By Clay Evans
Note (with apologies to Patrick Swayze): Sorry for the interruption, folks, but I always review Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies for the Daily Camera. This year somebody told me not to. So I’m gonna do my kind of reviewin’of the final movie in the Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies. Nobody puts me in the corner….
When Peter Jackson set out in 1997 to film J.R.R. Tolkien’s pioneering epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, he was keenly aware that millions of fans stood ready to celebrate or eviscerate him, depending on how he handled their beloved tale.
And he took them seriously. He changed directions based on fan reaction to leaked news or footage, as when he scrubbed plans to have the elf maiden Arwen appear in the battle of Helm’s Deep in 2002’s The Two Towers (rumor has it you can still spot her if you look very hard). He resisted ridiculous calls to alter the name of that film after the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, saying, “The Tolkien people would kill me.”
In the end, fans mostly forgave Jackson for his omissions, additions and alterations—most, if not all, justifiable given the exigencies of box-office and marketing—and the film trilogy went on to win high praise from critics and 16 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for The Return of the King (2003).
With the 2011 release of An Unexpected Journey, the first of three movies based on The Hobbit, Tolkien’s rather short 1937 children’s novel and Rings prequel, Jackson had a built-in, global audience of millions of non-Tolkien geeks, and he no longer feared tar-and-feathering at the hands of wrathful fanatics.
After an overlong, rather flat beginning, the first Hobbit movie transformed into a series of set pieces and interminable, implausible action sequences better suited to Indiana Jones or the Transformers. In 2012’s The Desolation of Smaug, Jackson and his co-writers doubled down on the physics-defying action and even concocted a key character out of whole cloth—Tauriel the female elf warrior (Evangeline Lilly), for understandable demographic reasons—and inflated the tiny role of the wizard Radaghast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) for comic relief.
Many fans appreciated the inclusion of barely mentioned subplots (taken from the LotR appendices), but simply put, Jackson had gone from making Tolkien films to big-budget Hollywood FX spectacles “based on the original.” Perhaps that’s no surprise, given his decision to stretch a 237-page story into three long movies—nearly as long as the three adaptations of the 1,200-page LotR. Still, the Hobbit movies made for enjoyable enough entertainment and non-Tolkien geeks didn’t know the difference.
Now comes the finale, The Battle of the Five Armies. Though far from perfect, is the best of the three Hobbit movies, more character-driven and loyal to its roots. I went in expecting to be disappointed, but came away seeing the second trilogy as a flawed, overextended, but fun adaptation spiced up with some fun fan fiction.
The second movie ended with Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) racing from his lair in Erebor, the destroyed mountain kingdom of the Dwarves. This one begins with his fiery destruction of innocent Laketown. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his 12 brethren, having escaped harm (and sacrifice) soon lay claim to the riches and proclaim their renewed kingdom. But Thorin is infected by the “dragon sickness,” swooning with dreams of power, and refuses to keep his promises to those who have lost everything.
Vengeful Elves, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), and the devastated people of the lake, led by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), seek peace by offering the new king his heart’s desire in exchange for reparations, but prideful Thorin refuses, declaring that an army of Dwarves from the Iron Hills is on its way. But so are tens of thousands of orcs from the Misty Mountains and the northern stronghold of Mount Gundabad.
Some of the “fanfic” bits are wholly invented, such as the story of renegade Elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel, and the saga of Bard’s children. The efforts of the White Council—wizards Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee, at 90 still incredibly hale), elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and elf lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving)—to drive the evil Necromancer from Mirkwood, drawn from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, is strained and overwrought, raising more questions than it answers.
The late Roger Ebert complained that The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) gave short shrift to its hobbit characters; I disagreed, and the subsequent movies proved him wrong. But that was a problem with Hobbit films, which reduced the eponymous Bilbo Baggins to a supporting role and seemed uninterested in the heart of Tolkien’s story, his subtle progression from timid, provincial hobbit to an everyman full of courage, loyalty and moral insight.
The third movie partially redeems those problems, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) playing a key, complex role in the turbulent events leading up to war. Tolkien deserves the credit here for the plot, but Freeman does an excellent job with the material.
Critics sometimes charge that Tolkien’s work is morally simplistic and too black-or-white. Careful readers know that’s nonsense (Exhibit A: Gollum), and Battle’s focus on character makes that clear. The movie reveals both the nobility and shadows in Thranduil and Thorin, shows the soon-to-be-corrupted Saruman fighting for good, and even Gandalf’s misjudgment.
Freeman reveals Bilbo’s struggles, guilt and gradual descent into dishonesty (courtesy of the One Ring) with the subtlest of facial changes. And despite Thorin’s descent into maniacal pride, greed, callous arrogance and delusion, the scales fall away when his young cousin Kili (Aidan Turner) proclaims, “I will not hide behind walls of stone while others fight our battles for us.”
As a result of all that, Battle rises above its predecessors’ lack of heart and soul. There are some truly intimate scenes between characters—Bilbo and Thorin, Bard and his son Bain (John Bell), and most surprisingly, Tauriel and Kili (whose star-crossed, Tony-and-Maria love was so botched in Desolation that it was a little yucky, so tone deaf that it actually stooped to a dick joke). Now, for the first time since Frodo and Sam’s farewell in 2003, Jackson has made a movie that brought tears to my eyes.
Surprisingly, the movie misses incredible opportunities to delight its audiences with foreshadowing of The Lord of the Rings. I can think of and handful of oh-so-brief shots—say, a certain tortured someone emerging into sunlight, a young boy arriving in Rivendell, a first, subtle sign of possession by evil—that would have left fans with goosebumps, … but no dice. And I will never forgive Jackson for whetting my appetite for some truly kick-ass fight scenes, then once again reducing a beloved, powerful character to literally a few seconds onscreen. There damned well better be more in the extended edition.
You have to love Jackson and Co.’s creativity with creatures. The mounts alone include not just Wargs for the Orcs, but also sure-footed rams and a woolly pig for Dwarf nobleman Dain Ironfoot, not to mention Thranduil’s butt-kicking caribou. (Weirdly, Jackson even seems to have stolen an iconic beastie from Frank Herbert’s Dune.)
The horses, though few in number as as always gorgeous; kudos to the filmmakers for winning the American Humane Association’s stamp of approval for their treatment of animals throughout filming.
The landscapes are of course breathtaking, whether its New Zealand in all her naked glory or the fantastical CGI depictions of crumbling castles, vast mountain halls and icy northern battlefields. It’s just too bad that the requirements of film pacing have so drastically reduced the mighty scale of Middle-earth, which spans thousands of miles.
Still, I agree with Viggo Mortenson (Aragorn in the first trilogy) that movie after The Fellowship of the Ring has felt less organic, gritty and real, thanks to Jackson’s escalating dependence on CGI. All those incredible Orc makeup and masks invited close-ups in the LotR movies; it’s striking in this movie how reluctant the filmmakers are to zero in on hideous mugs, unless they are CGI.
Jackson’s isn’t likely to return to Middle-earth. Tolkien liked the idea of making movies of his books, but his estate never supported the films and is unlikely to release the rights to The Silmarillion or his other works.
Jackson, at any rate, has given more than a decade of his life to bring Middle-earth to life, and he’s hinted that he’s ready to move on—really move on this time. Thankfully, he still had plenty of heart to put into The Battle of the Five Armies. It’s no Lord of the Rings, and it’s not quite Tolkien, but it’ll do.