Thursday, December 18, 2014

'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' review

After six movies, 17 hours of film, and over fifteen years in production, Peter Jackson's Middle-earth saga is finally coming to a close with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The climatic chapter in his Hobbit trilogy ties up the loose ends of this series and sets up the first chapter in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Essentially, The Battle of the Five Armies amounts to little more than a final adieu to Middle-earth. Nobody is going to argue that this was necessary in any way and I would say that they could have ended with The Desolation of Smaug mixed with the first fifteen minutes of this movie and everything would have been fine and dandy. Nevertheless, Jackson decided to make one final film and it focuses mainly on an epic battle between men, dwarves, elves, Orcs and eagles. It's completely unnecessary, but it's mildly satisfying CGI eye candy and ultimately, it's a somewhat enjoyable conclusion to Jackson's bloated trilogy.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left us, with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on his way to Lake Town and our heroes stuck at the Mountain. However, Bard (Luke Evans) manages to save the town and slay the dragon. This is not a spoiler. This happens in the first ten minutes of the movie. After that, the dwarves realize that they've won the mountain and they celebrate. Yet Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitrage), leader of the dwarves, is not impressed. First, he searches passionately for the Arkenstone, a gem that controls those who possess it. At the same time, the armies of men, Orcs, elves and even more dwarves are headed to the mountain to get their share of gold. 

While this is happening, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is stuck in a prison in some far-off land. When Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) rescue Gandalf, they realize that Sauron has burst back into the world, setting up the Lord of the Rings franchise. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) have also traveled to Gundabad to find a second army of Orcs that is moving towards the Mountain. Meanwhile, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves are preparing for a massive battle that will decide the fate of the Lonely Mountain- and the lives of many who have traveled to it. 

The Battle of the Five Armies does not even pretend to be an actually movie. It's merely here to finish off all of the extraneous storylines that Jackson mixed into this nine-hour adaptation of a children's novel, and to give us one final epic battle. But for the most part, this is a satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed the way that it set up The Fellowship of the Ring and I thought that the battle scenes were pretty solid. Yet, just like the rest of the franchise, this final installment can't help but feel completely useless and unnecessary. The main story is over within the first ten minutes- Smaug is dead and the mountain belongs to the dwarves. I know that The Battle of the Five Armies is in the book, but to borrow a quote from Bilbo Baggins: "We've won the mountain. It's yours! Can't we go home?" My thoughts exactly, buddy.

What we get instead is an eclectic mix of emotionally cold CGI battle scenes and actual, genuine poignancy. The fight between Thorin and Azog the Defiler is appropriately epic and the whole final hour of the film is pretty good. Once Jackson gets going with these movies, he truly gets going. However, just like in The Desolation of Smaug, it just takes forever for the story to actually get going. The Battle of the Five Armies starts out with a bang, but drags its feet after that, spending much of the film's time with Bard, who is an interesting character, yet he's not meant to be the main focus of the film. For some reason, we end up with Bard and his annoying servant Alfrid (Ryan Gage) for quite a while.

After that, it's just a lot of waiting for the big battle to start. There's the subplot with Gandalf and Galadriel and a lot of the movie is just looking for the all-powerful Arkenstone. And once the armies start to assemble, there's a lot of talking about fighting, then a lot of standing around, waiting for people to start fighting. When the battle finally arrives, it's cool and enjoyable, but nowhere near the epic scale of The Two Towers or Return of the King. The practical fights were much more amazing than any of the CGI battles that Jackson orchestrates in this trilogy. 

The actors are all sufficient. No great performances. No bad ones. Simply fine. Any personality, fun or true depth is lost amid all the digitized fights and the constant world-building. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitrage are the one main exception. They have strong chemistry together and actually manage to achieve one genuine emotion during a critical scene at the end of the film. Yet other attempts to pull on the audiences' heartstrings come off as forced and groan-worthy, and by trying to make the audience care about useless characters, Jackson lost me a bit. 

This is also the shortest film in the Middle-earth franchise, clocking in at a still-lengthy 144 minutes. It goes pretty quickly, moving at a solid pace that doesn't feel nearly as extended as An Unexpected Journey. However, this film still feels like it's padded with twenty extra scenes that have no reason to be in the film at all. Truth is, Peter Jackson had enough material for two great movies, but he extended it to a trilogy and ended up weakening the films. I knew that going into this final installment, but it become even more clear as I watched Jackson stall the battle for most of the film's first hour. 

When it comes down to it, Peter Jackson has released the extended versions of The Hobbit films into theaters, with all the nerdy details that casual fans really didn't care about at all. I know that there still have been some extended editions for The Hobbit films, but the amount of added footage has been noticeably less than when Jackson released the extended editions for The Lord of the Rings

In the end, this is the product that we got and we have to deal with that fact. So what is my general opinion on this trilogy? It's bloated and forced and overstuffed and suffers from a multitude of issues. And yet, it still manages to capture a little bit of magic. When Howard Shore's masterful score kicked on in the background at any point during this series, I couldn't help but feel that Jackson had managed to recapture that feeling I got when I watched Lord of the Rings

Despite those brief moments of whimsy, I think it's safe to call The Hobbit trilogy an underwhelming cinematic achievement. With a glacially slow first installment, a monumentally entertaining, but still overstuffed penultimate chapter, and a third act that stalls around just to get to the battle scenes, The Hobbit trilogy didn't succeed in its goal of telling a singular story (a la Lord of the Rings). And this installment might just be the biggest mixed bag of the series, as there's simply too much of everything.

In the end, there's no denying the entertainment value that The Hobbit franchise brings to the table, especially in this massively epic conclusion. The nearly hour-long Battle of the Five Armies is big, bold and accompanied by some truly great individual fight scenes. It's a good way to close out this trilogy and I think that Jackson hit his stride a couple times during this film. It's safe to say that if you enjoyed the first few installments in this series, you'll love this one as well. If you hated the other films, you won't be swayed this time around. And if you're like me, and you fall somewhere in the middle, you'll probably find this to be an excessive final chapter, but one that closes out the series well nonetheless.

Note: I saw this film in IMAX 3D. I don't think you have to see it in that format. It gave me a crushing headache at times during the film, for whatever reason. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.9/10)

Image Credits: Movie Pilot, The One Ring, NY Daily News, Business Insider, Moviefone, Screen Rant

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