Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

I left my afternoon screening of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies talking my wife’s ear off about what I would have done differently, but later that evening I was already ruminating fondly over parts of the movie. I even felt a quiet urge to pop An Unexpected Journey or The Desolation of Smaug into our Blu-ray player, if only I owned copies. What’s up with me?

I cannot deny that I have serious reservations about Peter Jackson’s conception and execution of J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s novel as a bloated, decadent three-part movie epic. In this third movie chapter, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) comes into conflict with the leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who is filled with a jealous love for his newly regained treasure. At the same time, news about Smaug’s demise (dealt with early on in the film) spreads abroad, and armies of various races converge at the valley of Dale before the Lonely Mountain. Thus, several chapters from the end of Tolkien’s book are turned into an extravaganza of stormy words, large-scale destruction, inventive one-on-one combat, and false climax after false climax.

By now, there can be no doubt: this is Jackson’s Middle-Earth we’re witnessing, and not Tolkien’s. Throughout his prequel trilogy, Jackson has overhauled the focus, tone, and genre of The Hobbit. Nearly all the fairy-tale and folk-tale elements of the book have been drained from the narrative. For instance, no talking bird alerts Bard to the dragon’s weakness; Bard’s heroic effort and great capability, not folk-tale trickery or unexpected aid, help him to overcome Smaug. This example also points to a strange tendency present in Jackson and company’s system of adaptation: even though a modest children’s novel has been stretched to three long movies, so many of the complexities, ambiguities, and circuitous charms of the literary text have been eliminated for the film.

But while Tolkien’s narrative has been mostly hewn down to a straightforward heroic tale about dwarves on a quest, additional storylines (either newly invented or only suggested in the book) more compatible with Jackson’s vision have been grafted on or greatly expanded—such as a love triangle between the elves Legolas and Tauriel and the dwarf Kili, the dark magic spreading from the castle Dol Guldur, or a national feud with the goblins of Gundabad. Most of these additions seem plausible within Jackson’s envisioning of Middle-Earth, but his system of cutting established elements of the book only to add invented or expand marginal elements still boggles my mind. (And I won’t forgive Jackson’s scant interest in Beorn, a man who can turn into a bear, when he dreams up so many cave trolls at the Battle of the Five Armies.) Overall though, while I don’t agree with Jackson’s intention, I for one believe his trilogy is fairly successful at transforming Tolkien’s fairy story about a simple hobbit’s journey through the large, wide world into a grand heroic adventure about a clan of dwarves’ efforts to regain their lost kingdom, with some help from a hobbit companion. As a Tolkien enthusiast, I would prefer more Bilbo and less action, but the dwarvish saga and high adventure on display is still worthy of consideration and measured praise.

For how a movie adapts a book is important, but it is never the only question. We could talk all day about what’s not there, but for the remainder of this review, I want to address what is up there on the big screen, in 3D and at 48 frames per second! For all my reservations, I also cannot deny how much I enjoy aspects of Jackson’s world.

In The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the valley of Dale before the Lonely Mountain is a wonderfully realized geography. Days after seeing the movie, I can mentally visualize its layout and explore it in my memory in a way that few, if any, films have done before. All movies (not just 3D ones) involve creating the illusion of three-dimensional space and movement with a series of flat images, and Jackson is a master at visualizing space and movement on a massive scale. His ability would seem to involve a combination of the skillful deployment of advancements in visual effects (his camera always swooping and careening about, seemingly without limitations) alongside inspiration from video game aesthetics. For me, the delight of spatial freedom in an invented space is one of the aesthetic pleasures characteristic of video games. Jackson has mentioned his affinity for video games before, and I think the influence is there.

By this sixth film in the Middle-Earth saga, however, Jackson’s worst tendencies are as visible as his High Frame Rate special effects. He loves false climaxes, and uses them far too often. Every time the sound is muted and the music shifts to ethereal choral voices, we know something is going to happen—a last-minute rescue or an emotional death. (David Bordwell’s idea of redundancy in classical Hollywood storytelling is on display nearly all the time.) Much like in Lucas’s prequel trilogy, success has given Jackson’s oddball humour too much free reign.

But The Battle of the Five Armies also showcases what Jackson does consistently well. The action is sometimes too much, especially when we are given countless shots of digital armies colliding, but most of the scenes of solo combat and smaller-scale action are far more inventive and comprehensible than that of most blockbusters. Thorin’s fight on a frozen pond and Legolas’s race along falling stones are particularly memorable. Lastly, Jackson is also good at exploring relationships between men (by which I mean male humans, dwarves, hobbits, and elves). The tension between Bilbo and Thorin is a highpoint in the trilogy’s drama, and the breakdown of their friendship achieves weight because Jackson is also so good at creating feelings of male camaraderie on-screen.

So what do I take away from The Hobbit movies? First, I think no one can deny that they are on a level beneath The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I would also add that they are cut from the same cloth—different in measure, not in kind. Afterall, Jackson’s weakness for too much was already evident in the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings, and it carried on and kicked into high gear with his King Kong. In my opinion, The Hobbit movies are entertaining, very flawed, but more re-watchable and less disposable than most blockbuster entertainment today. They are fun, goofy, extravagant adventures in a fantasy world I love.

7 out of 10

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (New Zealand/USA, 2014)

Directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Lee Pace, Sylvester McCoy, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, and Orlando Bloom.