Friday 12 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Spoiler warning: This review is being posted on the film's day of release and some spoilers are discussed.

The company of Thorin Oakenshield has reclaimed the Lonely Mountain, but in the process has unleashed the dragon Smaug on the surrounding lands. With armies gathering to storm the mountain, refugees flooding out of Laketown and Gandalf imprisoned in Dol Guldur, it once again falls to a single hobbit to try to save the day.

The Battle of the Five Armies is the third film in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, a piece of avant-garde experimental cinema determined to find out if you can extract three movies totalling eight and a half hours from a single 288-page children's novel. If An Unexpected Journey told us "Probably not," and The Desolation of Smaug suggested "No, not at all", The Battle of the Five Armies concludes, "No, and seriously is this poorly-choreographed CGI fight scene going to go on much longer?"

This is not to say that Battle is an unmitigated disaster or is not, in parts, enjoyable, just that this trilogy pretty much ends as it started and continued: some very reasonably well-written scenes between skilled actors (Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage etc all on top form), a lot of special effects of varying quality and a lot of shots of orcs trying to stab people who are trying to stab them back, except for some reason the orcs are now almost all computer-generated and distinctly unconvincing.

Based on the end of Desolation, I was expecting an interminable sequence in Laketown as the dragon prepares to arrive and all the dwarves left in the city in the last film help save the day. Instead they all leg it within minutes of the film starting (completely negating the need to have them split up at all) and the entire Laketown episode is done within a quarter of an hour. This is quite cheering, and the film proceeds at a fairly brisk pace as armies gather, Thorin is consumed by the dragon-lust for gold and some tense negotiations unfold between Thranduil, Bard and Thorin. Even the newly-introduced subplot with Gandalf imprisoned in Dol Guldur is resolved with commendable swiftness, complete with shots of Elrond kicking backside and Galadriel reprising her "Evil Crazy Enya" role from Fellowship which was weird enough the first time around.

This focus, a cheering welcome after dubious scenes of ill-judged comedy and the pointless dragon skirmish that seemed to last longer than the Thirty Years War in the previous film, then goes out the window once battle is joined. On the one hand, Jackson uses a bird's eye camera view to very cleverly establish the battlefield and the different fronts that the fight takes place on. With Tolkien's description of the battle taking up just a few lines in the novel, Jackson has to flesh it out to a multi-front battle taking place before the gates of Erebor, in the surrounding hills and then degenerating into messy urban warfare in the ruined streets of Dale. This is all great. On the other, the battle then goes on for well north of an hour of scenes of people whacking one another with swords. To mix this up, Jackson moves away from the big battle scenes after a bit to focus on a series of duels between key protagonists and antagonists, with Legolas, Tauriel and Kili squaring off against Bolg and Thorin taking on the menacing Azog. However, duels are best when they are focused affairs and the mixing of the two duels with one another and with occasional divergences to what Bilbo or Bard is up to drains them of a lot of dramatic tension. Those who hate the "Superelf Legolas" of the previous movie will also not be happy here, with way too many scenes of the CGI version of Orlando Bloom pulling off some crazy acrobatic move against all the odds. One scene of Legolas air-surfing across some falling rocks may actually make you want to drop an EMP bomb on Weta Digital's offices to make them stop.

Oh yes, and at one point four sandworms from Dune show up, do nothing apart from dig some tunnels that some of the orcs use (for no apparent reason, as then tons more arrive overland) and leave.

The trilogy's use of CGI at the expense of the natural beauty of the New Zealand countryside has been one of its biggest problems, and Battle initially seems to rally against that with some great scenes on the banks of the Long Lake filmed apparently entirely on location with nary a CGI vista in site. However, it's not too long before this is abandoned and once again we are in plastic backdrop city. The use of CGI becomes inexplicable here, especially when Dain Ironfoot shows up and everyone gets excited to hear Billy Connolly speak up, only to discover in close-ups that he's an unconvincing CG mannequin. What the actual hell?

The conciseness Jackson shows in the early going of the film is also frittered away as the battle scenes wear on wearily. Bard spends vast amounts of time looking for his children. Stephen Fry's minion character from the previous films get a quite unnecessary and time-consuming subplot of his own where he does precisely nothing. Legolas and Tauriel have to take a side-trip to Gundabad for no reason (a trip of several hundred miles which they accomplish in less than 24 hours with no explanation whatsoever). Jackson also goes a bit weird by pulling out one of the five armies from the books (no wargs here) and replacing them with flying bat-demon things, but then introduces a second army of different orcs. In fact, there's at least six armies fighting at the battle (seven if you count Team Thorin as a distinct faction) just to make things even odder.

Working against this are the actors, who as usual deliver even when faced with awkward exposition or having to act against tennis balls, and Howard Shore's soundtrack. After a fairly unmemorable second movie he comes back strong here with some nice new themes. And Jackson does stick the landing with this one: Battle's ending is fairly focused with a minimum of goodbyes and finding an excellent way of segueing into Fellowship of the Ring whilst staying true to the original novel.

The Battle of the Five Armies (***) starts off very well, gets bogged down in some overlong action scenes, and then recovers for a reasonable ending. But of the three it's the one that suffers the most from the decision to split the slim novel into three films. It's the shortest movie of the six Middle-earth flicks that Jackson has directed, but there are moments when it feels like by far the longest, and it's the one that is most obviously weakened by an over-reliance on computer graphics at the expensive of real actors and a dramatically satisfying script. It's an entertaining popcorn movie, but it cannot be anything other than disappointing to realise it's been released almost thirteen years to the day after The Fellowship of the Ring, which managed to be much more than that and still the greatest epic fantasy movie ever made. The film is on general release now.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Do we at least get a good Thorin death scene, and Fili and Kili heroically fighting to protect their wounded uncle and king? That was something I would have liked to see a few more words devoted to in the book.

insurrbution said...

I am looking forward to next November when the 2D blu-ray extended edition trilogy comes out.

Also, the extra stuff (mostly, with the exception of Tauriel) does exist by Tolkien's hand - though it may not be found between the covers of 'The Hobbit' (The Lord of the Rings Appendices, parts of Unfinished Tales, etc..)

A great way to expand the narrative of Tolkien's 'The Hobbit or There and Back Again' into 'The Hobbit Trilogy or the Prelude to the Lord of the Rings'.

Adam Whitehead said...

There's a few things alluded to from the LotR appendices, but nothing at all from UNFINISHED TALES due to legal problems: Jackson doesn't have the rights to it and Chris Tolkien would sue him into the ground. They nodded to that in the first film, when Gandalf mentions there are 5 wizards but he can't remember the other 2's names (UT gives them to us: Alatar and Pallando).

And there really isn't very much from the LotR appendices, which suggests that the White Council launched a full-scale armed attack on Dol Guldur and Sauron wisely withdrew before being fully exposed. That's very much not what happens in this film where the Justice League of Middle-earth Heavies shows up single-handed to beat up the bad guys.

It's actually annoying because the UT stuff is really good, but they actually have to go out their way to things differently (Gandalf and Thorin meeting in Bree rather than near the Blue Mountains etc).

Anonymous said...

The titular "Five Armies" in the book did not count the Wargs. They were considered part of the "Orc faction".

The Five Armies are: 1 - Dain's Dwarf army, 2 - Thranduil's Elf army, 3 - Bard and the Men of Lake-town, 4 - the Orcs (and their beasts), and 5 - the Great Eagles.

I don't know why you were confused by this. Yes, the "Orc faction" consists of sub-factions.

Anonymous said...

Gandalf and Thorin *did* meet by chance one night in Bree in the Appendices, not in the Blue Mountains. The movie and the book did the same thing.

insurrbution said...

Ah right, I recall now: I hadn't read any of the main Tolkien books (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales) since about 2002.

Idea for a future post perhaps: fan-casting The Two Blues (Alatar and Pallando).

I don't mind the additions of things to the narrative (showing Legolas, but the fact that he had more screentime than Gollum, say), but it's the invention of subplots that weren't written by Tolkien to begin with that I'm not a fan of, and the over-use of CGI.

Again, I am looking forward to seeing what scenes are 'restored' with the release of next year's extended edition trilogy.
side note: for those great with the software, I remember 'The Two Towers purist edit' a couple of years back, from the folks who did 'The Phantom Edit'. When all the extended editions are out, it would be neat to see 'the book' (and nothing but) on film.

Adam Whitehead said...

Tolkien explicitly separates the count of orcs and wargs in the first draft of THE HOBBIT, when the battle takes place later (on Bilbo's return trip home) and near the Anduin. This is generally used to support the notion that the wargs and orcs are counted as separate. There is also the fact that the wargs encounter and run afoul of Thorin's Company separately early on, and later on 'ally' with the orcs/goblins in pursuit of the Company.

If you want to argue that the wargs and orcs are counted as one as they fight alongside one another, the same logic could be used to count the men of Laketown and the elves as one, as they fight alongside one another and are not opposed at any point.

Gandalf's meeting with Thorin is recounted in 'The Quest of Erebor' in UNFINISHED TALES, a post-LotR-written prequel where Tolkien fleshes out the backstory to THE HOBBIT and links up Gandalf with Thrain and what was going on with Dol Guldur and Sauron, and why Bilbo was recruited in the first place. All great, stirring stuff which Peter Jackson was explicitly forbidden from using on pain of instantaneous lawsuits from the Tolkien Estate.

Joel said...

The CGI Billy Connolly was SO WEIRD. I saw a preview screening a few weeks ago and could simply NOT figure out why they would create that character with CGI.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Gandalf meets Thorin in Bree in the Quest for Erebor, a book I own. I am surprised the Tolkien Estate hasn't sued over the inclusion of that.

Anonymous said...

The "purist edit" of the Two Towers was silly...given that when the Extended Edition came out, it fixed a lot of the problems that the purist edit was trying to address (giving Faramir more backstory put his otherwise harsh actions in a more sympathetic light, in which case they weren't so offensive as to need to be cut).

Elves at Helm's Deep, however, is madness.

Dan O. said...

It was a nice end to a trilogy that could have been a bit better. But nonetheless, was still a fine watch. Nice review Adam.

Adam Whitehead said...

'Quest of Erebor' was actually written for inclusion in the LotR appendices, but Tolkien pulled it because it was way too long and included a brief summary. So Gandalf and Thorin's meeting at Bree could be used in THE HOBBIT because it was included in the LotR appendices. However, in 'Quest' Thorin and Gandalf bump into each other near Bree and Gandalf gets the notion of using Thorin to eliminate Smaug, but the bulk of their negotiations to undertake the quest take place at Thorin's halls in the Blue Mountains (including Gandalf's plan to recruit Bilbo).