Monday, December 22, 2014


Originally published at Cinema Knife Fight, December 22, 2014.

After the movie glory of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaption of J.R.R Tolkien’s epic novel series, THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001 – 2003) fans clamored for the director and his crew to put the smaller prequel, The Hobbit, onto the big screen. After 9 years, he did, expanding the original story using snippets of other Tolkien works and adding new plotlines himself, with wife and co-writer Fran Walsh, along with Phillippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro.

Was it too much, using three two-and-a-half hour films to tell a story from a novel that was probably half the length of LOTR’s first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring?

Yes, a little. Admittedly, when Part One – THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPETED JOURNEY (2012) was released, I felt every geek’s excitement at the chance to return to Middle Earth and a story I enjoyed myself as a teenager. By the end of the second film, THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013), I was nodding, thinking, That was pretty good. Not perfect, but good.

Halfway through this third and final chapter, I was pretty tired. Granted, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014) is an exhausting film. When I originally read The Hobbit, I was impressed that this interesting, winding story of Bilbo Baggins and his traveling Dwarf companions was coming to a climax with such a wonderfully huge, epic battle between five armies: Humans, Dwarves, Elves and, in the book, the Goblin-ruled Orcs (but in the movie it was just Orcs driven by, I guess, the emerging presence of Sauron…. I think. Got a bit muddled and my 3D glasses were making me all watery-eyed). The fifth army came later, as they do in these stories, but no sense giving it all away here.

The majority of the film, as I suppose the title should imply, is battle itself – at least, it seemed to be. Unlike the two climactic battle scenes in RETURN OF THE KING (2003), this one just didn’t have the same sense of peril. It should have, but even with some decent character development in the beginning, it more felt like this was the last hurrah for Jackson and so they were trying to pull out all the stops. All the stops weren’t pulled out, however, not in comparison to RETURN OF THE KING. The shortfalls came mostly in the special effects department, surprisingly.

The second Hobbit film ended with Smaug, the dragon which had occupied the stronghold under the mountain where all of the lost Dwarf treasury and (to them) their identity, had been hoarded for decades, storming out of the fortress in a winged rage intent on destroying the human settlement that lived across the lake.

THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES opens immediately at this point, with Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbach (the British TV series SHERLOCK, and the movie  STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, 2013), bearing down on and decimating the small fishing town. This was not a long scene, surprisingly, but then again once a dragon starts barbequing a town, it doesn’t take long until there isn’t much left to burn. As expected from the previous movie, hapless family man Bard (Luke Evans, DRACULA UNTOLD, 2014) ends up facing off against Smaug in what was a clever bit of man-to-dragon posturing (most of the posturing done by the dragon, of course, any reason to give Cumberbach more lines to speak—seriously, the guy could read a dictionary and it would sound awesome). The face-off was extremely well-done—better than I’d worried it might turn out during the second movie when the script all but screamed “This is how Smaug will be defeated.”

Alas, Smaug’s big-screen presence was soon forgotten, and missed. Although the idea of a cliff-hanger between the second and third films is an age-old go-to device for filmmakers, the final Smaug scene belonged at the end of DESOLATION. I get it, leave a little dragon for the next film to draw people in. Maybe it’s just my geekness showing itself again (we’re never happy) but for continuity’s sake it would have been better, now that I’ve seen it play out at the beginning of BATTLE, if they’d closed the second movie with this part and left the battle of the five armies and the build up to it, for the final curtain call alone.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I was tired and am projecting this onto the actors, but with a few exceptions, most of the cast didn’t have much… how should I put this… newness to them. Even Bilbo, played to perfection especially with his subtle, unspoken gestures, by Martin Freeman (the British SHERLOCK TV Series, the British version of THE OFFICE TV series, and, more recently, the American TV series FARGO on the FX channel), seemed like he was ready to take his furry feet off and head home by the end. More so with Ian McKellan’s Gandalf. The Gray Wizard is always a fan favorite, but he wasn’t the center point of this film. Nor was Bilbo, to be honest. Thorin, king of the Dwarves, was the main character here. Played as in the previous two films with intensity by Richard Armitage  (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, 2011), Thorin spends most of the film under the “Dragon Sickness,” a blinding obsession with the vast treasures beneath the mountain, and which had affected his grandfather, and Smaug. The gold, the uncountable treasure, changes him mentally and emotionally, ala Gollum with the Ring. It got old, though, as the story wore on, to the point they needed to deepen his voice and add an echo to make it different. This is a common theme in Tolkien’s stories, however, from Thorin in The Hobbit, to Sauramon, Denethor and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The most fleshed-out characters in the film—both in performance and writing, —were Bard, who becomes defacto leader of the humans after defeating Smaug, and Kili, the dwarf who took a liking to wood elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, from the LOST TV Series) in the prior film. Their growing love for each other is a plotline added to the story by Jackson and company, not original to Tolkien. However, it’s a decent addition to the plot, without which there would be nothing but clanging swords and howling Orcs. Aiden Turner (BEING HUMAN TV Series) carries this expanded role quite well, as does Lilly.

One aspect of the second Hobbit film I liked was the introduction of Sauron’s growing power and how this is used to connect The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. They bring this part to a quick close with one all-star scene in BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, and it was fun to watch, even if it did feel added-in for the sake of the fans, since nothing else really comes of it. It was oddly edited. For example, one character is strong and healthy one second, then beaten down and exhausted the next—the explanation for which must have been left on the cutting room floor (or put aside for the inevitable expanded DVD edition). Even with Sauron’s appearance, Gandalf makes no connection later between him and the ring Bilbo stole from Gollum. This isn’t the only scene which brings Fellowship elements into THE HOBBIT, though most are at the end of the film as a way of saying goodbye to fans, than actually adding to the story.

Now, the special effects were visually stunning when it came to settings and world building, as we’d expect from Jackson. The director, however, set his own bar very high with the first trilogy of films, using many varieties of effects, CGI included, but also models, trick photography, etc., to trick the eye into believing what we see on the screen. In the three HOBBIT films, this final installment especially, more CGI was used over any other approach. In fact, it was so prevalent, nothing looked all that realistic. Was it better than DRACULA UNTOLD (2014) or the plethora of other computer-imaged fantasy movies of late? Yes. Maybe a little better, as good as them, at least. But a far cry from the marvelous scenes and imagery of THE LORD OF THE RINGS films. Call me picky, or overly critical in my middle age, but I was disappointed in the visual effects for the most part. It looked more video game than epic motion picture. From the battle scenes to the Orcs and their minions, to the obvious de-aging of Orlando Bloom as Legolas.

One thing I like in the first film but missing in the other two, is the music. When Bilbo meets the dwarves in AN INEXPECTED JOURNEY, they sing the song from the book about dwarves and dinner and it was quite well done. Even in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, some songs found their way into the final versions, sung by the actors. But the dinner song and the lament of the dwarves, which came soon after this scene, were the only two in all three HOBBIT films. Seeing how well they were done, having more of these peppered throughout would have added to the more innocent feel of the original HOBBIT story. Instead, the films became progressively darker and toneless.

Not that The Hobbit—the novel—didn’t also become quite dark by the time the Battle ends. Without giving away any spoilers, I’d forgotten that certain characters died in the book. They also die in the film, not exactly the same ways as in the book, but close enough. Having these specific characters kick off makes sense, in both mediums, since, with a battle of that size and range, it added at least some “realism” than would allowing all the good guys to survive.

As a side note, if you’re curious to see a film rendition of The Hobbit with nothing extra added into the pot, and all the songs, I strongly suggest the Arthur Rankin, Jr. animated film THE HOBBIT (1977). It was extremely well-done and, until Peter Jackson came along, the best rendition of any Tolkien work to date. Granted, it was a cartoon, which might put some folks off. But we took what we could get back in the day.

In the end, as a lifelong fan of The Hobbit, THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, and the two prior HOBBIT films, were a long-awaited treat for me. Were they perfect? No, and they seemed to be less so as the films wore on, but they would not have been done nearly as well in anyone else’s hands.

But speaking on this final film alone, I can only give it two and a half knives. Worth seeing if you’re a fan, but not as good as the first installment.

But I give Mr. Jackson a special 4-star nod, simply for making the films in the first place.

© Copyright 2014 by Daniel G. Keohane