, a dream of casting. He does unfortunately find himself marginalized in this last installment (in the book, you know, he gets knocked over the head and misses most of the action), but the moments he gets, he nails. Freeman uses stillness to comedic effect better than almost anyone; his deadpan expressions and quirky rhythms give the film a jolt of energy every time he’s on screen (which, again, is not enough). I can keep going, reveling in Ian McKellen’s last go-round wearing the pointy hat; the smaller moments from second-tier dwarves like Fili, Dwalin, and Bofur; Lee Pace fabulously sashaying though the role of Thranduil; Andrew Lesnie’s crisp cinematography; Howard Shore’s rousing (if under-mixed) final Middle-Earth score; the way it dovetails so beautifully into Fellowship of the Ring, I wanted my theatrical experience to just keep going with that one.

These films — all of these films — mean an enormous deal to me, capturing my imagination at a young age and driving my obsessions ever since, including spurring me to study filmmaking. Sean Knight has already written a marvelous and poignant essay to this effect (please read it), so I won’t bore you by repeating the same points. But this saga is special, and intensely personal, and despite the flaws of this second trilogy I found myself moved, awed, and satisfied. Even the hardened critics have had only praise for “Riddles in the Dark,” and the portrayal of Smaug.

And as hard as it may be to believe, I still want more. I want to crawl inside the screen and live inside the world that Peter Jackson and his team have created. (I can’t wait for the Extended Edition of this one, which I expect will pick up some of the dangling story threads left behind.) I will never, ever complain about “too much” Middle-Earth on film. I just won’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t see The Hobbit‘s problems, but that those problems are simply overridden by the sheer passion and verve on display, and my unabated adoration of Tolkien and Jackson’s creation. So no, I’m not an objective critic when it comes to these films, but I’m exactly who they are made for. I’m glad they exist, and I’m incredibly sad this journey is over.

Grade: B+

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