A film review by Craig J. Koban January 1, 2015

THE HOBBIT: 

THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES jj
½   

2014, PG-13, 144 mins.

 

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins  /  Ian McKellen as Gandalf  /  Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield  /  Aidan Turner as Kili  /  Orlando Bloom as Legolas  /  Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel  /  John Bell as Bain  /  Dean O'Gorman as Fili  /  Lee Pace as Thranduil  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug (voice)  /  Luke Evans as Bard  /  Cate Blanchett as Galadriel  /  Hugo Weaving as Elrond  /  Christopher Lee as Saruman  /  Billy Connolly as Dain  /  Ian Holm as Old Bilbo  /  James Nesbitt as Bofur

Directed by Peter Jackson  /  Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro  /  Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien 

SCREENED IN
HFR 3D

 

For all of the obsessive die hard fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth literary universe, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES will elicit great sadness in them, seeing as it’s the last of the current cinematic trilogy and arguably the last film we’ll likely see set within THE LORD OF THE RINGS world.  

 

For the Tolkien agnostic in me, though, I was experiencing a sensation of greater relief than melancholy.  There’s no doubt that Peter Jackson deserves serious props for his dedication and pure filmmaking craftsmanship in bringing us a 1000 minute-plus, six film series that painstakingly brought Tolkien’s characters and world to the silver screen.  Alas, with THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES – much like its two predecessors – we still have a film that – despite being the most mercifully short of the trilogy at 144 minutes – still suffers from the self-indulgent bloat of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.

 

As I stated with my reviews of the last two HOBBIT features, gluttony and excess sadly taints this new trilogy.  THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES certainly is the swiftest and most expeditious film in the series and has more of a propulsive forward momentum than the elephantine pacing of AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, both being so buried in narrative sluggishness that you literally felt like you were on a days-long trek trough Middle Earth itself.  THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, unlike its antecedents, satisfyingly relies less ostensibly on “filler” and “padded” material that was slavishly mined not only from the skimpy 300-page HOBBIT novel, but also from the various appendices of THE RETURN OF THE KING.  This is good, seeing as this entry focuses more on concluding the entire enterprise as opposed to engaging in long-winded expository material.  Yet, by the time the film reaches its conclusion I nevertheless felt emotionally drained; THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, despite its surefootedness, still feels like a cerebral endurance test.

 

 

 

The film has its share of storytelling peculiarities, like its opening sequence – arguably its most pulse pounding and electrifying – that feels like it should have been the climax of THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG.  Instead, it’s thrown in here as an introductory act that has the counterproductive effect of making the film feel off-balance.  When we last saw Smaug the dragon – a virtuoso visual effects creation, voiced for maximum audible bassiness by Benedict Cumberbatch – he decided to launch an attack on the nearby hamlet of Lake Town, mostly because he was angered by how Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves infringed on his gold-laden lair.  After Smaug lays most of the town to a burnt cinder, the gallant Bard (Luke Evans) saves what remains of it and destroys the beast.  Smaug was easily the most fascinating character in the first two Hobbit films, which leaves his appearance in THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES more of a strange and disappointing cameo.

 

Things don’t continue on peacefully, as it appears that Thorin has been consumed by Smaug’s gold itself, leaving him a psychologically damaged man that will stop at nothing to protect what he thinks is his in the world.  Unfortunately, the denizens of Lake Town and the Elves feel betrayed by Thorin’s lack of sharing in his newfound riches, and would-be peaceful negotiations between all of the parties ends in heated conflict, which is exacerbated by the reappearance of Azog and his Orc/goblin army, whom would like nothing more than to wipe Middle Earth clean of everyone around them.  Bilbo, realizing that war between all is inevitable, aligns himself with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and tries to come to grips with his loyalties and friendships with the dwarves and those of Lake Town.  Hell, predictably, breaks loose.

 

THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is an undeniable visual stunner, just as was the case with the first two HOBBIT films.  THE HOBBIT TRILOGY deserves worthy placement on a short list of films including, yes, THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY and the STAR WARS saga for being colossal and unparalleled technical achievements in the area of out-of-body escapism.  Jackson, to his esteemed credit, is at his finest when it comes to meticulous world building in these films; Middle Earth simply feels like a living, breathing entity, and the transformative power of THE HOBBIT films lies in their innate ability to transport us to a different time and place.  The titular action set piece is frequently a jaw-dropping stunner.  Jackson, no stranger to choreographing massively scaled mayhem and carnage, crafts a near hour-long war sequence of multiple armies crashing together in an epic donnybrook.  The fact that Jackson manages to make swift spatial sense out of all of his chaotic disorder is a testament to his skills.  

 

Unfortunately, Jackson’s insatiably relish for blood-soaked fantasy warmongering is THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES' undoing and, ironically, isn’t the essential fabric that made up Tolkien’s original text (the battle occupied one chapter in the novel, but eats away at nearly half of the film’s running time).  It’s Jackson’s very insistence of delivering wall-to-wall battles – some sequences contained within that never seem to know when to really tactfully end - in this film only accentuates the aesthetic, CGI-excesses and dramatic emptiness of the series.  Characters in the film – some of which could have been excised from the series altogether – seem to be placed in the background of the film’s unstoppable parade of sword-swinging action.  Some of the previous films’ redundant subplots, like a hastily developed love triangle between Evangeline Liliy’s elf Tauriel, dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), and LOTR alumni Legolas (the eerily ageless Orlando Bloom) kind of appear and disappear when the film deems it convenient.  The most intrinsically compelling story thread in THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is Thorin’s descent into “dragon-sickeness” madness, and at least Armitage gives a fully committed performance in full nostril flaring, despotic mode that gives the film a much need jolt to the heart it needs.

 

Yet, it has been this series’ unwavering willingness to thrown in character after character…after character….that leads me to pinpointing its largest casualty: Bilbo Baggins himself.  Funny, but for a film trilogy called THE HOBBIT, Bilbo is a completely marginalized entity within it; Jackson squanders the performance gifts and presence of Martin Freeman altogether.  Freeman is so damn good at playing his pint-sized burglar with the right balance of freewheeling mischief, dry humor, and self-doubting insecurity that I was left wondering why he’s delegated to the fringe areas of his own movie.  The fact that Bilbo barely speaks – or makes a substantial appearance - through the first 30-40 minutes of THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is sadly telling.  One of the themes of the entire Middle Earth film series is how hobbits always manage to underestimate themselves.  The cruel irony of THE HOBBIT TRILOGY is that Jackson underestimates the importance of having Bilbo be front and center in it. 

THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES has a nice closing scene of Bilbo returning to the lush bucolic pleasures of the Shire after surviving the arduous physical and mental tests of his three-film journey.  He seems tired, but quietly jubilant that his quest is finally over.  I know how he feels.  I wanted to feel euphorically whisked away by THE HOBBIT films, but by the time the end credits for THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES scrolled by on screen I let out a semi-whimpering sigh.  I was glad that this unnecessarily long trilogy that should have never been a trilogy in the first place was over.  THE LORD OF THE RINGS needed three films to tell its immense story.  THE HOBBIT sure didn’t.  And call me crazy, but I don't think that Tolkien himself would have approved of his book being churned into a staunchly action-heavy film where its main "hero" is on the sidelines throughout most of it.

And as for the film's High Frame Rate (HFR) presentation?  Don't get me started on that.  It's like a haunting trend of Sauron-like implications cast over the film world.  We need to be vanquished from it quickly.

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