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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies + Trilogy Retrospective

I’m going to ramble on about this trilogy, and then post my thoughts on The Battle of the Five Armies towards the second half. SPOILERS for the first two films and minor spoilers for Battle of the Five Armies. So you can scroll down to that review if you’d like. I’ll start this by saying that I’m a massive fan of the Lord of the Rings. It’s an absolute masterpiece and a landmark in filmmaking. They’re the first films I remember going to and being sucked into an immaculately crafted world, rich with iconic characters and a grand story full of spectacle and intimacy. Along with Star Wars they’re probably the reason I love large scale spectacle and hero archetypes the most. As a 9 year old kid my mind went wild. It was my generations Star Wars/Indiana Jones/Back to the Future. They’re near perfect films and the greatest fantasy films ever made alongside Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

So the massive success of Lord of the Rings pushed Warner Bros. to get The Hobbit going. In the mid 2000s Guillermo Del Toro was tapped to direct a two part adaption; he’s the perfect choice. I’ve read about his approach and seen his creature designs which favor practical effects and animatronics over Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). His approach takes Bilbo on a whimsical fantasy journey that’s much smaller scale than the The Lord of the Rings. This is in an intimate but playful adventure far from the dark, mature tone of The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit book and Del Toro’s approach with his two films uses Bilbo’s story like that of men going off into WWI and losing their innocence. His first film was going to be completely his own style and the second would bridge into The Lord of the Rings. That is the perfect approach to this material…

Things fell apart and Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings, is brought into direct what turned into a trilogy, and this is where things got messy. I’m gonna get really negative here but don’t worry… I get into the positives of these films later. Jackson’s attempt to create this has small marks of greatness in it, but there’s so much that is clearly rushed and not thought through. The focus on CGI effects is extremely disappointing and makes these films’ reality look like a video game cut scene; especially in this third film I’m acutely aware that this is all fake. In the Lord of the Rings the entire world looks real and has texture, richness. The cinematography is fuckin incredible. The reality of the films never break and the world feels never-ending.

The Hobbit book’s 300 page narrative is spread over 8 hours throughout this trilogy and there’s side stories thrown in only to foreshadow The Lord of the Rings events and to warrant the decision of a third film. Ironically Warner Bros. fell into the same greedy spell that Smaug and Thorin did, which the films try to condemn. $$$$$$$$$$$$. So, by the third film we have a movie ripe with B subplot story lines from the first two films that now are fairly prominent. Bilbo becomes a secondary character for a good amount of the film…. Da Fuq!? From the beginning it’s a majorly flawed approach that I’m fairly certain was because the studio wanted to keep costs down and to make it a 2012 winter release. This is Bilbo’s story and his loss of innocence, but throughout the trilogy it’s progressively lost in the CGI shitfest and bogged down narrative.

I guess the obvious and only comparison is to the Star Wars prequels. Those were structurally sound films that were full of imagination but were just poorly executed and had head scratching bad dialogue at times. “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything’s soft.” Any chance to say that I’ll take. The mythology and the promise of how great Star Wars could be made the prequels cultural events. They’re not bad movies at all; they’re solid entertainment, but that’s far from the masterpiece status of Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back….

The Hobbit trilogy lingers somewhere behind the Star Wars prequels. They too benefit from the mythology of their worlds and feed off of the love and legacy of Lord of the Rings, and that’s precisely what makes it a mess. Then there’s the abundance of CGI. I don’t go to the movies to watch some shit I could see in a video game. I go to see directors, writers, costume, production, set designers and makeup artists unite to create a vision. CGI is beneficial to enhancing a tactile image you’ve filmed in camera. The reliance on it in these films is a crutch. I wonder if they got backed into a corner on this or if it was a direct decision to use mostly CGI. I mean WTF….

There’s also the issue that the narrative of the book is built for 4-5 hours tops and it’s stretched into 8 bogged down hours here. The Lord of the Rings has an ensemble of clearly defined characters that we all come to know, love, and care about. The dwarves in The Hobbit films are completely undifferentiated besides Thorin, Balin (The wise one with the killer white beard) and eventually, Kili. For 8 hours that’s embarrassing to follow them and never learn about all of them. Lord of the Rings knocks all of that out in one damn scene. The Hobbit is simultaneously fun to be in this world and also a a terrible disappointment.

The Unexpected Journey, and The Desolation of Smaug have small moments of greatness — especially the former — and it should be said I somewhat enjoy those two movies outside of the big issues that come from the approach. There’s minor stuff throughout that I think is great cinema, but they only come in tiny bursts. The battle of riddles is a fantastically crafted scene near the level of Lord of the Rings. This is a world full of mythology and legendary themes of honor, betrayal, and greed. To balance out the undefined dwarf characters we get some good characters in the second film. Bard and Tauriel! Each of these films have moments of adventure along with some enjoyable whimsy camaraderie among the characters. Martin Freeman is fantastic as Bilbo and perhaps an even better protagonist than Frodo. Unfortunately he just becomes part of an ensemble as these films progress.

There’s snarky bullshit film snobs that dismiss these movies before they even see them. I’m highly critical of them because there’s plenty of poorly executed ideas, but I try to have fun with them because that’s what they are trying to be. FUN movies. I can enjoy each of the films positives because the people making it are highly talented filmmakers looking to make fun escapism. To quickly dismiss these as crap or bad movies is just straight ignorance to me. When the films aren’t trying to be The Lord of the Rings they start to get closer the essence of The Hobbit; it’s just a shame they never fully get there.

Bilbo trading dialogue with Gandolf and Thorin is quite a touching scene. You can feel the innocence leaving him. Bilbo’s adventures on his own throughout are excellent character work. The Desolation of Smaug‘s barrel river battle is the best action set piece of 2013. Just pure cinematic fun and probably the closest they ever got to channeling the tone of the book’s action moments. The battle of riddles with Gollum is the best scene these films have to offer. Tauriel is a great female heroine. The Hobbit book is a world built of mythology and fairy tales; full of dwarves reclaiming their throne for honor and glory, dragons in mountains, a man reclaiming his destiny. There’s shades of this iconic mythological fantasy in these films that should be applauded, but Jackson has taken the superficial and formal qualities of The Lord of the Rings and applied them here. In the process he forgot what made LOTR so great.

THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE COMPUTER ARMIES

Let me just unload all of the film’s problems first and then I’ll get into some good stuff. If you’re fan of the first two, you will like this, but The Battle of the Five Armies is the film that has to shoulder the massive building faults of the first two films. Those side plots of orcs, Gandalf finding hidden evil, dwarf conflict, Radagast, and that Jar Jar Binks annoying Alfred, all come to be significant parts of the movie. This is the product of making an unnecessary third film. Nor do I feel the extended cameos were necessary. There’s this *wink, wink!* “Remember us!!!??!!” mentality that’s off putting and cringe worthy. It just furthers the notion that these films try to emulate and bask in the glory of The Lord of the Rings. Legolas shouldn’t be in these movies. You have a badass in Bard and Tauriel. Make new fan favorites! Don’t run back to what you’ve already done. This nostalgic and retreading mentality is what pushes me away from this trilogy the most. Thorin as a character is supposed to be tragic but Jackson demands that he be the “Aragorn” of this franchise and in doing so he creates a mess in his formal presentation. It’s as if it’s all he knew how to do. In this film it becomes the biggest issue. Even more so than the terrible overuse and reliance of CGI. It’s a complete misunderstanding of who the character is.

Smaug the dragon is completely a minor character and his moments on screen are massively disappointing and render Desolation of Smaug almost inconsequential. Again, this is the issue of making three films and not creating an clear story about these characters. When you see the rest of the film it becomes even more depressing that they thought the second act battle was more important. The two major character arcs are nearly neutered because of how they execute Bard and Smaug in the beginning. He’s the kind of character that should’ve been in the middle climax of the second and FINAL film. Thorn’s arc is clumsily handled in the first half of the film, and I say clumsily because it’s oddly cut up with a bunch of set up happening outside his mountain walls that renders it a minor subplot. Greed is a pathology in this world and consumes him like a drug inside his barren kingdom, but the simplicity and length at which it’s explored is tedious. It’s a loooonnnnggggg hour before it finishes and it’s the same shit the entire time. It’s the mythological and stripped down humanity that The Hobbit book is brilliant at, but it’s not executed here beyond simple surface value and is treated like a B plot.

The trilogies narrative is jumbled, poorly paced and it all piles up here in the beginning. It’s 2.5 hours and you feel it. The big fight scenes are overlong and take little time to build up. “HERE YOU GO LOOK AT ALL THIS” Peter Jackson says atop his thrown as he directs the computer designers. The Battle of the Five Armies big CGI battle looks like World of Warcraft on somebodies computer. It’s cringe-worthy bad at times. The B plots become front and center in the first and second act; without them the film would be an hour and a half. This second act battle tries to emulate Lord of the Rings, but the DNA of this story is nothing like it in terms of scope and stakes. When it gets away from that and back to its own characters I started to mildly enjoy myself. Jackson finally somewhat returns to his fun cinematic footing after dabbling in the bland CGI spectacle for too long. He cuts to small moments inside this battle with characters we have spent a journey with. Bard looks for his children inside the city walls and there’s actual urgency. In the final third the cast shoulders the load of this story and begins to climb back into the great mythology of this world.

The Battle of the Five Armies represents the absolute worst aspects of this trilogy while simultaneously forcing you to join these characters and world for one last time and dammit I eventually did. There is enough good here, and Peter Jackson shoved so much nostalgia potion down my throat that I gave in. Even when it’s superficial and CGI filled, his magnificent world building and love for the characters and material allows it to be watchable and dare I say, enjoyable.

Amidst the issues there’s some decent stuff in this movie. In the third act we enter a Kurosawa-esque video game finale. They’ve been building up to it with the first two and Thorin vs. Azog fighting on an ice mountain is quite fun, although not worth the 8 hours of waiting. This is the kind of cool shit like when you play a video game and finally get to the boss battle. Your hands get a little sweaty and you get nervous. Most of the one on one fights don’t disappoint. But good god Legolas’ is completely unneeded…

Bilbo depressingly has little to do throughout the second and third act (are you shitting me?), but he has some intimate moments with Thorin and Gandalf in the closing scenes that give the trilogy closure and speak to the stories finest qualities. Bilbo’s discussions with Thorin reminded me of what makes the book timeless. I wish there were more scenes like this because they’re when these films begin to get into the real essence of the story. The mythological themes and focus on friendship, betrayal, and greed roll up into a hobbit sized joint but you only get half a hit. The quiet moments of discussion between Bilbo and others where he learns some truth or darkness about the world are what this is story is all about. It all goes back to his loss of innocence. The battles are of little importance to this story. Towards the end it really hit me that I was leaving this world. I realized that I actually cared for his story hidden beneath the excess and hours of unnecessary side stories.

Now onto what I consider perhaps the best part of the movie not in the source material. Certainly the closest this film series has ever gotten to being poignant outside of Bilbo. Tauriel y’allll! I know some dislike it because it’s forced, but I argue that it’s one of the few things that comes off as unabashedly honest. I was actually moved by Tauriel, whom I consider the unsung MVP of these films. Evangeline Lily deserves STARDOM. She’s given more to do in The Desolation of Smaug where she’s a straight badass, but the emotional payoff is found in this film. Then there’s Luke Evans as Bard who’s an everyman we can cheer for with crowd pleasing moments. I’m massively disappointed with the rushing of his character in this film, but he makes the second act watchable amidst the awful CGI moments. He’s one of the few characters that has depth so when he’s in peril we actually care.

There are one on one battles that I was into like Thorin vs. Azog and 1 other that got my adrenaline pumpin even if they go on for too long. At least Jackson was consistent with his over bloating in these films…. Even without build up and a script that actually has character depth I found myself wanting the hero to win, and sad for certain deaths. That’s what these films bread and butter are. Capturing a sense of fun with archetypes of good and evil. There’s a moment with Tauriel that gets pretty darn close to the relationship stuff in The Lord of the Rings. Amidst all of the CGI, similar dwarves, and needless side narratives the poignant storyline between Tauriel and Kili is a little gem. I’m incredibly impressed by it and it goes unnoticed in this big story.

In a shorter narrative of 2 films I think it would be the stand out besides Bilbo’s story. It gets stretched over the final two movies and hidden beneath the CGI shiftiest, but nonetheless it’s a solid emotional storyline and I applaud it. Yeah it doesn’t push the plot forward but since this is a bloated narrative already we might as well accept the one added element that’s well done.

Jackson’s language here uses a swirling camera to try to create spectacle and heighten the unreality of the battle. I’m a big fan of letting the camera breathe during fight scenes, but I’ll take this style when done right. The sweeping shots work to capture spectacle and size, but when used too often it becomes numbing and here it makes the CGI more obvious. Once he settles down, which isn’t often, he creates urgency and situations where we find ourselves rooting for the hero. It’s what these mythological stories are made for. My problem with most of them is the onslaught of never ending action and lack of dramatic build up. LOTR kept action always with the characters and made sure to create action and then reaction. Everything in this film from acting to music to cinematography is yelling obnoxiously that “WE ARE LOTR EPIC”. The problem is that it’s superficial. There’s almost no downtime at all and that makes all of the information thrown at you become loud intrusive noise with no real depth. The entire approach is majorly flawed. I wish some side stories were taken out and they spent some time with these characters before they’re thrown into the final level of a video game.

The first and second acts range from terrible to mildly entertaining. The final third finally has some craftsmanship. Jackson channels his inner Kurosawa and we briefly enter fun, escapist cinema. Giant CGI battles, screaming people and a gazillion sword battles are not cool. The one on one fights and well crafted moments are what create blood pumping, goose bump inducing cinema. The Lord of the Rings is littered with them, and we at least get a couple decent ones in the final third. The reliance on CGI with the orcs and other creatures is unfortunately a massive hinderance and creates a barrier between the audience, sense of reality and stakes. If the orcs and other creatures were real actors with make up I’d probably have lost my shit a few times here. Eventually I just gave in and accepted it and had an easier time getting into it. So at least they have the right idea with the stakes and situations in the final act. The actors commitment to the battles in this is what ultimately makes it work enough, but damn I’m constantly reminded of how much greater it could’ve been.

This is Lurtz from Fellowship of the Ring. He’s straight out of your nightmares. That’s fantastic makeup and costume design.

Now take a look at Azog, the Orc antagonist from the Hobbit trilogy. The idea and design is there, but it’s always obvious he’s a computer image.

The differences in imagery and approach between the The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are clear. The cinematography has some cool composed shots, but simultaneously it looks weirdly saturated and de-saturated. It’s like a high school girl got a hold of the footage and threw 10 different instagram filters on. Overly digital and cheap with CGI imagery. Minor joking aside, besides the loads of CGI shots there’s some actually nice collage of colors throughout in the New Zealand landscape. I just don’t see enough of it because this thing takes so little time to admire all the things it does right.

A lot of this pessimism is just my nagging disappoint built up over the first two films, but this is the tipping point where the flaws of the first two become almost overwhelming. Luckily the positives allow for some fun to be had. Martin Freeman owns as Bilbo even in the limited role. Bard and Thorin close their characters arcs and there’s some decent fight sequences throughout. Of course the Tauriel/KIli storyline is maybe the best part of the entire movie outside of Bilbo. Jackson has done so much for fantasy filmmaking that I can’t be too disappointed and angry here. I realize that these are films that are trying to accomplish fun and ask the audience for a high amount of disbelief and lack of logic. The problem is that poorly executed ideas begin to ruin that reality.

The Hobbit is a fantastic book that deserved the proper treatment and was done right in many aspects, but just as many elements were atrocious. It’s not Lord of the Rings and it’s unfortunate that it was created to be a prelude to those films rather than it’s complete own thing. While The Battle of the Five Armies is the worst Middle Earth film, I’m still sentimental and a bit sad to leave this world. I find myself now realizing An Unexpected Journey, and Desolation of Smaug are quite decent fantasy films and I think they’re both a few major approach issues away from being damn good. Moments in each get close to the whimsical tone and pure fantasy elements of the stories essence. Plus the addition of Bard and Tauriel in DOS is huge because they are memorable characters that enter the pantheon of great heroes in Middle earth film lore.

All 3 films have some good aspects in them, and I suppose we should focus on the big positives rather than bicker about the negatives. Bilbo, Bard, Gandalf, and Tauriel remain characters that I LOVE. For me, I think that acceptance of these films approach will hopefully make for better viewings in the future. I hope that somehow someone is able to cut out 5 hours of unnecessary BS and I can see a single long version of this. For all the messiness to this trilogy and “what could’ve been” I gotta say that it still had an impact on me and I care about this series and most of the main characters.

Amidst the bad of these films there’s a hidden beating heart and love for the material and characters that I can’t help but smile about. I see so many movies that feel like commercials for their sequel or lack exuberance and commitment to vision. With The Hobbit I don’t quite get that. It’s a hot CGI bloated mess but Jackson stuck to his guns through this and gave us his vision and I admire that. At times I feel a definite sense of cinema and love for the characters, which is why I go to the movies. Years from now I will happily sit down and watch these three films again to smile, cringe, complain, cheer, and be swept up in this fun mess of a journey.

An Unexpected Journey: B-, The Desolation of Smaug: C+

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: C-

 

 

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