Two years ago, I reviewed the first movie in The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey. (You can read it here if you’re interested). Last year, however, I somehow didn’t put up a review of the second movie, The Desolation of Smaug. Therefore, rather than just do a review for the third and final movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, I figured it’s probably better that I just provide an overview of some of my thoughts on this second outing by Peter Jackson and Co into New Zealand…I mean, Middle-Earth.
The final two movies continue the story of Bilbo Baggins – the eponymous hobbit – who is part of the company of Thorin Oakenshield, heir to the dwarf kingdom of Erebor. The dwarves and Bilbo are marching against the clock for they must reach the Lonely Mountain in time to use the key Thorin carries to a secret door which will only be visible on a particular day. In their path lie dangerous forests, angry elves, distrustful humans, a dangerous Orc pack that hunts them, a lake and the knowledge that, upon arriving at the mountain, they have to find a way to rid themselves of the kingdom’s lone occupant: the massive dragon who centuries earlier destroyed their armies, leveled cities and ousted the dwarves from their home.
At the same time, larger and darker forces are moving in rhythm with the dwarves’ quest. For their mission to reclaim their home is but a move in the larger chess game between the guardians of good and mysterious evil forces. Minions of a greater, darker power move out of ancient ruins and seem to threaten a long-held peace across Middle Earth. Whether or not anyone can recognize the evil in time also plays into the story and what happens to Bilbo, Thorin and their friends.
You can tell why Jackson was so accommodating to Martin Freeman. I’m sure there are other actors who could have done a really good job with the role of Bilbo. None, however, could have embodied him and given him so many quirks and eccentricities like Freeman. At no point in any of the nearly 10 hours of screentime did I consider it was Freeman or see his John Watson or his Lester Nygaard or Tim Canterbury. It was 100% Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who was brave and kind and curious and managed to bring us along for his great adventure. Even though he’s the smallest of them all, Freeman’s Bilbo holds his own when he’s facing off threats or confronting the mighty lords of Middle-Earth that he encounters.
Alongside Freeman, Richard Armitage manages to capture the complexities behind Thorin, son of Thrain. A prince without a kingdom. A proud hero who was forced to spend years serving in lowly stations while his family’s heritage and his people’s history were trampled on by a giant beast. A noble dwarf who could not get over the various injuries – real or imagined – by those who turned their back on the outcasts of Erebor. Armitage was a revelation in this role and managed to hold his own against Freeman and McKellen. Even as he became, in many ways, a villain in the last movie. As his greed, his pride and his desire overwhelmed his personality, Thorin became more lost the closer he got to his goal. This comes to a head in The Battle of the Five Armies, where Thorin, now crowned King Under the Mountain, refuses to honor the deals he struck with the men of Lake-town for aid and opts to fight them and the Elvish forces of King Thranduil. He doubts the loyalty of his dwarves and threatens Bilbo out of spite and anger.
Of the rest of the dwarves, the most memorable is Aidan Turner’s Kili, who engages in a chaste, star-crossed romance with Evangeline Lily’s Elf warrior, Tauriel. The creation of Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro, the romance between Kili, Tauriel and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas can’t help but feel shoehorned and rushed over the latter two movies. It appears to sprout out of nowhere, blossoms fast and becomes a key factor in the actions of all three characters towards the end of the tale. Whether or not you like it will depend on how much patience you have for it. All three actors are game but for a series that feels to drag towards the end, I can’t help but feel it extraneous.
Beyond him, the rest of dwarves fall somewhere between key contributors and small roles with Ken Stott’s Balin, Graham McTavish’s Dwalin, William Kircher’s Bifur and Dean O’Gorman’s Fili as among the more memorable of the company. Even with those that only function as small cameos — like Jed Brophy’s Nori or Ada Brown’s Ori or Stephen Hunter’s Bombur — they fill the story quite well and manage to make you root for them. All the obstacles against them increase the closer they get to their goal. Like I said in my first review, this is their story as much as it is Bilbo’s. Watching them struggle and fight against orcs, giant spiders and a freakin’ ginormous dragon gives the story all of its energy.
Speaking of the ginormous dragon, without a doubt, the highlight of the entire trilogy is the sequence in The Desolation of Smaug when Bilbo and the dwarves reach at last the Lonely Mountain and must confront its lone occupant, Smaug the dragon. Just as Gollum was a revelation for Weta Digital back in 2002, so is the dragon a massive triumph for the New Zealand technical giants. As brought to life by Weta and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is greed personified. It is a massive beast, fearsome and capable of death on a large scale who has been slumbering atop a massive pile of gold, gems and treasures for over two hundred years. It is cruel and cunning and, though amused at the diminutive thief who appears in his halls, he quickly turns to a beast full of rage. And all those emotions and nuances are brought to life by Weta and Cumberbatch. Honestly, Smaug is the secret weapon of this story and it delivers.
Bilbo’s mission is to steal the one jewel that will allow Thorin to claim the title of King of the Dwarves: the Arkenstone. Smaug, though, is no fool. He’s surprised to encounter Bilbo and is humored by the strange being he does not know, but he quickly figures out his purpose and who sent him. This ends in a mission for the outmatched dwarves to find a way to kill the dragon once and for all for their sakes and the sake of their quest. In fact, so impressive is the sequence with Smaug, which reaches its climax at the start of The Battle of the Five Armies, that the story seems to lose a lot of its energy once it ends. Which is a problem since the bulk of the last movie occurs after Smaug is out of the picture in the prologue. The big villain in the story is gone before the last movie’s title card is revealed.
Instead, Jackson and company continue to expand on the mentioned-but-not-a-part-of-the-book side-quest by Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey to uncover the dark events surrounding the Necromancer of Dol Goldur. While at first it involves only Gandalf and Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast the Brown, it eventually ends up impacting the quest for the Lonely Mountain and revealing a dark secret: the Necromancer is really the spirit of the Dark Lord Sauron returned. It takes the combined might of Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Christopher Lee’s Saruman the White to depose Sauron off his fortress. But by then he’s managed to generate two of the large armies that come to a head for the climax, all under the command of Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), the white Orc who wishes Thorin and his kin dead.
Look, we can debate whether or not it was necessary to include this in the adaptation of Tolkien’s work. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason why he never left the story of Bilbo, Thorin and the dwarves to write in detail where and what Gandalf and the White Council were doing. (Obviously, it wasn’t written because the Necromancer wasn’t Sauron and the ring Bilbo found was nothing like the One Ring he’d turn it into years later). Ironically, any time we leave Bilbo and the dwarves for the tale of the other, mightier persons, things become less interesting. It speaks to the talents of Tolkien as a writer to recognize that his tale should never leave its main protagonists for side plots.
This is the crux of the problem for Jackson. After the triumph of The Lord of the Rings, there was a desire to turn The Hobbit into an equally-profitable production. This was increased given the difficult road that was required in order to bring this property to life. With movie rights with a going-into-bankruptcy MGM and Peter Jackson still feuding with New Line Cinema over owed royalties, it looked like The Hobbit would never see the light of day. They all managed to come together in the end. But the decision was made, first, to make two Hobbit movies and then three Hobbit movies. And I don’t know that it was for the story’s better.
Put simply, The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings. I know that sounds facetiously obvious. What I mean is that The Lord of the Rings is a massively epic tale that brings together all the races of its world in a destiny-defining battle for the fate of all. It’s good versus evil writ at its largest. The Hobbit is a smaller tale; a more personal tale. It’s an individual’s adventure as he is part of a quest through the various kingdoms of Middle-Earth. He is changed at the end, but the amount of darkness that Bilbo experiences is nothing compared to what Frodo does. It ends on a note of happiness, not of sadness.
That pressure to call back to the spirit of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy goes beyond just stretching the story into three movies and adding big CGI battles at the end. Characters end up taking characteristics similar to previously seen characters. So Luke Evans’ Bard turns into this trilogy’s version of Aragorn, Ryan Gage’s Alfrid is a weaker, comical Grima Wormtongue, Legolas is here doing Legolas-y things, the people of Lake-town are as besieged at the end as the men at Helm’s Deep and so forth. Most notably, it’s the constant callbacks to the One Ring that Bilbo continues to carry through the series. Now in the book version, Bilbo’s ring is simply a magical ring that makes him invisible and there’s never a sense of foreboding like there’s in the movies, where several characters are struck by its duplicitous nature and the music continues to hint at its darker self. Structurally, musically, in so many ways, The Hobbit has been retrofitted to be another Lord of the Rings and it struggles to keep such expectations high.
By the end of The Battle of the Five Armies – this trilogy’s shortest entry – I began to feel bored by all the CGI spectacle. Bored. The thousands of elves and dwarves facing off against the orcs and wargs meant nothing to me. They were merely pretty background. Again, I gotta give credit to Tolkien, who understood that the this battle was not the important aspect, but instead, it was the greed of Thorin coming through and his inner turmoil that mattered. Instead it gets short shrift for more armies lining up and battling.
So what to make of this adaptation? It looks beautiful. It’s got parts that are as good as any in the previous trilogy or any other fantasy series. The leads are great in their roles and they’re easy to root for. But I get the feeling that there’s an intrepid fan editor out there who’ll one day take the Extended Edition versions of The Hobbit and find a way to make a single, 3-hour movie that better reflects the story we all grew up reading in school. There’s so much of it there but stretched thin; like butter scraped over too much bread.
Here’s also hoping that Peter Jackson finds himself back to smaller fare that allows him to stretch himself again. He’s a very talented director who feels like he’s treading water ever since The Return of the King. In a way, he too is marked by bearing the burden of the One Ring.