Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

We've finally reached the end of this long journey through Middle Earth. I've just finished reviewing all three of the spectacular Lord of the Rings films, and I was pretty excited to see what director Peter Jackson was going to do as a grand finale over ten years beyond the release of The Return of the King. If you've read my reviews for An Unexpected Journey or The Desolation of Smaug, you'd know that I was less of a fan of those works than the LOTR trilogy. Having said that, I saw an upward trajectory in quality that I assumed would continue as we got to the final installment of this Hobbit series.

After their dangerous confrontation with the dragon Smaug, Bilbo and several of the dwarves look on in horror as the beast attacks the nearby Laketown with a fiery vengeance. Their homes destroyed, the villagers must relocate to the deserted town of Dale, led by the courageous Bard. However, despite their pleas for Thorin Okenshield to stand by his promise to share the wealth of the mountain, the new dwarf king of Erebor is stricken with dragon madness and refuses to part with his treasure. With an army or Elves also looking to reclaim lost jewels and a legion of orcs on their way, Bilbo has to take matters into his own hands in order to brokerage a peace between the warring parties. But will Thorin finally see reason and accept this compromise, or will he remain stubborn and declare war against the armies at his door?

Despite this being the shortest Peter Jackson film set in Middle Earth, there's actually quite a bit going on in The Battle of the Five Armies. The power play between the two races is possibly the most intriguing plot element of the entire Hobbit trilogy, helped in large measure by the performances of Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Lee Pace as the elf king Thranduil, and Richard Armitage as Thorin. I've always thought Freeman was the perfect choice to play Bilbo, and here the genius of that casting decision comes to fruition. He expertly balances the dramatic and light-hearted scenes and gives us a character most people can probably relate to. As for the others I mentioned, Lee Pace is great at conveying menace and intelligence in equal measure, and we're never sure if he's really trustworthy. Armitage might have the largest challenge, taking his character to a dark place where we've never seen Thorin venture.

Though there are a lot of interesting character scenes, the bulk of this movie (predictably, if you've read the subtitle) is the battle of the five armies. If you thought the fight scenes in The Return of the King were long, just wait until you see the hour long battle here. This would have been welcome if the stakes were as high as Lord of the Rings, or if the effects were as convincing. Unfortunately, this film's effects, while mostly top notch, fail to reach the tactile feel of the LOTR trilogy which came out over a decade ago. Rather than making us feel the epic quality of the assault, it comes across like a video game trailer that goes on far too long. There are only so many scenes of orcs being beheaded or someone coming within an inch of death before being miraculously saved that I can watch until it becomes numbing with repetition.

Peter Jackson is a very talented director, but where LOTR felt so original and groundbreaking, this trilogy has ended up as a poor facsimile of those much better films. That isn't to say that I don't like The Hobbit, it just lessens the impact when there are so many similarities and callbacks to the previous movies we all loved. This film does provide some interesting links to Fellowship of the Ring, but a lot of the homages were a bit unnecessary and distracting from the story on which they should have been focusing.

It's been almost two decades since I've read this book, so many of the surprises in this film took me completely aback as well, particularly when characters I knew started to die. This actually got me far more invested in the story, and every fight became that much more suspenseful for me. One storyline that was entirely created for the film, however, ended up being one of the highlights for me (though I'm sure that is an unpopular opinion). Tauriel and Kili's unlikely love story that seemed a little out of place in The Desolation of Smaug eventually came to a dramatic conclusion in this movie that I found myself connecting with. Honestly, I think that has more to do with Howard Shore's lovely music for those scenes than what actually happened in them, but I found it effective nonetheless.

The movie concludes in somewhat lackluster fashion, for my taste, though the final scene does make me smile out of pure nostalgia (you'll get what I mean when you see it). Though I mostly enjoyed this film, I struggled with my overall recommend based on its failed attempt to recapture the magic of The Return of the King's heart-wrenching conclusion. I hate to say this was the worst of the trilogy since so many plot elements really did interest me and some of the battle scenes were pretty well done. This is probably the best trailer of the trilogy (see below), though that may be to the detriment of your enjoyment if your expectations are too high.

My ultimate feeling regarding this trilogy is that it should never have been a trilogy to begin with. This story seems perfectly structured for two movies, and this one in particular felt like Jackson was struggling to stretch it out to the two and a half hours that it ended up being. I really do think this movie was good, but it was a little disappointing at the same time. All three films are worth seeing, but if there was a way to edit them down to two films I think we would have a much more solid prequel series to the Lord of the Rings than they gave us. With all that in mind, I'm giving this film a three star rating.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

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