An extra long review for an extra long franchise.
Ah, Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films. Few other blockbusters have permeated popular culture to such an extent, and the stakes are high for The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, which is presumably the last ever release of the massive Middle-Earth movie canon.
Jackson’s phenomenal success in bringing The Lord of the Rings to the screen is pretty much universally accepted, but The Hobbit Trilogy has by no means had an easy ride where fan responses are concerned. The decision to shoot the classic children’s novel as three separate major-length movies was controversial enough, never mind the criticism the films have received for being melodramatic, long-winded and too divergent from the book. Personally, I’ve always been a huge LOTR movie-buff, but after being disappointed by The Desolation of Smaug (this film’s predecessor), I had to entertain a terrifying possibility: maybe the non-believers have a point.
As I strapped in for two and a half hours of what is essentially one long-ass battle scene, my hopes were not high, but I also wasn’t completely pessimistic. Say what you like about the integrity of the high-grossing Hobbit franchise, but there’s no doubt that Jackson & Co have still succeeded in totally immersing the audience in a fantastical world, the epic scale of which is both aesthetically stunning and emotionally compelling. We care about this story, and we are invested in the fate of plucky Bilbo Baggins, who is portrayed as always with sensitivity, humour and unpretentious heroism by Martin Freeman.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Smaug the dragon does plenty of desolating, and gets thoroughly desolated, in the long overdue resolution of the infuriating cliff-hanger the last film left us with. The apocalyptic scale of the dragon’s rampage has got to be one of the most successful aspects of The Battle of Five Armies. It’s classic heart-in-mouth stuff, and surprisingly horrific for a 12-rated film. The film’s obscene special effects budget really comes into its own here – the visual magnitude of the dragon’s demise is chilling and convincing, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Smaug is pretty stellar, even if you’d never have known it was him if the internet hadn’t refused to shut up about it.
However, when the main title finally rolls on screen after approximately fifteen very traumatic minutes, it’s a little depressing to realize that pretty much the entire movie is still to come. The consequence of giving such a specifically action-driven section of the novel its own full length feature is that the fighting has to get more and more outlandish to keep the audience interested. Unfortunately, this just results in it being increasingly far-fetched, to the point where the action scenes are essentially parodying themselves, and you will find yourself calling bullshit every five minutes.
Over-reliance on clichés is another problem. With so much of the film’s emotional impact relying on bombastic special effects, there’s not much provision left for significant character development. Representations of madness, loss, moral turmoil and the darker psychological aspects of the story often give way to more generic tropes, which exploit these themes for audience gratification, but leave them underdeveloped in order to speed the plot along to the next climactic fight. The disingenuousness of sensationalizing both physical and emotional conflict throughout the film alienates the audience from the characters in a manner that is common in more basic action movies.
But it’s not all bad. Gandalf kicks ass in classic style, which I doubt we’ll ever get tired of, and the writing of the grand total of two major female characters actually won’t leave you tearing your hair out in frustration. Meanwhile, clever narrative quirks create a sense of continuity between The Hobbit and the over-arching plot of Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga, whilst also establishing the trilogy as an effective exposition for The Lord of the Rings, which is set sixty years later. And if you still need convincing, Billy Connolly rides into battle on a pot-bellied pig and possibly redeems the entire movie.
What we are eventually rewarded with is a heart-warming sense of closure, although it’s been a bit of a rocky ride. In my opinion, the true mark of success for The Hobbit films is the extent to which they remind the generation who’ve grown up watching Lord of the Rings how far we’ve come, and how much of a home we can still find in movies about wizards, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and the battle between good and evil. Whether or not you agree with me is up to you, but there’s only one way to find out – put cynicism aside while accepting the possibility that things just won’t be the same, buy that cinema ticket against your better judgement, and venture into Middle earth one last time.