Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Dir. Peter Jackson

2.5 out of 5

Like many, I was nonplussed when Peter Jackson announced his intention to make his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit a trilogy of films, and have dutifully indulged his obsessive completism.  I've tried taking different approaches to evaluating the first two movies, and even mined the depths of Jackson's oeuvre for answers.  After all that, I can only say: I told you so.  The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final installment of the trilogy, most conclusively illustrates the folly of splitting a picaresque beginner's fantasy novel into three epic films.

Say what you want about the first two movies, but at least they had variety.  Battle is an unambiguous war film and wears its subtitle like a straitjacket, devoting a generous chunk of its 140-minute runtime to the titular conflict.  As such, the slaying of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) - which would've made a fantastic climax for the previous movie - is an overqualified opening act, setting the stage for the clash over the beast's abandoned mountain of riches.  Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is caught in the middle of the fray and questioning his loyalty to Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarf refugees, for whom the mountain is their ancestral home.  But soon the claimants come out of the woodwork - humans, elves, orcs, more dwarfs - and the maneuvers of CGI armies supplant the self-actualization of humble hobbits.

Let it be known that Battle of the Five Armies knows how to flaunt its impressive scale.  The envelope-pushing effects that Jackson pioneered in his Lord of the Rings trilogy are perfected here.  What's missing, however, are the emotional underpinnings.  Jackson doesn't totally neglect the small, crucial moments, and the screenwriters' invented romance between elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner) continues to pay dividends.  But in a way that's just a reminder of how bloated and dull these films are, and how they fail the source material, if one of their greatest strengths is essentially a fan-fiction subplot.  Bilbo himself is shoved farther into the background as Jackson presents a repetitive, cluttered, and exhausting final fight as our great reward for sticking through it all.

Battle's lasting impression is that of a interminable hack-and-slash video game played out to its underwhelming conclusion - imagine the loud finale of a typical action franchise picture, with its grand armies and functional dialogue and boss battles, stretched to feature length.  The Hobbit has been a fundamentally risk-averse endeavor of surprising mundanity that will satisfy audiences happy to consume more of the same old comfort food.  (It also embodies all the worst tendencies of prequels with its hamfisted connections to LOTR and the forced inclusion of Gandalf's (Ian McKellan) anticlimactic side quest with the first trilogy's B-team.)  Nothing can take away from what Jackson achieved with the Lord of the Rings films, but The Hobbit does what I previously thought to be impossible: it makes Middle-Earth a more ordinary place.  We have been taken there and back again, but we've almost completely missed the point.

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