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These guys get little to do for the most part. You’re not surprised, are you?

I think the jury’s more or less in on The Hobbit Trilogy. We all now understand that Jackson has successfully and inexplicably echoed George Lucas’s self-parodying corruption of the Star Wars original trilogy. Maybe another decade will yield a foray into Middle Earth, in someone else’s hands surely, that redeems the setting as a whole but for now I think it’s all become a mess most would like to forget about.

Leaving aside the softer box office, the mixed to negative reviews, The Battle of Five Armies is actually a stronger film than Desolation was. Mostly this is because it is more focused and (mostly) leaves out the tonal shifts, slapstick, and self-congratulation that especially plagued the middle chapter of this, the most unnecessary trilogy in cinematic history. It’s still a mixed bag, though, with the over-reliance on CG, the cringe-inducing inclusions of Legolas fucking Greenleaf, and other assorted nonsense. However, I expected to really hate this one and I… didn’t. That’s probably got to do with the fact that the second half of the film is basically just one huge fuck-off battle.

More than repeating the problems of the trilogy as a whole, Armies introduces new problems and carries on with ones that have been present all along. Characters are totally lost in this movie, with too much time spent with the wrong ones being the most noticeable issue. And then there’s the lack of visible payoffs for newcomers, fan favorites, and our core heroes. This has already been nicknamed The Dwarf Trilogy by other critics, and it’s especially apt in this one which focuses so much on Thorin and his decidedly weak character arc. The other side of this is that we’re so used to the cartoon Jackson has made of Middle Earth that the battle scenes and ridiculous creatures and moments seem more enjoyable, and there are some truly beautiful shots and moments in this movie. They are few and far between, of course, but they are there. They can’t save The Hobbit of course. It’s way too late for that.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

Smaug is the first character that gets the shaft.

The Battle of Five Armies begins right after Desolation ended. Smaug is en route to Laketown and he’s super pissed. He burns Laketown to the water, propelling its citizens to flee and Bard to summon up his inner dragonslayer. Smaug is killed very quickly, and in a sort of perfunctory way. It’s interesting that they changed Bard’s longbow shot and talking bird into MacGyvering a ballista with the movie-invented Black Arrows (giant bolts, really). Interesting in that it allows for a nicely executed battle of wills as Smaug rears up to breathe fire and Bard has to literally put his son between himself and the creature he aims to kill. That said, it’s still a giant crossbow he makes with his hands and some spit or something, and then uses to kill a dragon which is the overarching antagonist of a significant portion of the film. If Jackson et al were going to buff up the profile of characters like Bard, or invent new ones whole-cloth, why not give Smaug a bit more of a sequence here? Bard’s MacGyvering thing is a character trait I guess, after all he does make a twenty-foot long rope out of strips of his coat (he’s a wizard, Harry!) and shit, but I mean… it’s no fair trade here.

Smaug’s death sets off a sort of piece-shuffling first act where everything has to get in place for the big battle that will dominate most of the movie. This is by far the dullest and most ludicrous bit, but not as a whole. Many of the scenes are all right, but the movie does weird shit with its storytelling and characters all throughout. It starts in this bit, though, and there are many examples. The most infuriating one would be Alfred, the bastard right hand of Laketown’s master and basically Proto Wormtongue, is given SO MUCH FUCKING SCREENTIME in this movie. For no reason. He never gets redeemed, he never gets ironically killed by some falling bit of whatever, and everyone gives him 400 chances and all kinds of important responsibilities. It’s ludicrous, it’s contrived, and it makes half the characters in the movie look like total fucking idiots. Bard especially. Half his character arc this time around is basically giving Alfred chances to fuck up and sort of looking pensive when he inevitably does. At one point he says “I am not a leader”. Too bad that’s not true, because holy fucking hell would I have used Alfred as an example of why those words should be true.

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But there’s also this fucking shit.

I’ve said before that The Hobbit movies feel like Tolkien fanfiction. As cheap as the Tauriel-Kili thing is (more on this later), in no way is that notion more true than with the Galadriel-Gandalf shipping that we’re forced to endure. I am not against changes made for the sake of adaptation, but this is just about scratching some kind of “what if” itch that Jackson and his cowriters must have thought added depth to the characters. What it adds instead is a lot of cringing and mouthfuls of “what the fuck?!”.

Moreover, the Dol Goldur scene in general puts fans in an awkward position. Even as we’re wondering why it’s in the movie and we’re kind of feeling the scouring of the mystery and intrigue of the High Magic we never really see in the books or The Lord of the Rings movies… we all kind of did want to see the White Council kick some ass right? That it’s basically an aimless fight of ghosts being dispersed and reappearing moments later is okay… right? I don’t know myself. On the one hand, it was kind of cool to see how powerful these guys are. On the other, it cheapens The Lord of the Rings to an extent where it’s not easy to reconcile this badass mojo with all these characters, except Gandalf, sitting on their laurels all through Frodo’s shit. Like many of the other ways he sets up Rings in these movies, Jackson really winds up undermining himself. I wrote before that I hoped to see these issues dealt with in Armies, but it doesn’t happen. There’s just more of them now, making The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fit together more poorly than seems fair or reasonable.

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But like… Elrond is a fucking wrecking crew in and of himself I guess.

Legolas, who is one of the major characters in Armies, continues to be a huge misfire. Not only is Bloom still doing the “steely veteran” thing, marking Legolas as an older and more serious guy than he came off in Rings, but Jackson still insists on lumping implausibility on this character time and again, as if Legolas is a demigod working alongside (sort of) mere mortals. Not that Jackson has backed down off making his dwarves less than titanic fighters, far from it. At one point Dwalin and Thorin fight a hundred “goblin mercenaries” in an already over-stuffed sequence at Ravenhill.

Still, this is not as bad as the sudden infusion of a reason for Thranduil and Legolas’s misgivings for each other. Instead of being about Tauriel, with whom neither resolve their business, it’s about Legolas’s mother… who is thrust into the narrative by mention for the first time. Jarring doesn’t even cover it. By the end, when Thranduil sends Legolas to look for Aragorn (and refusing to name him because uggghhhh), it’s just a lot of pomp and circumstance for no reason. Legolas could be cut from this movie like spot of mould and it wouldn’t hurt anything. You’d lose a few unnecessary scenes and that’s it. If they were going to include him, it should have been in a more pivotal role. But of course, The Hobbit is supposed to be about Bilbo and therefore all other excesses and indulgences had to be kept separate and spinning in margins enlarged into full, bombastic pages.

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“Thanks Legolas, because of time spent on you my subplot never goes anywhere.”

“My eyes are blue in this movie.”

I don’t hold with doing the whole “what this movie could have been” thing, except to the extent that all reviews and criticism basically implies it. It’s hard to see these aimless, self-indulgent, fanfiction-ish episodes as accomplishing much aside from detracting from the stuff that should have been at the forefront, though. Bard was well-used in Desolation, getting an interesting new backstory and more or less having stuff going on aside from being “the Bowman”. In Armies, they are too busy with Legolas and Dol Goldur to give Bard much to do besides stand around and play at being a leader. His arc is nonexistent. He’s just there to be The Dad and to connect the audience to Laketown. It feels like, outside the action sequences, Alfred the Worst gets more screen time. To the extent that characters which are important to the plot get set aside in favor of characters that aren’t, I find myself comfortable with the closeness this kind of criticism comes to saying what the movie “should” have been rather than evaluating it based on what it is.

The one character that definitely doesn’t get dropped out of the forefront is Thorin. By extension, Bilbo gets plenty of screen time whenever his actions involve Thorin (which is pretty much all the time here). Even so, Bilbo basically functions as a plot courier, carrying the Arkenstone, barely even a proper MacGuffin at this point, from place to place in an effort to control Thorin’s insanity. Where the previous movies set Thorin up as perhaps being the victim of a bloodline of eventual insanity, here all that gets dropped in favor of some bullshit called “dragon sickness” which gets mentioned like it’s some supernatural illness like becoming a wraith. This part of the movie, especially Armitage’s on-point performance, would have been better served by leaving this out. It just comes off stupid and like Thorin really isn’t at all to blame for his descent into self-centered madness. Like Bilbo, the audience is helpless before the endless meaningful glances and indulgent scenes of Thorin being a bastard.

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Imagine a more focused trilogy where Thorin was treated with respect and consideration? A character arc that wants to be rich would be so.

Though characterization is indeed as much a mess here as tone was in DesolationArmies eventually gets its shit mostly together and delivers a technically arousing and mostly fun second half. The battle is well thought out, relying less on slapstick nonsense and more on the semblance of tactics and mechanics that make a contextual sense. Here, the cartoonish moments like Thranduil decapitating a brace of orcs impaled on his (awesome) elk’s antlers actually work. Plus, there are troll-mounted catapults and some references to Attack on Titan… there’s even a pretty neat system Azog uses to direct his massive armies. So lots to like here, and thankfully this battle makes up a huge amount of the running time, encompassing the second act and most of the third.

Once you get over the decision to make Dain Ironfoot a CG character for no fucking reason, he’s easily one of the fastest appreciating characters in this whole trilogy. His cranky, defiant speech to the assembled armies of Laketown and Mirkwood is a much needed blast of irreverence to all the pomp and pretension. Dain and the audience are fast friends, and this makes the main thrust of the Battle pretty fun. Of course, there are pockets of Alfred in there, and the giant worms are a wtf left field contrivance, so all is not perfect.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

This is a good example of the cartoon aesthetic, but not because War Pig. War Pig rules.

Eventually, the riveting battle gets left behind in favor of Thorin’s stupid but brave plan to kill Azog at Ravenhill. Of course it’s a trap and it costs Kili and Fili their lives. These deaths finally give The Hobbit the stakes it pretended to have as early as the first movie. I know that Kili and Fili are supposed to die in this battle, but I really wish the tonal balance of the trilogy hadn’t shifted to the grim until this entry. Instead, it comes a bit late and a bit to wrapped up in mawkish bullshit with Thranduil and Tauriel to work the way it should. Kili is likeable, sure, but his death hits like a bag of meaningful glances… no impact, much impatience.

Though the Ravenhill sequence comprises the third act and has plenty of good moments and awesome shots (Thorin facing Azog atop the frozen waterfall being my favorite), it still leaves the rest of the battle almost completely by the wayside. This means we lose our sense of what’s happening, a sense that is never restored not even when the film ends. Did Bard succeed in defending Dale? I guess so, but what happens next? Who becomes King under the Mountain? I know it’s Dain, but the movie spends almost no time on this. Like Gandalf getting Radagast’s staff out of nowhere, or the appearance of the Eagles, I’m sure all this stuff is left in the inevitable Director’s Cut… but it’s the loss of this connective tissue in favor of stuff like Tauriel and Legolas sitting on a rock and telling the audience what they’re seeing that marks the editing of these movies as the amateurish hack job that it always was.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Visually, Ravenhill is one of the most striking sequences in the series.

Ultimately, the biggest payoff in this movie is getting to see a huge battle between dwarves, elves, and orcs. It’s executed well and includes shots, ideas, and elements that provide much fan service to fantasy geeks like me. Because Armies forgets information and pieces of characterization from even the previous movie, and spends too much time on people and things that don’t matter, it loses any sort of core strength to improve on the movies that came before. I think a lot of the lukewarm reaction here, especially from me, is down to the overall fatigue these movies have generated. I am used to the cartoon problem by now, and I expect it, so it makes no sense to write a paragraph describing it again. I go in with very low expectations, I come out having enjoyed the battle (which only works due to the focus on it), appreciating the excising of some stuff that really hurt the previous movies (slapstick Spielberg BS, saccharine Hobbitstalgia, etc), and still disappointed in the general handling of this book by Peter Jackson and his gaggle of opportunists.

Middle-Earth feels strip-mined and exploited now. Like a child star being ushered into just one more over-long toy commercial. Seeing this movie felt obligatory, meaning that any enjoyment that could be eked out of it was appreciated probably in such a way that the whole felt less shitty than it did with Desolation, where I was actually taken aback by how bad the movie was. So much so that I didn’t fully realize how bad until much later.

I’m sure Armies will have the same trajectory as the other two. Disappointing with some redeeming caveats on first viewing, substantially degraded by repeat viewings.

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