Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

From being considered a huge financial risk to transforming into a genuine franchise behemoth, there’s no question that Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films have both shaped and subsequently been a product of how modern tentpole cinema is made. The ultimate question, of course, is whether this final chapter is actually worthwhile. Pessimism about the expansion of the narrative of The Hobbit has bred so many preconceived notions that it feels like many have already formed their opinions without having seen a single frame. Granted, this new trilogy is not beyond criticism, but it’s important to look deeper and evaluate the narrative rather than making a snap judgement, an unfortunate side effect of the hyperactivity of the social media world. As it stands, The Battle of the Five Armies is in many ways true to form Jackson, while certainly carrying some extra baggage, it deftly balances the epic with the intimate, tying together narrative and thematic threads into a pleasantly satisfying whole.

When last we left our band of heroes, the dwarves had at last reclaimed their home kingdom of Erebor under the Lonely Mountain, but had also unwittingly unleashed the wrath of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) upon the village of Lake Town. But even as this terror scorches everything in its path, far greater geopolitical ramifications are at work. Bard (Luke Evans) and the refugees of Lake Town are in need of shelter, the elves of Mirkwood look to reclaim jewels long held by the dwarves, and long forgotten foe has moved his first chess piece. Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) discovered the ancient fortress of Dol Goldur to be harboring the spirit of Sauron, and now finds himself imprisoned. Yet the outbreak of war may yet be prevented by two individuals. Deep under the Lonely Mountain, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) obsessively searches for the heirloom gem called the Arkenstone, but as he is slowly driven to madness, perhaps only Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) can reason with him. Clearly, viewers who have not seen the prior two films need not apply.

Given that the literary narrative of The Hobbit is less than three hundred pages in length, one could feasibly make the argument that the book could be consumed quicker than watching Jackson’s trilogy. Nevertheless, cinema is not literature, and each medium facilitates a different method of communication. For instance, where The Lord of the Rings has a tendency to be tangential outside of the main narrative on the page, Jackson’s films streamlined the key plot lines, and in some cases, even changed some character motivations that would not have sold well on celluloid. Likewise, the book of The Hobbit makes a few big leaps in narrative logic that modern audiences simply would not accept. This relatively slim story is so packed with incidents and events that to wedge it all into a single film would be utterly exhausting and confusing. I do concede that some of the extraneous elements in these films are solely meant for setup of The Lord of the Rings, but even then, would it be agreeable to have a character as vital as Gandalf disappear for a long stretch of time without knowing what occupied him? In the final third of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien leaps into an enormous battle with little establishment for the motivations behind it. Indulgent though he may be, Peter Jackson remedies some of these problems for the sake of cinematic storytelling.

The Battle of the Five Armies continues to expand upon the thorny complexities that inhabit Tolkien’s world. Several of the parties in Middle-Earth, namely the dwarves and elves, are enemies for bafflingly selfish reasons. Both elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace) and dwarven king Thorin are in pursuit of material possessions, yet they cannot see past their own hubris at the genuine enemy on the cusp of destroying both their races. Thorin’s arc in particular is best realized as he sinks deeper into what is called “dragon sickness,” analogous to an immense lust for material wealth. In Thorin’s private moments with Bilbo, Jackson makes clever use of manipulative framing and voice distortion to make the dwarf sound all too similar to the greedy dragon that had long slumbered in his halls. It is when Thorin finally recognizes his wrongs that his engagement in battle adds even greater stakes to the conflict.

Speaking of which, how is that battle for the which the film is subtitled you ask? Well, one of the truly valuable elements to Jackson’s storytelling is that he understands any major action sequence finds its investment not in the actual execution, but in the build up. Looking at The Two Towers and The Return of the King, both titular battles have nearly an hour of slowly increasing suspense that finally erupts when the action commences. Likewise, The Battle of the Five Armies spends its first hour setting up the players on its chess board and establishing stakes before any blood is shed. Competence in maintaining coherent spatial geography in action scenes is becoming increasingly rare, and yet Jackson never fails in delivering in this regard. Therefore, while much of the battle is achieved through CGI, which at times perilously verges on becoming cartoonish, it’s never tedious, as Jackson is able to intercut from one key player to the next. The resulting climax is among the most genuinely rousing action scenes in recent memory.

As with all of the preceding films, the technical elements on display in The Battle of the Five Armies are thoroughly impressive. Andrew Lesnie’s photography finds equal worth in the widest of panoramas and the tightest of closeups, both navigating tempestuous terrain, whether internal or external. While the film does not explore any new locations, the production design remains distinctive to each locale, and the costume designs are especially noteworthy as the many peoples of Middle Earth bring military garb. The aforementioned editing could have tightened up certain narrative threads and jettisoned a few expository scenes entirely, but as the briskest film of the bunch, it never feels like a chore. Most of all, none of these films would have their identity without their scores, and Howard Shore once again balances macro with micro with remarkable ease. Ultimately, these are all just pieces in service of the narrative and the characters, and that’s where the heart of these films lives. For all his flaws, Thorin is fearlessly devoted to his fellow dwarves as is Bard in the safety of his children and his people. While it can be safely said that cinematically, The Hobbit never quite reaches the transcendent heights of the preceding trilogy, it has been an engaging adventure in its own right. Much like Bilbo will never become as valiant warrior as his comrades, he was never meant to be one either. He proved himself to be far more valuable as a genuine friend, and sometimes, that’s all you need.

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~ by romancinema on December 18, 2014.

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