The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
2014 • 144 minutes • Warner Brothers Pictures
“We’re still on for seeing The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies tomorrow, right?”
“I’ve scheduled it in as ’12:05 PM: UGH’ on the calendar.”
Yes, it’s been a long time since I excitedly herded a pack of Valkyries to the midnight premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey back in 2012 resplendent in a homemade Fili costume. Despite the fact that my heart has ever beat for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings ere we met, Les Hobbitses un et deux have both proven to be lesser footnotes in the canon of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies shares much of the same problems with its predecessors. All of The Hobbit films heavily rely on CGI that gives the whole proceedings the weightless, stakes-less look of a mid-aughts video game that can only look worse when compared against the jaw-dropping tactility of The Lord of the Rings. The literary protein powder required to bulk up The Hobbit into a trilogy, while organically sourced from the Appendices, ends up muddying the narrative structure. (As in food and as in fashion, it’s always easier to edit down from too much than the opposite.) And the overwhelming nostalgia for the original trilogy that saturated The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug takes new form in pointed elbows to the rib about Dúnedain kids showing promise.
By the end of the film, watching credits recalling the The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King credits I have wept through time and time again, I was more resigned than disappointed. These films exist. They’re a part of Jackson’s Middle-Earth and they’re not awful. In fact, in their best moments, they manage to capture the epic, heartwrenching sweep of Peter Jackson’s uniquely cinematic take on Tolkien. But The Lord of the Rings does that consistently. (Although I would be lying to say that there aren’t a small number of missteps in that trilogy. Oh, slow motion. You are so hard to utilize correctly.) It’s sort of like watching Galavant immediately after Agent Carter: it appeals to me on an instinctual level, it’s not awful, and it has its moments, but damn if it isn’t anywhere near the high bar set by the first.
The hardest part is seeing such a phenomenal cast try to make an impact against their video game settings. Case in point: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ opening set piece, which pits Luke Evans’ Bard against Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug. As Tauriel leads Bard’s children and the dwarves to safety, Smaug lays pretty devastating waste to Laketown with a near-constant stream of CGI fire. Bard breaks out of prison and goes to face the dragon alone with his bow, and it’s here that the dichotomy between reality and CGI becomes so obvious that it’s distracting. Luke Evans, who gives such beautiful life to a weary, fatherly, but slightly reticent Bard, is doing amazing work as he struggles to find Smaug’s weak point, but it’s so painfully clear that the largely CGI set has been green-screened in around Evans. Evans is giving everything he has, but the unreality of his surroundings actively work against him.
(“Why,” I asked Captain Cinema, “could they not just set a bigature on fire? Surely, that would be cheaper?” I mean, yes, that would be dangerous, but Viggo Mortensen broke a lot of things on the set of The Lord of the Rings. And he didn’t even think the production was going that well!)
While the rest of the dwarves fade into the background, it’s Richard Armitage’s time to shine as Thorin, as Thorin sinks into dragon-sickness over the assumed loss of the Arkenstone. By turns mad, warm, possessive, and, at last, as noble as he once was, Armitage makes Thorin a stunningly compelling creation. A particularly abstract and surreal visualization of Thorin’s mental state is one of the film’s more welcome experiments. (It’s matched by the Dol Guldur sequence, which is, alas, a short scene that is utterly Cate Blanchett’s.) And Martin Freeman, as ever, is the quintessential hobbit, wringing compassion and pathos and decency out of everything Bilbo does, from worrying over Thorin’s descent into madness to awkwardly confronting Thranduil.
But the film doesn’t do much to showcase these performances. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel remains wonderful, but the love story between Tauriel and Kíli now feels like Tauriel’s only reason for being in the film, even though she manages to confront her king about his coldness towards the outside world. (It’s implied that Mrs. Thranduil perished in defense of Mirkwood against Angmar, explaining his distaste for love.) There’s a few comedic touches that are dear to my heart—like Thranduil rolling his eyes at Gandalf and Legolas wondering whether or not to throw his sword—but I’m already looking more forward to revisiting The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring than revisiting any of The Hobbitses.
I saw this film in theaters.