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Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Premise: The final installment of Peter Jackson’s three part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel. Picking up where The Desolation of Smaug left off, armies of humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs converge at Erebor to lay claim to the treasure inside.

What Works: There are two successful elements that have defined Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films. The first is the casting. These movies have matched very good actors with roles that suit them and the wise casting choices pay off in The Battle of the Five Armies. Martin Freeman completes his portrayal of Bilbo Baggins and the actor has carefully calibrated his performance over the course of these three films, transforming a homebody into a brave adventurer. Freeman is the sole source of humanity in the Hobbit trilogy and he brightens his scenes with humor but also with the character’s sense of conscience. That pays off in this third installment as Bilbo comes into conflict with Thorin, the leader of the Dwarves played by Richard Armitage. Armitage provides the other notable performance here, as Thorin is overcome by greed and must crawl his way out of gold-inspired madness. The other successful element of the Middle Earth film series has been the mix of dense detail and broad spectacle. The world that has been created for these films is immersive in the true sense of the word; the people and places have a weathered look and the sets and costumes have been rendered with great detail. That detail is all the more impressive because it fills such a broad canvas. Like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final episode of The Hobbit is epic in its story and in the scale of the action scenes. The sheer spectacle of it is impressive to watch despite the film’s other flaws.

What Doesn’t: The finale of The Hobbit brings to a head the problems that have bedeviled this adaptation and Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth film series as whole. Many critics and fans of the J.R.R. Tokien novel have decried the decision to split the book into three movies; the novel was a straightforward young adult fantasy adventure and didn’t require three movies whose collective running time is just shy of eight hours. An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug were padded with a lot of exposition and introduced a lot of new characters and subplots that were not found in the novel. Changing or embellishing the source material is fine but throughout The Hobbit trilogy a lot of this new material wasn’t done especially well. Many of the expansions, such as the romance between an elf played by Evangeline Lily and a dwarf played by Aidan Turner, don’t pay off well enough in the final installment. For all the effort spent expanding the story to fit three feature length movies there is very little added value. Some of the other additions and embellishments come across entirely self-indulgent on Peter Jackson’s part. The movie shoehorns in characters from The Lord of the Rings and their scenes don’t contribute to the present film nor do they enhance our understanding of the existing ones. The Hobbit also suffers from emotional remoteness. The Lord of the Rings films, as impressive as they were, struggled to maintain a human touch. This is an even bigger problem for The Hobbit trilogy and especially The Battle of the Five Armies. The focus of this movie is in its subtitle; about half the picture is taken by a grand battle but despite the immense amount of carnage on display, there is very little actually at stake. In all of the Middle Earth films the hobbit characters carried most of the audience’s emotional investment but ironically the eponymous character of The Hobbit is lost in the shuffle; Bilbo has very little to do in this film and in fact he disappears for long segments of the action. It’s never clear whose story this is and by the end it’s hard to care.

Bottom Line: It’s easy to pile onto The Hobbit trilogy because Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were such a monumental achievement and The Hobbit should not be put in the same category as movies like Michael Bay’s Transformers series. But there is no denying that the spectacle of The Hobbit, and especially of The Battle of the Five Armies, overwhelms its humanity and the movie isn’t a whole lot of fun to watch.

Episode: #522 (December 21, 2014)