A friend once dictated his formula for success in a movie and it went like this: a big fight at the beginning, a little talking, then action until it’s over. He’s going to love The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It has a terrific opening, then some talking, then once an hour has passed, it’s all about five armies battling each other until the bitter, violent end for the next hour and twenty minutes. Plus there’s something about a Hobbit buried in there somewhere.
The release of Five Armies signals the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s bulging-at-the-seams epic telling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, a trilogy that was supposed to be two movies until Jackson found a way of making it three. The criticism that you could read the novel faster than you could watch all three films back to back – with extra padding reinstated for the DVDs – is both true and moot by this point, though it didn’t help that a couple of years ago, Tolkien’s son Christopher talked to French Magazine Le Monde and basically said Jackson had lost sight of what the books were all about. He concluded by saying with a keen sense of drama, “There is only one solution for me: turning my head away.”
Jackson, of course, has taken little notice. If the critical attack regarding prominence on the spectacular drowning the literary was intended to make the director rethink his conclusion, then not only has it backfired, but Jackson has actually upped the grandness of his violent vision; watching those armies of dwarves, men, goblins and elves, plus that endless array of repulsive looking battle-scarred creatures with staples in their heads and blades for arms feels like watching a war in real time. “This is madness,” Gandalf (Ian McKellen) states, and he’s right, though it’s Billy Connolly as Dain, King of Erebor, who has the best comment just at the moment when he thought he might have the upper hand in battle. “Oh, come on,” he wearily cries as even more characters arrive.
Movie-goers who like their films to be all-inclusive the one time around with a beginning, middle and end will not care for Five Armies. What has now become the trend with serialized versions of popular novels continues here; there is no attempt to bring anyone up to speed. If you’re fresh to The Hobbit this is not the place to walk in off the street and start.
From the beginning we’re plunged into chaos as the mighty dragon Smaug proceeds to destroy Lake-town making it a fiery furnace while frying most of its fleeing inhabitants. The traveling dwarves plus Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins can only watch the horrific scene from afar while muttering “Poor souls.” It’s a grand set piece.
Smaug is perhaps the most terrifying of all cinematic dragons, effectively voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch with a gleefully deep-throated, devilish menace. His attack on the village is both realistic and horrific. When the dragon is finally killed – no plot spoiler; this all happens before the opening credits – his plunge to death is truly spectacular. This is the kind of sequence that would normally end a film, yet Five Armies hasn’t even begun. With the conquest of the dragon and the opportunity for the dwarves to reclaim the gold in the mountain now clear you start to wonder, what next? Isn’t it over? That’s when the talking begins where new conflicts to overcome are created: everyone wants a piece of the gold, or as Gandalf puts it, “Dragon sickness sweeps into the hearts of men.”
As expected, the battles that proceed are a marvel of modern movie technology. The widescreen is filled with images that are simply astonishing. You’ll never be able to take in everything that Jackson places in his frame in one sitting, maybe not even in two, so rich is his eye for detail, but that’s not altogether a good thing when the fighting goes on for so long. The titular character, Bilbo Baggins, takes a back seat in his own story as the battles and conflicts continue, one after another.
What initially made the first two films work – even though the events of the second by far exceeded the entertainment value of the bloated first – was the humor and likeability factor of the hobbit. Casting Martin Freeman was perfect and it was he who grounded everything among the squabbling dwarves, goblins and elves, but this third outing is having none of that. Part Three is more reminiscent of the spectacle that was Lord of the Rings with little room for humor or anything resembling a grounding factor, plus every character we’ve come to know, and some we might have forgotten, turn up to utter a line or two, whether they’re relevant to the story or not. Director Jackson literally did not want to leave anything or anyone out.
A problem with continuous fighting is that is ceases to excite. The opening scenes with the dragon far exceed the nail-biting factor of the final ninety minutes, and what was always a classic novel in children’s literature is now swollen into something children of a certain age perhaps shouldn’t be subjected to seeing. You can admire the technical skill, but this is a story that could have made one great film that instead became three. Three times the box-office, sure, and three times the riches, but when it comes to the question of whether the three films have lost sight of what the one book was all about, I’m with Christopher Tolkein. Perhaps that dragon fever Gandalf talked of swept into the hearts of others beyond just the story.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 144 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)