The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – A Review

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“Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty we are free at last.” Those, of course, are the words made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech. These were also my words after the final Hobbit movie. After nearly nine hours invested and a lot of time watching people walking, I was very relieved that my time in Middle Earth is (hopefully?) over for the foreseeable future. Please make it so, Peter Jackson. I’m not the world’s biggest Tolkien fan to begin with – I never read any of his books – but I did enjoy the original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The Hobbit, however, was a true test of my patience. Had the final film failed to get nominated for any Oscars, I would have waited to watch in on HBO or DVD. But a nod for sound editing meant that The Battle of the Five Armies was in play for my Oscar death race, so reluctantly I trudged off to the cinema.

As the movie began to start, I realized that I remembered very little from The Desolation of Smaug, the second film in this trilogy. That’s not necessarily a good sign. As I racked my brain for information to orient myself, this is all that I could come up with:

  • Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the dragon, was pissed off and about to attack a town.
  • The dwarves and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) had spent two movies trying to get to Lonely Mountain for…..some reason. I honestly no longer remember.
  • There was some sort of romance brewing between Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and one of the dwarves, Kili (Aidan Turner).
  • Gandalf (Ian McKellen) was off doing his own thing.
  • The Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) was kind of a jerk.
  • There were way too may dwarves to keep track of.

Thankfully, you can see The Battle of the Five Armies without knowing a lot of the backstory. There are enough cues within the film so you can basically figure out what’s going on even if this is your entry point into the trilogy. Turns out, a lot of the information that was garnered in the last two films was relatively extraneous. I know that life’s a journey, not a destination, but when it comes to The Hobbit movies, the destination is when the action really starts to kick in.

As the subtitle indicates, the focus of The Battle of the Five Armies is, well, a battle. That means that there is a lot less wandering around and a lot more killing, which was a very welcome change of pace for me. The third film is around twenty minutes shorter than the previous two installments and it moved a lot faster and held my attention. One of the reasons I was loathe to see The Battle of the Five Armies in the theater was because it was a 144 minute time commitment, but I have to say that the time flew by. It’s the amazing the difference that some bloody warfare can have on a movie.

The Battle of the Five Armies begins immediately after where The Desolation of Smaug left off – with Smaug on the verge of wreaking havoc on Laketown. Smaug is dealt with – unsurprisingly since his name is no longer part of the movie title – but not before the people of Laketown have lost everything. They seek refuge in the ruins surrounding Lonely Mountain, led by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Now that Smaug has left the treasures of the mountain unprotected, the people of Laketown want a share of the gold to begin to rebuild. But they are not the only ones who want a piece of the treasure; Thranduil and his army have also descended on Lonely Mountain, in search of some jewelry that was part of Smaug’s stash. Unfortunately for them, Thorin (Richard Armitage) – the dwarf king currently in residence of Lonely Mountain – is not in the sharing mood and has barricaded himself and his companions inside. Thorin gets some reinforcements when his cousin shows up with a dwarf army and everyone is ready to square off…until the Orc army that’s been lurking in the last few movies shows up to complicate matters. Commence battle royal.

It’s nice to finally have some payoff from the previous two movies; the stakes are pretty clear in The Battle of the Five Armies and while there is some other stuff going on, the film benefits greatly from one focusing event. The cinematography is always top notch in these films and Jackson certainly knows how to do world building, so it’s nice to see these elements used for a greater purpose. The actors all do a nice job as well; this may not be the kind of work that gets you recognized for an Academy Award, but they create real characters that – other than the miscellaneous dwarves – are memorable despite the fragmented screen time required to accommodate so many stories and a cast this size. The action sequences are choreographed very well and even though there is a lot of chaos as battles break out on multiple fronts, it’s never hard to keep track of what’s going on or what everyone is up to. It helps that despite all their bluster and inherent scariness, Orcs seem pretty easy to kill. There’s also a fair amount of humor infused in the film, which was somewhat lacking from the previous installments. My only real complaint is it’s a little unclear on the accounting methods used to get to the five armies in question. There are four obvious armies in play – The dwarves, the elves, the Orcs and the humans – but I’m not sure if they are counting the animals that show up pretty late in the game as the fifth army or not.

All in all, The Battle of the Five Armies was a much needed change of pace from the rest of The Hobbit trilogy. I’m not sure that the previous 5+ hours of buildup were necessary, but the franchise ended on a relative high note. The Hobbit trilogy will always pale in comparison to The Lord of the Rings for me, but The Battle of the Five Armies was my favorite film from the trilogy. If you liked An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, you will definitely dig the final installment of the trilogy. If you found the first two movies as boring as I did, you may be surprised by The Battle of the Five Armies.

 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is currently in wide release.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – A Review

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In for a penny, in for a pound.

That’s kind of how I feel about The Hobbit movies at this point; once I invested three hours in the first movie, I have to see this thing all the way through. I was admittedly not a huge fan of the first film – an opinion that only intensified after almost a year of reflection – and I had to psych myself up a bit to go see The Desolation of Smaug. The thought of making another 2.5+ hour deposit to watch a bunch of people walk around was not necessarily something that I was especially looking forward to. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy parts of the original film, but I was ready for something to actually happen.

The good news is that The Desolation of Smaug is a definite improvement over the first film; there is a lot less wandering around and dwarves singing and more action and actual plot. There are scenes in this film that are downright thrilling and you really can’t go wrong when you add a dragon to the equation, let alone a dragon that is voiced by the great Benedict Cumberbatch. So there are definitely a lot of positives. Unfortunately, though, the film is still plagued by pacing problems and juggling too many subplots. After almost six hours, this all feels like preamble to the actual story. A lot of chess pieces were moved around, but in the grand scheme of things I felt like we didn’t really go anywhere.

I was a little concerned that I hadn’t done a refresher course on The Hobbit before going in to see The Desolation of Smaug, but that wound up being an erroneous concern. There was an awful lot of filler in the first film and by remembering the broad strokes I was in fine shape for the second; I daresay that you could probably jump right into the second film without having seen the first and you wouldn’t be all that lost. That’s a testament to how little of importance actually happens in these films. Our band of dwarves, the eponymous Hobbit and a wizard thrown in for extra measure are still on the run from Orcs en route to the Lonely Mountain. Their escape beings them in contact with elves, the titular Smaug and even honest to goodness humans, who I forgot even existed in this universe.

While the first film relied on director Peter Jackson mining the footnotes of The Hobbit to pad the story, for the second installment he is deviating from the Tolkien blueprint a bit by either creating totally new characters or pilfering characters from the author’s other books and planting them in this story. I have no problem with this – artistic license and all – but I’ll be curious how these decisions sit with the Tolkien purists. It seems like a necessary move to me if you insist on making a 300 page book into an approximately 9 hour movie; there just isn’t enough source material in the basic The Hobbit story to fill all that screen time. I mean think about it – it would take less time to read the book that it will to watch the entire The Hobbit movie.

From my view, these alterations contribute to making The Desolation of Smaug a better installment than the original The Hobbit film; both Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reviving his character from The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and new creation Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) help bring some much needed action to the franchise that previously relied too much on walking and talking. Bloom could probably do this role in his sleep by now, but he smartly gives Legolas a bit of naiveté in this film; since the events of this film take place well before the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it makes sense that his character wouldn’t be exactly the same. He hasn’t had the same experiences yet.  Lilly kicks some serious butt in this movie and instantly became one of my favorite things about the film – a surprising development since I definitely was not a big fan of her character Kate on Lost (or her portrayal of said character). Despite her somewhat limited screen time, Tauriel quickly becomes one of the most developed characters of the movies; I can still barely tell the dwarves apart at this point, but she has a clear point of view and is far more well-rounded than most of the other characters we encounter in the film. I don’t know if Jackson put more thought into Tauriel because she was a new creation, so he was starting from scratch, but she is a welcome addition to the club. I also enjoyed the addition of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and look forward to more of him in the final film.

Both Legolas and Tauriel are part of the most exciting sequence in the film – the barrel escape. This was a spectacular bit of film making and was one of the most fun action scenes that I’ve seen in a while. It was shot and choreographed beautifully; there was so much going on in, but it was gorgeous chaos. It was filled with crazy stunts and was the fastest paced part of the films to date, but it was also funny. The barrel escape was easily the moment of the film that most enraptured the audience – while my fellow movie goers were pretty quiet during the rest of the film, you could feel people moving to the edge of their seats and reacting to what was unfolding in front of them. That scene alone is worth the price of admission. Just artfully executed and a much needed shot of adrenaline.

Smaug the dragon was also a pretty impressive creation and I quite enjoyed the early interplay between Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (Sherlock in the house!). The cat and mouse game that they play was initially pretty suspenseful and I’m always ready to listen to Cumberbatch’s distinctive voice. The scenes inside Lonely Mountain were also visually pretty stunning – though I didn’t see the film in 3-D, I can imagine those that did having a sense of being completely swimming in gold and treasures.

However, while I initially was entertained by Smaug v. Hobbit, this section was plagued by the same problem that I’ve had with a lot of the films to date – it simply went on way too long. When you have a dragon in the film – hell, the dragon’s name is IN THE TITLE – you are ready for that dragon to be unleashed. But Jackson seems to subscribe to the “tell, not show” school of filmmaking, so instead we get a lot of chit chat. It just goes on a beat or two too long and the suspense that they have been quietly building up begins to deflate. Seriously – that Smaug is quite the chatty Cathy. When Smaug is finally allowed to spread his wings and throw some fire it is awesome, but just when things are getting exciting the film ends. I’m not saying you have to go all in when there is another movie to be made, but after all that buildup it just didn’t feel all that satisfying.

While the first hour or so of the film flies by and moves at a much quicker pace than The Hobbit, the film then screeches to a halt. There is a definite inconsistency to how this story is told – there is no second gear. The film either moves at a snail’s pace or it kicks into turbo. The poor pacing resulted in this movie once again feeling a lot longer than its actual run time and I’ll admit that I was bored on more than one occasion. Had I not been in a room full of people, I could have possibly fallen asleep.

Gandalf also disappears for most of the movie and is off on his own little side mission. I haven’t read The Hobbit and I’m sure that is part of the original story, but everything involving him in the movie felt disjointed and separate from the rest of what was going on. I actually forgot all about him for long stretches of time, until the film would cut away from the momentum it was building to check in on everyone’s favorite wizard. I’m assuming that his story will converge more with the main action in the third film, but it really just didn’t fit in with the rest of the narrative as executed in The Desolation of Smaug. It was actually more of a distraction. And what kind of wizard gets a bunch of dwarves psyched up for this journey and then bails on them when they could most use him. That’s poor form, Gandalf.

Some other thoughts:

  • The fact that this is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy does lessen the stakes some; with so many characters that are also in the later movies, I know that they are in no real danger. Legolas might get into some trouble, but I know he’s alive and well in The Lord of the Rings.
  • No Gollum in this one. Bummer – I like that dude.
  • The Desolation of Smaug features the potential of an interspecies love story, something that I admit I never contemplated before. Apparently this is frowned upon.
  • You know, we’re almost six hours in to this story and I’m not convinced that Thorin (Richard Armitage) would actually make a good Dwarf King. He seems like kind of a jerk. That’s kind of a problem, since that’s the whole point of this quest.
  • From what I’ve read, fans of the book were really looking forward to the scene depicting the skin changer. While that is in the movie, I think they will be disappointed – it wasn’t all that exciting and it was incredibly brief.
  • If you suffer from arachnophobia, you are not going to like one section of the movie. At all.
  • From the audience reaction when this film ended, I don’t know that everyone knew that there was going to be a third movie. There was an audible groan and grumbling as we filed out of the theater.
  • I’ll be honest – the Dwarves’ plan to deal with Smaug seemed fairly convoluted. I had no idea what they were trying to do for a lot of the sequence and I was pretty sure that what they hatched (when I finally put it together) wasn’t going to work.
  • Hey – that’s Stephen Fry as the Mayor of Laketown!
  • We are now on year two of The Year of the Archer. Who knew bows and arrows would make such a comeback?

My problems with the Desolation of Smaug are mostly the same issues that I had with The Hobbit: I simply cannot buy into the central conceit that this book had to be three long films. I’ll stick it out, but I think that 99% of the problems with these movies could have been rectified by not drawing them out. There is just too much filler and the films go down too many seemingly unconnected side alleys that the central narrative is weakened by these diversions. While the pace of the second film is much quicker than the first in parts, it is still too inconsistent and drags too often. Perhaps this will all come together in the third film, but at this point this all seems like a lot of foreplay without much payoff. I left The Desolation of Smaug feeling like a lot of what I watched didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. While there were parts that I did really enjoy – the addition of the new characters in particular – I still can’t say that I am fully on board with these films. They are always well acted and beautifully filmed, yet the story and pacing deter from the ultimate success of the project.  I’ll reserve judgment until I see this story in its entirety, but while The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement over The Hobbit there is still a lot of room for improvement.  The pressure is now on Jackson for the final film to prove that this massive time commitment was worth it.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A Review

I am not a huge Tolkien fan. I’ve never read any of the books and while I enjoyed The Lord of The Rings trilogy a lot when it came out, I don’t think I’ve re-watched any of the films more than once in the last decade despite the fact that I own them on DVD. Their combined length plays a major factor – these movies all require something of a time commitment. I’m sure I’ve forgotten plenty of plot lines and characters in that time; it’s hard to overlook Gollum and his “precious,” but I’m a little fuzzy on the rest of the stories. And wasn’t Viggo Mortensen supposed to be a big star after those movies? I’ve seen some of his most recent work in films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (both films worth checking out) but he’s hardly the household name that I think people expected him to be.

Still, I still think fondly on The Lord of The Rings movies, even if I haven’t revisted them in quite some time, so I was looking forward to seeing the first of The Hobbit movies (there are three movies planned in total). I had a basic working knowledge of the world and creatures from the previous films, but didn’t know much more going in. I assumed it was some sort of epic journey – they are all about some epic journey – but I wasn’t sure about the chronology of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in relation to the other films, nor if any of the characters I was familiar with would make an appearance. The three hour runtime was slightly daunting, so I made sure I went to the earliest showing on a weekend.

I’m not sure how they managed to make a movie that is both slow and exciting, but they did it. I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey quite a bit, but it definitely felt like a longer movie than it actually was (and it wasn’t short to begin with). There were periods of intense action, but then there were periods where the story seemed to meander. I’m looking forward to the following installments – it’s kind of annoying when films end in the middle of the story – but I don’t think that this trilogy will quite live up to the Lord of the Rings films.

The Hobbit takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and focuses on the journey of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is the great uncle (I think ) of Frodo, the protagonist of the first set of movies. Bilbo is enlisted by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, reprising the role) to assist a band of dwarves on their mission to reclaim their kingdom from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, we also learn the story of how Bilbo came to obtain the Ring from Gollum (Andy Serkis), an event that has great importance in The Lord of the Ring films.

An Unexpected Journey settles into a bit of a pattern throughout the film – Bilbo doubts himself and his abilities, others doubt Bilbo, lots of walking, battle, repeat. It’s mostly entertaining, but it is also a bit formulaic and the walking and doubting can be a little slow. Jackson obviously loves working in this world and there is an impressive eye for detail, but sometime he dwells a little too long on these aspects and loses sight of pacing and advancing the story. While there was a lot of character development in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I don’t feel like I got to know any of these characters particularly well. I had a tough time keeping a lot of the dwarves straight, whereas the members of the fellowship in The Lord of the Rings each had their own distinct personality. We only really get to know the leader of the dwarves, Thorin (Richard Armitage). Freeman does a fine job as Baggins, but I didn’t walk out of the movie with any real sense of him and what makes him tick. Perhaps these new characters will be more fleshed out in the subsequent films, but after the first installment I thought of them more as detailed sketches rather than fully developed characters.

The real stars of the film are the characters that have been brought back from the other films. Ian McKellen is always solid and he steps back into the role of Gandalf effortlessly. It’s like he never took off his magical robes. But it is Gollum that unsurprisingly steals the show; when he finally makes an appearance in the last quarter of the story, the film really comes to life. I was a fan of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings – how can you not be? – and I am constantly impressed with the work of his portrayer Serkis. He is also responsible for giving Cesar such humanity in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (a film I enjoyed much more than I expected). It is really fascinating to see the process for creating these characters – CBS News recently did a story on Serkis and what he does that is worth taking a watch. He’s really one of a kind.

As The Hobbit is a children’s book, An Unexpected Journey is a little more family friendly than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are some exciting fight scenes, but they are not all that scary and the violence is toned down from the other films. The Hobbit is PG-13, but leans more toward the PG than the 13 in my opinion. The action is still exciting, but it is much safer than what you may be expecting from watching the original trilogy. One scene involving the battle between two mountains was pretty spectacular, though one could argue that it didn’t do much to advance the story. It sure looks cool though.

Some other thoughts:

  • Gandolf and Gollum are not the only familiar faces that show up in the first film and even more characters are rumored to appear in the later installments.
  • I will never understand how elves are bigger than dwarves and hobbits in this realm, but as someone who is vertically challenged, I do appreciate that it’s the little people that are getting things done in these films. Short people power!
  • I was a little concerned that I found myself thinking that one of the dwarves was attractive. So I was relieved to find out that it was Aiden Turner, who actually is an attractive person and is best known for playing Mitchell the vampire in the original BBC version of Being Human. I was worried there for a minute; I never dig short guys.
  • I probably could have done without the dwarves singing. This isn’t Snow White.
  • I really don’t know how people keep all these different inhabitants of Middle Earth straight. Every time they introduced a new race of people, my head started to hurt and I suspect it will only become more problematic as the series continues.
  • This video made me smile – there were too many dwarves
  • Am I the only one who thinks that Gandalf is high most of the time? He is always puffing on that pipe and has a pretty mellow look on his face a lot of the time.
  • FYI – pretty impressed that Gandalf is in my Microsoft Word word bank.
  • You don’t have to be familiar with The Lord of the Rings to understand what is going on in An Unexpected Journey. If you are looking to jump in, you can do so without missing much.
  • Radagast, the brown wizard, is apparently only a footnote to the original Hobbit book, but I liked what they did with him in the film. And once again, I was reminded what a freaking softie I have become when animals are in any kind of peril. This is ruining my street cred.
  • I opted to see the movie in 2-D, so I cannot speak to how the High Film Rate looks on the big screen. In general, it has received mixed results. I was curious, but not curious enough to plunk down the extra cash to find out. Plus I was afraid three hours in those glasses would give me a headache. I thought the movie looked beautiful in boring old 2-D.

I liked The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but found it did not hold up well when compared with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Such comparison may be unfair – we are only 1/3 of the story that Jackson wants to tell – but I walked out of the theater slightly disappointed. The Hobbit is a fun movie, but I fear that in Peter Jackson’s attempt to stretch a 300 page book over 3 movies, he has made a series of films that is far too slow and is stretched too thin in trying to incorporate to many minor points and characters. An Unexpected Journey is far too much set up and not enough of forward movement; while there was plenty of neat things in the film, a lot of them were wholly unnecessary in service of the narrative and only served as a diversion. I would have liked a little more focus on the core characters and story. Again – this is an unfinished work and perhaps I will feel differently once the trilogy is completed. But at this point, despite the fact that I found the return to Middle Earth pleasant and entertaining, it was ultimately unsatisfying.