Friday, January 23, 2015

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" Review: This Defining Chapter Is Also The Most Inconsequential


The LOTR trilogy is the epitome of the grand epic fantasy adventure. The characters, the locations, the story and most importantly the journey all gelled to make for an amazing synergy rarely seen in one film let alone three. Lighting in a bottle, a perfect storm of events and circumstances or whatever you want to call it, those films individually and as a whole worked on every possible level. The sad fact of the matter is that no matter what Jackson and company did with The Hobbit movies they would never match the now legendary greatness that those films have achieved. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats: 
Projector Type: 3D Digital HFR            
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 24 min
Studio: Warner Bros.
Release Date: December 17, 2014

Biases:  
Loves: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Likes: The other two Hobbit movies
Neutral:  This whole splitting a single novel into multiple movies thing 
Hates: That these movies will never be as recognized as the far superior LOTR trilogy
Time for Peter Jackson: To finally move on.

Bilbo tries his hardest to be part of the movie still.
When Peter Jackson first set out to turn J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved novel The Hobbit into a film most were overjoyed, and why wouldn't they be? This is the man who gave us The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the greatest film trilogies ever made. Knowing that he would be back to tell the story of how Bilbo Baggins acquired the ring of power, how he along with a company of dwarves vanquished the mighty dragon Smaug and seeing how everything tied into the LOTR was as reassuring as knowing George Lucas isn't directing the new Star Wars movies.

But something happened along the way. Excitement and joy quickly turned to sour grapes as the same fans who championed Jackson's vision for the LOTR trilogy suddenly became his greatest adversaries. While many are quick to point towards the fact that the Hobbit films should have been one, maybe two films at most, and that stretching the single book into three overlong films was the beginning of the end for Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, with all three films released it has become clear that wasn't the only problem the films had to contend with.

Thorin's gold lust gets old real quick.
The biggest problem Jackson's Hobbit trilogy faced wasn't one of being stretched to thin, it was the material itself. It just doesn't lend itself to the sprawling epic nature that Jackson tried to morph it into, no matter how many special effects he used or large scale battles he threw in. The story for better or worse is a fairly straight forward affair which is already problematic when trying to expand it into three feature length films. Our characters must travel from point A to point B and once there they must fulfill their destiny and that's about it. While there were some side stories thrown in, a handful of extra characters that helped broaden the scope a bit and a lot of artistic license taken, the fact of the matter is that none of it was ever as compelling as the characters and story from the LOTR films.

Even using many of the now iconic characters from the LOTR couldn't elevate the material into something it was never meant to be and actually had the reverse effect Jackson was going for. Somehow by including the likes of Gandalf, Legolas, Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond into these films it almost lessens their impact in the other films. Why? Well to be quite blunt, they just aren't all that interesting this time around. They don't have much to do beyond acting as fan service and most often they are more of a distraction from the main characters than they should be. Their inclusion here felt wholly unnecessary at the most and a blatant attempt to remind everyone the much better LOTR films at the least which is a whole other problem unto itself.

Sadly nearly everything dealing with the LOTR characters feels cheap.
There in lies the singular hurdle that even after three exhaustively long films Peter Jackson was unable to topple. None of the characters in The Hobbit films are all that memorable, especially in comparison to the likes of Aragorn, Gimli, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin to name but a few. Bilbo makes for a well enough conduit character into the journey for the audience, but he never forms an attachment with us in any meaningful way as Frodo and Sam did. While there were at least moments in An Unexpected Journey (AUJ from this point forward) and The Desolation of Smaug (TDOS from this point forward) where Bilbo did in fact have an impact on the story, he was relegated to the sidelines more often than not and that was never more evident than it was The Battle of the Five Armies (TBOTFA from this point forward).

A perfect example of how a main character can still be an integral part of the story without being always front and center or even as popular as the surrounding characters is to look at Luke Skywalker and the original Star Wars trilogy. He may not have always influenced the direction the story went, but we knew that by the end his character arc would be the defining one that shaped the future of the galaxy. Bilbo starts out down that road but in TBOTFA he may as well have been wearing the ring of power the entire time because he was barely visible beyond a couple key moments that even then amounted to nothing more than being a messenger or giving something important to someone else.

Bard, wish we got to know you better than we did buddy.
Bilbo's insignificance isn't helped one bit by the much maligned decision to spread the book across three films either. The Hobbit AUJ was a decent start to the adventure, if not a bit bloated. TDOS featured a lot of the same bloat as AUJ did but greatly benefited from the inclusion of the dragon Smaug (this trilogy's crowning achievement in both character and design) and the fact that by the end of the film we have reached our goal also helped it feel more complete (cliffhanger ending as the sole exception). To quote Bilbo, "It all feels thin, sort of stretched, like butter over too much bread."

But TBOTFA is an oddity in comparison to those first two films as the beginning is basically wrapping up the main story/quest (that could have easily been included in TDOS without much effort) and the remaining couple of hours is devoted to one of the most elongated conclusions in film history. Strangely though even with that much extra time, which is devoted mostly to a series of surprisingly tame extended battle sequences, Jackson still couldn't find the time to tell us what the heck happened to the Arkenstone. We are talking about the sole object everyone in the film is in search of, it is the "ring" of this trilogy and yet the film ends with nary a mention of it.

Why didn't Tauriel show up in the LOTR trilogy again?
Then there is that whole battle of the five armies thing (the original title was "There And Back Again" which would have been much more fitting, if not a bit less exciting of a title. The title may promise a battle that comprises of five different armies, but the build up to that conflict and the resulting barrage of special effects and sword play aren't nearly worth the effort it takes to get there. The entire film at times feels like everyone is just hanging around like students watching the clock waiting for the bell to ring so they can sprint home and engage in something they actually want to do. As soon as Smaug is taken out of the picture (which happens all too quickly) the film loses its momentum. It doesn't help that the dwarves, whom we have spent the entire two previous films with, are given the short end of the stick (pardon the pun).

Instead of spending time with the Bilbo and the dwarves, essentially the only characters we had any sort of attachment to at all, we find ourselves split up following Gandalf's exploits which is basically just all set up for LOTR and the character Bard whom we were introduced to far too late to forge any sort of connection with. That structure worked in Return of the King because we knew and cared about all the characters we would bounce back and forth between, not so much here. In a trilogy of films that has already asked a lot of its audience, patience begins to wear thin when we are being asked to care about third tier characters like Thranduil and fourth tier characters like Alfrid, both of whom get much more screen time here than either deserves.

This is Thranduil...ya know, in case you forgot.
But that is what the Hobbit films do, they deal in all kinds of excess (much like this review if you haven't noticed). In AUJ that excess was in visiting locations along the way that really had no impact on their overall journey (looking at you Goblin King). In TDOS it was spending way too much time getting to the destination and then due to taking so long to get there having to put the final conflict's final ten minutes at the beginning of the next film (thus ensuring no one will get the full story unless they see all three). The excess of TBOTFA is even worse in that there is no where left to go, so we are forced to just hang out in one spot THE ENTIRE TIME until the end credits roll.

Where the true failure of the Hobbit film's lies is in the fact that over the course of three films we still don't really care much about any of these characters thus rendering their ultimate fates a moot point. There was a distinct lack of danger in the two previous films with many of the characters appearing cartoonish in their ability to survive even the most outrageous situations and that has translated into the audience feeling cheated in a weird way. While characters in the LOTR certainly had their fare share of improbable survival odds, The Hobbit often times makes it appear as though its characters are invulnerable to just about anything thrown at them, including a towering fire breathing dragon.

Oh dwarves, why can I only recall half your names after 3 movies and over 9 hours spent with you?

This is seen as a failure because Jackson tries to tug on our heartstrings in TBOTFA and it just doesn't work. Now yes, the fates of the characters in the film do match their paper bound counterpart, but that doesn't change the fact that when certain things happen to certain characters...it fails at instilling any real emotion because Jackson failed to earn the right to pull at those emotions. I want to feel something for these characters, I want to feel their loss, but the disconnect is too much and in place of shedding a tear there was a shrug of the shoulder. In comparison, Boromir's demise in Fellowship was much more impactful than anything in the Hobbit trilogy and that was a character we had one third the amount of time to get to know.

Enough of beating around the bush though, time to know how I felt about the film overall (which by this point you likely have already guessed). Is The Hobbit: TBOTFA a bad film? No, it is far from a bad film. A single flawed Hobbit film is worth fifty Michael Bay Transformers film, so don't take all this negativity as me hating the film, just more disappointed than anything else It just isn't as good as it should have been and is unfortunately the victim of being compared to not just the two much better films before it, but also the entirety of the LOTR trilogy as well. Not to label any of the Hobbit or LOTR films as worse than one another, but if you absolutely had to know where TBOTFA stands it would easily be bringing up the rear.

Thorin's redemption is probably one of the only real successes of this third film.
The Hobbit should have never been split into three movies, it just shouldn't have happened. But because we live in the world we do where money, power and greed rule the entertainment business more than artistic integrity and vision we have to accept these films for what they are, warts and all. The Hobbit trilogy will sadly always be looked upon as the lesser of the two trilogies, there is no doubt of that. But The Hobbit films themselves are still extremely enjoyable and entertaining for what they are, which is more time spent in the magical world of Middle Earth which is never a bad thing. Could they have been better, yes, but that is looking at the glass as half empty where we should be looking at it as half full.

Even with the problems each film has inherent to them they are all still successful and even satisfying in their own ways (even TBOTFA). At the very least Peter Jackson has given us the best cinematic dragon to have ever be put on film and in case you think that is faint praise let me tell you, it isn't. Perhaps a few years down the road when they are free from all the hype and unrealistic expectations that were laid upon them we can finally see them for what they truly are, which are fantastically entertaining pieces of cinema that have managed to retain a sort of dignity despite how deeply flawed (and disliked) they are. The Hobbit may not have reached the same heights as the LOTR trilogy and may never be as recognized as those films are, but that doesn't stop them from delivering some of the best fantasy adventure entertainment out there.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

The Hobbit: TBOTFA may not deliver the epic finale we were hoping for but that won't stop anyone who enjoyed the first two films from enjoying seeing the trilogy get wrapped up. The only thing that truly makes watching this final Hobbit film sad is coming to the realization that there won't be another one next year. And that isn't a thought that comes to someone who didn't enjoy what they saw, that is what someone thinks when they want more of a good thing which The Hobbit trilogy most certainly is.

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