Review: THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, An Epic Poem
Rarely in cinema history has the notion of a journey there and back again been more aptly applied. Yes, the culmination of Peter Jackson & co.'s vast epic comes in an episode titled The Battle of the Five Armies, but this previous moniker speaks in some ways far better to the tone of the piece.
It seems a lifetime ago in movie-release terms that the Oscar winning Return of the King capped off the first of the trilogies. It's likely even harder for some to remember what seemed an impossible task, the translation of these dense works of fantasy literature onto the big screen.
We've become inured in some ways to the possibilities inherent in modern filmmaking. If previous miracles lose some of their magic sensibilities when articulated by science, so too does our familiarity with seemingly countless imitators dulled our senses of wonder. For those not invested in the land of Middle Earth, it's hard to delineate this series of pixels smashing into other pixels from their super hero or sword-and-sandal kin, or, more plausibly, with their small-screen cousins on shows like Game Of Thrones.
If for some these Hobbit films fail because of a sense of familiarity or even redundancy then they do so in part because of meta-textual factors. There was meant to be another that was to bring this story to screen, after all, and while we get hints in certain characters and behind the scenes tidbits, the residual touch of Guillermo del Toro on this project is hard to perceive.
Instead, we have in its most explicit way the continuation of Jackson's journey that he started with Lord of the Rings. Locked into contents strictly drawn from both the Hobbit and the Appendices of LOTR (but not, as has oft been noted, the other writings of Tolkien as these rights were held by others), we have a hybrid film, one drawing from the childish story of Bilbo Baggins while drawing explicit links to the slightly more convoluted tales in the LOTR trilogy.
After over fifteen hours of screen time into this endeavor, we were left last time 'round with the Dwarves having entered Erebor, Smaug awoken from his slumber thanks to a crafty burglar, and the flying worm heading out to raze Lake Town. The final chapter picks up on this immediately, and we see Smaug swooping in and igniting those lovely wood-framed houses (based on the evidence, it looks like Stephen Colbert's characters doesn't make it out without being crisped, as we never see him or his spy-ilk again).
From dragon fire onwards, the film slips along at a relatively brisk 143 minutes. I realize describing a film in this way is preposterous, but it's fair to say it's even more taut and to the point than many of the previous iterations. There's little room for singsong or contemplation here, with a sense of churning that reaches right through to the conclusion.
Many elements telegraphed over the last two films come to their logical conclusions, including of course the elements such as the love between Tauriel and her swarthy Dwarf friend Kili reaching a kind of chaste bonding. For those where the origin story is either hazy or unread there's moments of drama that are allowed to unfold to appropriate cathartic ends, glorious deaths and sacrifices made in order for richer tales to be told of their sacrifices.
As with LOTR, the overt changes that Jackson and his fellow writers have done to reshape the tale for cinema continue to work through the end. Without giving too much away there are additional bits involving key LOTR characters that once again come to combat the Necromancer directly, literally laying the seeds for the events of the main series of films.
That, in fact, may be another fair criticism, for these films make The Hobbit, always a standalone work that proceeded the larger fantasy works of Tolkien, into an overt prequel. These three Hobbit films echo the originals both stylistically and narratively, providing bookends to the original three films. Ones appreciation of them very much depends on how much you're going to allow for such adornment to pass.
I for one enjoyed the hell out of the film on first viewing. There are battles aplenty, sure, but also terrific character moments and lovely variations on themes developed - stylistically, narratively, even musically- from all the pieces that came before.
There's also a sense of playfulness in the (many) battles that shows a lot of Jackson's personality. Take a troll that wears a giant rock triangular "hat", force to smack down a portcullis only to fall back in a concussed daze. Or later on where Legolas uses his sword, thrust into the brainpan of another poor creature, to drive the beast like using some sort of arcade joystick. The beast bumps into a tower, which crashes and forms a precarious bridge.
These moments are sheer delight, reminding that these big bombastic battles are being orchestrated by the man who had us meet some Feebles and engaged in bad taste filmmaking. Jackson's earned the right to play with his toys, and it's damn fun to see him do so.
Performance wise, it's the culmination of some terrific choices to craft this ensemble. Richard Armitage is playing with pure archetype, but still manages
to provide subtlety in his broad character's behaviour. Some of the other returning cast, including veterans of the previous trilogy, give some truly
chilling moments the gravitas required (I will forever cherish what glorious work Ian McKellen has bestowed on this series).
But above that all, there's Martin Freeman, whose performance for many may be overshadowed by much of what's going on. He's been simply stunning in this role, mixing an itchy-nosed every man with a hardened Halfling by the end that must make some truly wrenching decisions. All of his choices seem completely in keeping with what's required with any given part of the story, and his Bilbo is clearly and utterly definitive in that regard.
More than most, this film feels the sense that some of it has been stripped away for a more concise conclusion. There are even scenes where you see the litter of a battle that has been snipped in favour of a shorter running time. The Extended Editions have become an integral part of this story saga, but with this film I'm betting we're in for more than expected in terms of what's been excised. Not many will miss what's been removed, I'm betting, but at least we have those other elements to look forward to that might flesh things out even more.
Five Armies is a concluding chapter not just of this trilogy but in many ways the entire endeavor. The entire running time feels like it's running towards the end, each interaction banking on all that's come before it. There's no sense in which this is a standalone work, but the same can be said for many final chapters in literature. If you've skipped one of the earlier films things will make sense, but you'll not have the investment in what's playing out to truly engage.
Visually the film gets darker as it goes along, and even the colour tone seems to be leading towards what's to come with the rise of Sauron in the
proceeding chapters. I've yet to see it in HFR (report on that soon!), but the 3D remains excellent, and provides a truly immersive way into these visuals
without being gratuitous or overreaching.Shore's triumphant score is suitably iconic, and the crashes and creaks of the sound design continues to be peerless for films of this nature.
I'm equally not one to complain that we got three films instead of two - it allowed the other works to spend more time with Smaug, barrel rides and rock monsters, and in this film it allows for a far more driven and streamlined narrative drive. There's little fat here - we left the last film with all the pieces in place, and everything comes into fruition with this last film.
There's a simple metric at play here - if you've bought into Jackson's vision, and will allow for the fact that the Hobbit is now prequel to LOTR and they piece together into one massive work of epic poetry, then this seems the perfect culmination to all that has come before.
One of the final scenes has the surviving members of the Ur-fellowship looking over the plains that occupy the Dwarven kingdom, Dale, and the burned out elements of war. In a similar way, this film allows us to stand back and look at all that we as fans of these works have been given. If the film feels like a victory lap, it does not for me feel like a superfluous one. This is the film where the Hobbit trilogy truly becomes part of the larger Saga of Middle earth, providing both a conclusion and a beginning to what's to follow.
This final Hobbit film is, quite literally, a journey there and back again. And what a journey it's been.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
- Peter Jackson
- Fran Walsh (screenplay)
- Philippa Boyens (screenplay)
- Peter Jackson (screenplay)
- Guillermo del Toro (screenplay)
- J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
- Ian McKellen
- Martin Freeman
- Richard Armitage
- Ken Stott