The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies starts Dec 17, 2014

Peter Jackson is a talented director, but he’s got to know when to say when. After seeing to “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” I’ve now spent almost a full 24 hour day (including the extended cuts of the original Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the two previous Hobbit films) in his vision of J. R. R. Tolkien’s  Middle Earth. For the most part, it’s been enjoyable. The Hobbit, just off the top of my head, is probably less than a fifth as long as the Lord of the Rings epic, and yet it takes nearly as long to tell cinematically. If you’re a regular reader of mine you can probably predict where I’m going with this: Less is more.

Thankfully, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is less. Less long—only 144 minutes compared to the 160+ of the two previous installments—less corny, for the most part, and less 3D-centric. There weren’t nearly as many scenes of goblins or other beasties running headlong towards the camera like a first person shooter for my X-BOX. On the whole, it was tighter, better paced, and more exciting film than its predecessors. It did have a couple of stumbles, but it held my interest from the start, which I can’t say for the last two films, which provided ample opportunity for napping with their languid pacing. Less long, less silly, less in love with the technology over storytelling and less boring all adds up to a lot more fun.

I suppose it’s a requisite of my genre, the film review, to discuss the cast, but really, if you don’t know who they are by now you probably aren’t still reading this anyway. After all, the sixth volume of a near 24-hour cinematic epic should not be anyone’s jump-on point. I suppose that if the filmmakers are going to strive to meet expectations then I, as a film critic, can do no less. Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely adventurer. Sir Ian McKellan is likewise spot-on as the wizard Gandalf. Richard Armitage, one of my favorite actors since his turn as Guy of Gisborne in the BBC’s Robin Hood series, returns as Thorin Oakenshield, the king of the kingdomless dwarves. Luke Evans reprises his role as Bard, the hero of Laketown. King Thranduil of the elves is back, again played by Lee Pace, late of “Guardians of the Galaxy” where he played Ronan the Accuser. Tauriel, the somewhat controversial edition to the mythos, is played once again by the beautiful Evangeline Lilly. Lawrence Makoare and Manu Bennett—who as Deathstroke menaces Oliver Queen on CW’s hit Arrow—return as the fierce leaders of the Orcs, Bolg and Azog, respectively. Several of the Lord of the Rings players are on display here as well, notably Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Kate Blanchette as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and the man that time forgot, Christopher Lee, as Saruman.  Joining the festivities with a legion of dwarves at his back is Dain Ironfoot, played by the mad Scotsman Billy Connolly, who has played music with Gerry Rafferty, been a top stand-up comic, and had an iconic role as Il Duce in the cult classic “The Boondock Saints.” I almost forgot to include the future Doctor Strange and current Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, who returns as the voice of Smaug the Dragon.

The plot of the third act seemed much tighter than the previous two, and the characterizations, particularly that of Thorin, benefitted greatly. After two films of grousing, giving up at every obstacle and giving Bilbo  a needlessly hard time, Thorin finally found some motivation for his ill-temper—dragon sickness, a unreasonable lust for his newly won vault of gold. His entourage remained loyal despite their king’s madness, but Bilbo wasn’t shackled by dwarven codes of honor and tried to orchestrate a truce between the elven army camped outside of Thorin’s stronghold and Bard’s ragtag peasant army of Laketown survivors. Dain, Thorin’s cousin, showed up with a legion to try to talk sense into Thorin just as Azog and Bolg made their attack. The Battle of the Five Armies had begun.

If you’re reading this before seeing the movie, stop here. Bookmark the page (you should like Critical Blast on Facebook while you’re at it) and I’ll see you when you get back from the show. I’ll catch up on Once Upon A Time on Netflix while I wait…back again? Okay—I don’t know how spoiler heavy this is, so if you faked going to the movie because your significant other dragged you out to see The Nutcracker you have my sympathies, but I’ve stalled long enough. There were three points where Peter Jackson completely lost me to eye-rolling, head-shaking moments where my suspension of disbelief couldn’t overcome the ridiculousness of what I was seeing on the screen. I absolutely love Billy Connolly. I can watch him in just about anything and be happy. His character’s name here is Dain Ironfoot, not Ironhead! Dwarves with huge warhammers have no business headbutting much larger orcs into oblivion. Yes, headbutting for the kill. Seriously, Peter Jackson, find a Dungeons & Dragons game somewhere and see how far that gets you. Then Bilbo loses his dagger and as the orcs close in on him he picks up some rocks and throws them at his heavily muscled foes…for the kill. In baseball, Bilbo would be lucky to be David Eckstein. He certainly wouldn’t be Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. Yet there was the diminutive fastballer of The Shire club, mowing down orcs like Madison Bumgarner mowed down pretty much everyone in the post season this year. He was Koufax, Gibson, Bullseye and Gambit all rolled into one tiny, hairy-footed David facing a full squad of Goliaths. I can’t buy that even if it was on sale and I had a Groupon. Finally, Legolas and Azog have a swashbuckling set-to on an ancient stone causeway between icy sides of a ravine, and the whole structure gives way under their furious onslaught. Being light on one’s feet I can understand, but running up a collapsing cascade of falling stones as if shooting a literal video for Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was groan-inducing. Every time Jackson’s choices pulled me out of the narrative it was a struggle to get back into the story. That’s not what visual storytellers strive for.

I’d like to give Peter Jackson the benefit of the doubt. I’m no Tolkienite purist, so I can accept whatever faults the Lord of the Ring trilogy may have had. The Hobbit trilogy was just overlong and often too cute for its own good. Taken on its own merits, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is good, fun but flawed, fantasy that the average moviegoer will enjoy. The Tolkienites will probably scorn it because of issues they’ve had with every version. In other words, however you’ve felt about any of the previous Middle Earth movies you can likely expect roughly the same degree of satisfaction here.  

3.5 / 5.0