Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Eleven years ago to the day, a minor miracle happened. With the release of The Return of the King, Peter Jackson not only finished an ambitious film trilogy (filmed as a single project over more than a year of shooting), but managed the double-tap of a worthy adaptation of fantasy literature AND a genuinely great cap to a film series. And as trilogies like The Godfather can attest, sticking the landing can be a hell of a thing.

I bring this up in relation to the third and final film based on the Lord of the Rings prelude The Hobbit because. . . well frankly, The Battle of the Five Armies relishes referencing its own bigger, better siblings at every opportunity.

As to whether Jackson managed to stick the landing again? Short answer: sort of.

Battle opens with the sequence "Fire and Water" from the book, where Smaug the dragon attacks the near-helpless town of Esgaroth on the Long Lake. It's brutal, thrilling, and quite frankly the sequence that should have finished off the previous film (it may actually be shorter than the execrable forge sequence in Desolation). After that, the film chiefly deals with Thorin's dragon sickness - as the hoard of Erebor preys upon his mind - and the titular five armies as they gather to clash over the mountain and its glittering contents.

Fortunately for the film - and viewers - the title character of this trilogy isn't left out in the cold as much as last time around. Bilbo acts both as the chief avenue of sympathy for Thorin and a voice of reason added to that of Bard the Bowman and Gandalf, striving for a peaceful resolution. As you may have sussed from the title and the legions of marketing materials, that's just not in the cards.

To its credit, Battle looks very good and moves at a much quicker pace than either of its predecessors. Unfortunately, it absolutely doesn't feel like an actual movie. Between opening with what feels like a part of a different film and the fact that the movie still hasn't given much reason to care about any of the dwarves (at eight hours the only one we really know is still just kind of an ass, he's just an ass of a more golden hue here) or any but one or two other characters out of the dozens of speaking roles. There's roughly fifty pages of material from the actual book here, and only one fairly brief (though visually insane) sequence alluded to in other texts, but in spite of all the extra time afforded, the film is still at a loss to give meaningful stakes to the proceedings beyond the texture of portentous declarations and aching looks into the middle distance.

Not that there aren't game attempts - for all the time the Battle of the Five Armies takes up, Jackson focuses much of the action on smaller individual conflicts. There are some impressive sweeping shots of clashing forces to be sure (due props to that dwarven shield wall), but hangs most of the weight on vignettes like a man's search for his children, a king wrestling with his conscience, the avenging of old wrongs, or the doomed protection of new love. Not all of these smaller set pieces really work (for all of the bluster about Tauriel being this much-needed strong female character, she's almost immediately damseled so that two strong alpha males can come to her rescue), but the intent is admirable.

Moreover, Jackson still has undeniable talents in selling an emotional beat or a sequence of visual grandeur, even if he hasn't manged the leg-work to make it feel genuine. The payoff for the bromance between Thorin and Bilbo is just as bittersweet as it is on the page (though it might have been better if Thorin had spent more than ten minutes of the trilogy not being a dick to Bilbo), and the hobbit's return to his beloved Shire, both changed and very much the same, reflects well the central ethos of the original story. And the sequence featuring the White Council and the Necromancer manages to be the sort of fan service embellishment that actually crosses over from indulgent to incredible, if you can buy into an elf queen* going Super Saiyan on a dark spirit.. But for each victory there's a setback - swerving tones, hollow "characters," wanton excess, and jarring and unnecessary references to that "other" Middle-earth trilogy. Every time Jackson seemingly gets over a hurdle between him and actually pulling off The Hobbit Trilogy, he creates two more to take its place.

In the end, there are simply too many masters to satisfy - a studio ravenous for more marketable franchises, an exuberant director (much in need of a smaller budget and more ruthless editor) unshackled from the creativity-fueling fetters that bound him before he became a billion-dollar printing press, and the frothing fan demand that made this seem like a good idea to anyone in the first place. And in trying to meet all these disparate demands, none are fully satisfied. The broth, as the saying goes, is spoiled.

The movie at least comes alive whenever Bilbo is actively involved, but it's not enough to truly elevate the affair beyond well-meaning fan fiction. Freeman is so note-perfect as moral compass, reluctant man of action, and dry comic understatement that you end up more feeling sorry for him for not being given a better version of this story to work with.

Well, him and the audience.

*Yes, I know Galadriel is not a "queen" per say, but I figured there were enough parenthetical asides to be getting along with already.

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