Monday, January 5, 2015

Movie Review: The Hobbit - Battle of the Five Armies

Last week my wife and I got a sitter and headed over to our local iPic theater to have a cocktail and snack and watch the last of the three Hobbit movies, The Battle of the Five Armies (BotFA).

While I really enjoyed Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, and really like the Hobbit book, I disliked the first two Hobbit films. I felt that An Unexpected Journey completely got the characterization of Bilbo Baggins and (to a lesser extent) Radagast, incorrect, and ended on a climax that sort of missed the whole point of the story. For the sake of a "modern" audience, Jackson turned Bilbo into an action hero, jumping in front of that orc to defend Thorin, and with that one scene completely changed how Bilbo is portrayed in the movies. The Desolation of Smaug was an even worse offender in terms of characterization, losing the simple nobility of Bard by turning him into a gruff smuggler type of character, and then completely ruining the dwarves by turning them into comic relief, especially during the completely made-up scene where they infiltrate Erebor and are chased around by Smaug in a manner reminiscent of old Scooby Doo cartoons where the Scooby gang would run through one door, being chased by a ghost, only to reappear down a hallway through a completely different door. It was unnecessary, childish, and ultimately served to portray the dwarves as idiotic morons rather than the strong, stoic, and brave warriors they are.

Jackson did this to the dwarves before, particularly in the second and third LOTR films, wherein he turned Gimli into a comedy relief stereotype that completely missed an opportunity to illustrate how the dwarves, like the elves, were a dying race that soon would be gone from Middle Earth. I'm really not sure why Jackson finds this need to forcibly insert comedy into these stories where it doesn't belong and yet skip over moments of mirth that are in the source material.

With that background and context of my feelings of the past movies in this series, let's dive into Battle of the Five Armies.

I didn't like it, although it was better than the second movie of the overly long Hobbit trilogy. That's the short version.

Jackson jumps right into the action of the story by showing Smaug's attack on Laketown, which is incredibly devastating. Visually, this part of the movie looks pretty good. The CGI isn't too obvious and the way the movie portrays the destruction of the city is very real. The viewer really gets a sense of just how powerful Smaug is, which is something we didn't see in the previous movie. There are also some pretty decent invented scenes of Smaug conversing with Bard. But, Bard ultimately slays the dragon without the help of Bilbo's talking bird friend, which was a disappointment. It's been established earlier that there are talking animals in this world, and it would have been easy to include this fun scene from the book. Jackson has gone so far away from the essence of the Hobbit story, which is more fairytale like in its approach to fantasy, and it's a true shame. These movies could have served as a way to get younger kids excited about Tolkien's epic fantasy milieu so that when they were a bit older they could dive into the LOTR movies. Instead, by trying to force LOTR's darker, more violent and "mature" sensibilities onto the Hobbit, he's completely killed the essence of what makes the Hobbit story so good.

From there, things get worse with only a few bright spots throughout. I won't comment on the love affair between the created-for-the-movies character Tauriel and Kili the dwarf other than to say if you didn't like that aspect in the previous movies, you will dread it here because it takes up even more screen time.

Other than that, there is quite a bit of material not from the book and that was not even part of the appendices. Much of this is hit-and-miss. There is a fun scene with members of the White Council coming to save Gandalf from the Necromancer which does elicit a bit of geek fan-boy cheering but one does have to question exactly how Gandalf was so easily captured and beaten in the first place. They also make it quite clear after this scene that the White Council is fully aware that Sauron is in the process of returning, which makes many scenes in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, in which Gandalf and the rest of the White Council seem oblivious to Sauron's return, not make any sense.

Jackson dwells far too long on Azog and the orc armies, as well as introducing yet another orc big-bad, Bolg and the orcs from Gundabar, in this installment, and the movie suffers for it. We already understand that Azog is bad and has a grudge against Thorin and the rest of his family, but we don't need to spend so much time with the strategies of the orc army, or even introduce the character of Bolg, who was superfluous to this movie. Jackson also pulls a Dune moment on us and completely out of the blue, introduces some weird huge sandworm creatures that are part of the orc army, but they show up for about 20 seconds of screen time and have absolutely no impact on the actual final battle themselves.

The true enemy of the Hobbit book, in my mind, has always been Thorin himself. When he is gripped by his greed for gold, he makes a lot of very bad decisions that have dire consequences for himself and his crew. Bilbo sees these happening and the story becomes one of the reluctant peasant hero, Bilbo, trying to save a noble king, Thorin, from becoming his own worst enemy. While some of this story does come through in the movie, it's buried so deep under all of the CGI battles and the invented or adapted material that wasn't part of the original story that the viewer has to struggle to really understand who the main characters are and whom he or she should be identifying with. My own wife, who has read the Hobbit and understands the basic structure of the story, left the theater and told me upon leaving, "I wasn't sure who I was supposed to be paying attention to." Bilbo and Thorin, the two most important characters in this story, are given short shrift in this third installment so that Jackson can spend more screen time with Tauriel and Kili, Bard and his children, the "Deputy Master" of Laketown, and Legolas and his father, King Thranduil. All of these characters are superfluous to the main story between Bilbo and Thorin and yet in this movie they take on an artificial importance that destroys the momentum and, ultimately, the point of the film.

Jackson and his screenwriters also see fit to change two of the most powerfully written passages of the book, first with Bard's speech to his black arrow that he uses to slay Smaug, and then even more egregiously, by re-writing Thorin's farewell speech to Bilbo. That last speech is the most powerful moment of the book and while Richard Armitage, playing Thorin in the movie, does a good job with the dialogue written for him by the screenwriters and it is somewhat close to Tolkien's words, it's not as elegant or powerful and I struggle to find reasoning for why it was changed.

Visually, BotFA is a bit of a mixed bag. While much of the actual scenery is beautiful and the set designs are artfully created, the actual battle scenes are very obviously CGI and it takes the viewer out of the movie. It's been more than 10 years since the Return of the King, and yet the Battle of Pellenor fields in that movie actually looks better than many of the battle scenes in this movie.

As my readers know, a few years ago I read The Hobbit to my (then) three-year-old daughter. At one point, when we were about 3/4 of the way through the book, I heard her after dinner explaining to her mom what the book was about. "Mommy... it's about this hobbit named Bilbo Baggins and he goes off on an adventure with these dwarves but all he really wants to do is go back to his home."

My three-year-old daughter distilled down the essence of the Hobbit using one sentence and her very limited knowledge of life. Somehow, Peter Jackson got too wrapped up in trying to make the Hobbit something bigger than it is, and as a result, he missed the point entirely.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: water
Listening: "Double Decker (Deck the Halls)" by Christian McBride

3 comments:

  1. This is a beautifully succinct and accurate analysis. I couldn't agree with you more. I particularly liked your remark about how Mr. Jackson missed a great opportunity in the LOTR to have the Dwarves reflect on their status as a dying race and instead played them for comic relief. No doubt Mr. Tolkien would have strongly disapproved.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading, Bill, and for your comment. I really appreciate your compliments.

      My understanding is that the entire Tolkien Estate disapproves of the Jackson movies across the board, so I don't think we'll be seeing any other Middle Earth movies any time soon, which is a shame. There are some neat stories in the Silmarillion that could make some great short, stand-alone movies.

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