March 28, 2015
by Derek Defoe
I've often wondered how many Tolkien fans there are out there who completely and entirely hate Peter Jackson's take on the material, and feel these films do a great disservice to the text, sacrificing its quaintness and detail for big, loud action scenes. There must be plenty, but I've never been brave enough to journey to the corners of the internet where such opinions are expressed. Richly detailed J.R.R. Tolkien's world certainly is: pages are generously filled with descriptions of the landscape, the plates of food, and characters do not hesitate to stop and sing the songs of their people. As charming as that is, and as much as it invites the reader to immerse themselves into Middle Earth, it might not have necessarily translated directly into an accessible motion picture- nor would it justify the multi-million dollar budgets of the films, or garner the obscenely large box office grosses they have won. Jackson is a smart enough filmmaker to understand this, and work within this while still maintaining the spirit of the novels, and right from the beginning with Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 he has found a disciplined skill to augment and fine-tune the best sections of the source material that could be transformed into action adventure spectacle. With The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, Jackson has risen to the greatest challenge yet in adapting- what?- the last 10 pages of The Hobbit?- and turning it into the final chapter of this trilogy.
Jackson is also smart enough to know that had Smaug, the titular dragon of the previous film, met his fate at the end of Part 2, audiences may feel a bit too satisfied halfway through, and may not have as much incentive to line up for Part 3. It is sound logic, but it deprives that second film of a great ending, and makes the structure of this third part, and for sure, the trilogy as a whole, feel a little uneven. Smaug is defeated before the title card appears on the screen. We're left with the aftermath of Smaug's desolation, the ethical conflict of the Dwarf leader, some unfinished business with those snarling orcs. I think there's also a Hobbit somewhere here.
What can I really say? Yes, there is a big battle. It involves five armies. The lead up to the battle and the battle itself is stretched to about 2 hours and 20 minutes. Much like the other films in this series, it is part Hobbit adaptation and part Lord of the Rings prequel. There's as much taken from the book as possible and it has some fair compliments to the story that would follow with Fellowship to come years later. Bilbo, the hobbit, finds himself there and back again. Rivalries between the species of Middle Earth are addressed here and enhance what's only mentioned the LOTR trilogy. We see some hints of Saruman, a key villain from Lord of the Rings (the brilliant and legendary Christopher Lee) beginning to make a pact with the devil. We see a nice little arc with Legolas (the handsome camera-mugger Orlando Bloom) defying the rule of his own kingdom while his father, and we as the viewer, realize he may have a lot in common with a certain strider of the north, and an allegiance would suit them well. And maybe the most interesting aspect to this story as a whole is what's going on behind the curious eyes of the Grey Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, I love you), and that amidst this adventure involving all these locations, all these dangerous creatures, all this conflict between the inhabitants of Middle Earth, was a very specific test of character, valor, and moral compass of whom he'd deem worthy of carrying and protecting a little ring in plain sight, and keeping Middle Earth safe from far greater concerns than what we see played out in this adventure.
It's all well and good but this time around I sensed the struggle to tell a story more than ever before. I applaud Peter Jackson for his efforts but The Battle of Five Armies reached a point for me where I had to ask, "How much longer can these elves and men and dwarves and hobbits swing swords at each other?" It carries on quite a bit, and it feels like it's less of a spectacle and more patience trying. The battles scenes are fine but nothing we haven't seen before. The swordplay and hand-to-hand combat is less innovative, it consists of a lot of characters struggling sword-to-sword, about to pierced or sliced, then other characters popping up from behind to save them, and so on and so on. Then again, the gravity defying stunts of Legolas are a welcome change of pace and may or may not provide unintentional laughter. Hopping from elephant to elephant in Return of the King seems a lot less impractical now. Here he hitches rides on giant fucking bats, he guides a troll to head-butt a tower which collapses and is used as a bridge, he leaps from singular falling bricks step-by-step to avoid falling to his death, and in one scene he flies around the world so fast he makes time turn back, like in the first Superman movie.
If there more grandiose elements are a little tired, I think the largest appeal remains in the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo, who was used well in the first film but too underplayed in the next two. In LOTR, I was fine with Frodo's story being set aside every now and then because there was a bigger story to tell, but I wish they had focused more on Bilbo for this series. Freeman's performance is charming, and I think more complex than what he leads on. He is, after all, a vessel for the audience, he is the homebody taken off to a grand adventure. He has the comedic smarm and quirky facial ticks of a sly everyman. He has the urgency and believability when it comes to reacting to the danger around him. And his sadness is genuine when not all his friends survive the unexpected journey.
This makes six middle earth films, and while appropriately enough it is the most action-packed of the Hobbit trilogy, wisely it does not go off the deep end in trying to throw absurd and unbelievably over-the-top elements in an attempt to go out with a bang and one-up Return of the King. That is not Peter Jackson's M.O. The Hobbit has bridged into Lord of the Rings in a way that makes sense, and feels right. You can now bravely set up your home theatre system and indulge yourself in a marathon of six Middle Earth films, and if you're even braver, partake in theatrical revivals, which are sure to pop up every now and then. The series has come together, Peter Jackson has left us with some great movies, and it's been fun, if not a little sad to leave Middle Earth.
That is, until he breaks and directs a 10-Part epic adaptation of The Silmarillion, beginning holiday season 2022.
Guillermo del Toro
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien