‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ Review: All That Glitters…
And so we come to the end of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, an almost ten-hour epic that has left me frustrated and mostly cold.
When Jackson adapted J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings into three motion pictures he had an overabundance of material to work with. Although he managed to add a few elements to the adaptations that weren’t in the original novels (the warg fight, Arwen, etc.), his job was at least partially to trim the Lord of the Rings movies down to their bare essentials: the plot, the lead characters and the persuasive themes of power, corruption, racism, imperialism, and just about every other heady topic that comes part and parcel with a saga of world-threatening warfare.
And to his credit, along with his collaborators Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, et al, those films did an incredible job of bringing Tolkien’s fantasies to life in a satisfying, crowd-pleasing fashion. The first films in this now sprawling Middle Earth saga were exceptional adaptions of exceptionally complicated material, worthy of praise and admiration and (practically) every single Oscar they eventually won.
But when the time came to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Jackson & Co. were faced with the opposite challenge: adapting a short, simple narrative into a three-film epic by adding material, not by cutting it out. Although most of the additions to the three Hobbit movies – An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies – have been canonical, mostly culled from Tolkien’s detailed appendices, none of that material was originally intended to be part of the novel’s narrative flow. And sure enough, almost all of it has felt like a digression from the relatively straightforward story of a humble homebody who accepts the call to adventure.
Over the course of the first two films, Jackson’s films have added new characters (Tauriel, Alfrid, Bard’s children), bulked up smaller characters (Thranduil, Azog, Radagast, the Master of Laketown*, Bard), and incorporated what can only be described as a side mission, in which Gandalf the Grey faces off against The Necromancer without any impact on the primary storyline. And although these additions and expansions have frequently been fun, they have never felt like they had any particular purpose, at least until The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which tries – quite unsuccessfully – to make all those digressions feel like part of a meaningful plan.
Peter Jackson’s depiction of the great battle at the end of Tolkien’s The Hobbit takes an enormous turn from how these events were depicted in the original novel, simply by depicting them at all. In the original text Bilbo Baggins was knocked on the head and missed practically the entire battle, underscoring the book’s unassailable message that, to quote Thorin Oakenshield, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” The entire, destructive war was finally revealed to be nothing more than a waste of everybody’s valuable time.
And this approach worked just fine in the novel, with its deft and streamlined story, but these Hobbit movies have introduced so many supporting characters with a stake in the dragon’s gold, recently won by the dwarves at the end of The Desolation of Smaug, that all of them demanded a conclusion to their story. The big blowout finale to The Battle of the Five Armies theoretically provides a backdrop for the culmination of all of their tales, which almost (almost) justifies the radical restructuring of Tolkien’s novel to fit the new franchise-driven mold of the motion picture trilogy.
In an apparent attempt to surpass the grandeur of The Battle of Helm’s Deep and The Battle of Pelennor Fields (from The Two Towers and The Return of the King, respectively), Jackson has elected to pull out all the stops in the Battle of the Five Armies. The protracted action sequence is full of unique locations, duels to the death, giant monsters with boulders on their heads running into walls on purpose and elves beheading half a dozen orcs in a single blow. It is an action-lover’s fantasy, a profound exhibition of hero worship for practically every character, and it is, in a vacuum, if only in fits and starts, a pleasure to experience.
But it is also still egregiously besides the point for a story about the folly of war and greed to luxuriate this long on rampant destruction, especially as a byproduct of stretching The Hobbit into three films for monetary gain. War isn’t sad in this story any longer, instead it is “badass.” Although several characters die, the overall depiction of The Battle of the Five Armies makes all of the action so absurdly “cool” that it feels like little more than “fan service,” supposedly giving the audience what they want – more characters, more foreshadowing, more thrilling violence – regardless of their context in the story.
(As if more evidence was needed, a sudden cavalry charge saving Gandalf the Grey from his capture at the end of The Desolation of Smaug includes several “money shots” of Christopher Lee beating the hell out of ghosts with a giant stick; an image that is undeniably “cool” – in sheer principle at least – but ultimately has little bearing on anything else that’s happening in the film.)
The expansion of the storyline in the Hobbit movies also necessitated an expansion of the dwarf characters who dragged Bilbo Baggins along on their quest, and sure enough, we probably come to love them more in these films than we do in the original novel. All the more pity that only two of them have a subplot to speak of, given how much screen time they have had over the course of three movies.
The biggest change can be found in Thorin Oakenshield, whose greed and paranoia over Smaug’s treasure and his recaptured kingdom plays less like the sad, foregone conclusion of the books, and more like a sudden, MacGuffin-driven onset of madness. Rather than walk headlong into the unfortunate consequences of his lifelong desires, he is portrayed here as a noble individual who is very suddenly transformed by outside forces into a mad tyrant, for no better reason than to ensure that the Hobbit movies end in glorious battle. And by giving Thorin the easy out of being manipulated by magic, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies also allows itself to redeem him with equally dissatisfying suddenness, making his ultimate end seem hollow.
But at least he gets an ultimate end: although the climactic battle affords Jackson & Co. an opportunity to send the cast off with a “bang,” the majority of the supporting characters introduced or expanded upon in the Hobbit motion picture trilogy finally exit with nary a farewell glance. What becomes of Bard? Of Alfrid? Of Radagast? Of Thranduil? These would be inconsequential questions in a simple tale about a Hobbit venturing into the great wide world, but in an enormous super-narrative – in which audiences are expected to develop an interest in these characters’ lives – they demand answers which, for some reason, despite the many other additions Jackson & Co. made to Tolkien’s novel, are never satisfactorily given.
But “it’s still Middle Earth” may be a valid defense for The Battle of the Five Armies. The worlds that Tolkien crafted – and that Jackson & Co. have ably filmed over the past decade-and-a-half – feel like home now. Visiting them once again may be worthwhile for lifelong fans who treat these places, and these characters, like home and family. They are comforting to watch and have maintained a certain look, quality and personality that are not altogether displeasing, even if they are no longer magical. But like George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels before them, the new Middle Earth trilogy doesn’t quite match the power of the originals, and not because the material wasn’t up to snuff. Rather, it is because the material took a back seat to increased size and scale, padding a simple story into an enormous saga full of add-ons that failed to improve the simple drama of personal corruption leading to far-reaching, tragic consequences.
*Editor’s Note: The Master of Laketown was accidentally listed as a new character when this review was originally published, as opposed to an existing character whose role has been significantly expanded. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.