A Battle of Two Reviews – Examining Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

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Review by Art Schmidt

Peter Jackson’s final installment of his screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit is a breathtaking piece of film which aspires to the almost insurmountable heights that his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King achieved.  The goal is a worthy, if almost unrealistic one, and Jackson spares no expense in trying to soar to those heights where he took us ten years ago.

I’m of two minds about this movie, and have been struggling to combine them into a single piece for you, our faithful readers.  But like Jackson with this trilogy, I am not quite up to the task.  And so, like Jackson, I will split something that should be in a single piece into multiple pieces, and although I am aware that they will likely not equal the sum of what a whole, single review should, I will try nonetheless because I have too much to say on the subject and am utterly unable to edit myself.  Much like a certain director we all know and admire.

Review by a fan of fantasy cinema

The Battle of the Five Armies is a really good film.  Is it great?  Well, that will be up to each viewer, honestly.  It is big and bold, and gives good screen time to the multitude of characters we have come to know over the course of the last two films in the trilogy.  The movie opens where the previous film left off, a different approach from other films in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, which tended to open with flashbacks or clever recaps to bring the viewer back into the world of Middle-earth which may have faded slightly since the previous film.  Not so here, as the audience is plunged directly into the story right where we exited it last year.

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The dragon Smaug, scary and crazy in the second Hobbit film which bears his name, is magnificently rendered and feels vibrantly alive in the dark theater, the screen aglow with dragonfire and the air electric with his howls of rage and vengeance.  Benedict Cumberbatch captures the right amount of menace and vanity, bringing the drake alive in ways that superb CGI just could not do on its own.  The poor people of Laketown would surely stand in awe of Jackson’s creation if they were not fleeing for their very lives before it.

Martin Freeman knows how to play the everyman, which is essentially what Bilbo Baggins represents.  An everyday man who is snatched up from his comfortable if boring life and thrown headlong into the exciting, unpredictable and oft-times dangerous unknown.  His subtlety and good humor shine through his portrayal of the Hobbit and it is to Freeman’s credit that he can simultaneously stand up to the chiefest and greatest of calamities and also stand up for himself to Thorin, pointing out the sickness that everyone else can see but dare not mention.  The dwarves are also a humorous, entertaining lot, but far too much time would be required to provide the multitude of them a lot of individuality or backstory.  The few who are selected for the spotlight are well worth the time.  Lee Pace, Richard Armitage and Luke Evans play three leaders of different races whose loyalties lie to their people but with widely different styles and personalities.  As with the previous films, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and even Christopher Lee as Saruman himself all put in appearances, though not in a way most might expect!

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The actors are great, the CGI is great, everything is great.  Except that all mixed together, somehow it isn’t really that great.  It’s good, definitely worth a see if you like this sort of thing.  But perhaps not as greeeeeat as we would like it to be.  The titular battle is a grand spectacle, sweeping and broad and encompassing many narratives at once, as is the method-du-jour for such things nowadays.  But though well executed and squeezing every ounce of thrill out of the ride, after a half hour it seems to start to grind, almost as if we’re watching a re-hash of the climax of The Return of the King.  Rich ground if you care to mine it, to be certain!  But when re-served it has to have a little different flavoring in order to give it that new scene smell.  And in this case, most of the ingredients seem to be leftovers from last trilogy’s menu.

The film is worth seeing, let’s be clear on that.  For anyone who has watched the previous films in The Hobbit trilogy, it’s almost a must-see.  It’s highly entertaining and the emotional high points hit enough of their marks to leave the audience feeling satisfied.  But for many it may come off feeling a little like LOTR warmed-over.  But perhaps that’s enough.

As a movie-goer, I’d take a re-heated LOTR over a lot of other fare that’s currently out there, that’s for sure.

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Review by a fan of Tolkien’s fiction

Jackson famously strayed from the original text of The Lord of the Rings novels out of necessity in bringing that large, multi-faceted and wide-ranging epic from its origins in oratory format to the wonderous world of vision, of sight, of moving pictures.  Whether a simple dialogue change or a grand elaboration morphing a few pages of text into a drawn-out and satisfying climax which sucks us in for nearly an hour, it was all done with a deft hand and the best of intentions.  Jackson stayed with Tolkien’s original vision of the desperate struggle of free peoples to avoid the darkness descending on their world, for the sakes of their children.  Desperate heroes who faced dangers out of a willingness to defend the greater good, no matter the personal cost.

And it all worked beautifully.

The sweeping epic that is The Lord of the Rings trilogy will surely be celebrated and revered long after Jackson and the rest of us have set sail from the Grey Havens.  Any changes from the original text were by design to enhance Tolkien’s story and clarify the characters in our minds, smooth out the story, and amplify the heart of the tale, of a little band of simple, honest folk doing their best to thwart evil and save their world.

Not so with The Hobbit.

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The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, started out on an unexpected footing, weaving in thread after thread from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, most of which were not present in the original book nor even in the appendices.  And that would have been fine, in and of itself, if they served to either enhance the movie experience or add to the entertainment value without taking away from the story.  But by adding in appearances from Galadriel, Saruman, and others, the movie took on a different feel, a different air than the original story.  Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast was a pleasant addition, helping to flesh out the world of The Hobbit, but his scenes were all centered around the rise of the Necromancer, something only hinted at in secret whispers in The Hobbit novel, a ghost to add flavor and spook the reader.  Jackson shoves this footnote of the storyline out into the spotlight, which detracts from the story of Bilbo and his companions to no real positive effect.

Further, the depiction of Bilbo in The Hobbit trilogy is different from that in the book; in the novel, he is an innocent, honest hobbit who jumps with fear at every turn.  He learns courage over the course of his journeys, but he is by no means a great warrior by the end.  And this is by Tolkien’s design; having witnessed the horrors of trench warfare in WWI while serving in the British Army, Tolkien saw first-hand the carnage and brutality of war.  It is this distaste for the machinery and wanton destruction of warfare and a desire to literally save the world from it that is threaded throughout his novels, giving them their gravity and heart.  He could hardly zero in on the innocence of the halflings were he not aware of the terrible ways of Men.  It is his idealistic view of the power of pure good that shines through the pages of the book, and the hope that we come away with is that Bilbo prevailed despite not allowing himself to be taken in by the lure of wealth and power.

But Jackson’s adaptation pays little homage to that ideal.  Martin Freeman’s portrayal of the reluctant hero is subtle and genuine, and it is hard to imagine another actor carrying off the part of Bilbo Baggins with such great success.  Richard Armitage brings the heavy, conflicted soul of Thorin to life through his eyes and his presence, though the dialogue oftimes robs him of the words to properly convey it.  Ian McKellen falls into the role of Gandalf easily, a genuine Wizard through and through.

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But however well the actors all did in bringing the script to life, it is in the writing where we find the greatest fault.  Too much time is spent unnecessarily foreshadowing the LOTR trilogy, which is for many reasons a complete waste of both our time and attention.  Fans of those films know what happens, and how the actions of those in The Hobbit affect the larger world and the eventual coming of Sauron.  Instead of understanding that, and placing a few knowing winks and allusions to the LOTR films, what Jackson does instead is force what amounts to an entire movie’s worth of screen time into this story.  Spread across a trilogy which is supposed to be about a hobbit and his dwarven companions going on a quest to defeat a dragon, is roughly 120 minutes of scenes setting up a movie trilogy which already stands on its own and had enough roots planted in this story as it stood.

And even then, it would have been all right.  Fans of the novel would accept embellishment, even possibly to this degree, if it had been done while retaining the spirit of the original story from which the films were adapted.  Fans would especially accept it from this director, whose name is spoken now almost whenever Tolkien’s great works are discussed, and most likely will be for time immemorial.

But the spirit of The Hobbit has been misplaced, stuffed into a corner somewhere and forgotten, ignored perhaps because the very traits which made it great are now seen as possible faults.  Innocence?  Honesty?  Good will toward all men?  Does a filmgoer crave these things?

One welcome divergence from the original story is the inclusion of Orlando Bloom’s elven prince Legolas, one of the much-loved heroes from the LOTR novels and films.  Bloom’s presence brings a strange comfort to the viewer.  The familiarity of the viewer with this character helps to bridge the two tales and adds a welcome heroic elven presence to the film in contrast to Lee Pace’s stoic, reserved and somewhat selfish ruler of the elves of the Woodland Realm.  His presence and large role in the overall conflict is easily forgiven, as it is highly entertaining and doesn’t force any deviation from the original story.  Likewise, the addition of Evangeline Lily’s elven maiden Tauriel seems a natural and welcome addition to the cast, though having no basis whatsoever in any of Tolkien’s stories.  The fierce elven warrior struggles with her unwelcome affections for one of the dwarven heroes, while assisting Legolas in attempting to keep their woodlands, and the dwarven company, safe from harm.  The need of Hollywood to insert a strong female presence into what was an entirely male-driven story is appropriate and again, as long as it’s entertaining and doesn’t detract from the original story, it’s understandable and even welcome.

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When the elven heroes and others take the stage, though, the viewer can see the influence of the recent success of Hollywood superhero films seeping into Jackson’s The Hobbit adaptation.  At times, the audience is forced to sit through over-indulgent fight scenes which come straight out of a screenwriter’s imagination and have no roots in the original story.  Parts of the movie are dominated by monsters and magicks which Tolkien didn’t even hint at, and characters who wield what appear to be superpowers occasionally pop up with no discernible rhyme nor reason.  Unfortunately, most of this serves to detract from the story, not to enhance it.

And therein lies the main issue at the heart of the Hobbit films; the deviations from Tolkien’s work which dismantle the story rather than enhancing it.  Story changes are fine, and it is virtually impossible to take a book and transfer it into a movie without even the slightest changes.  And that should be all right, as books and movies are different mediums.  But too many of Jackson’s re-writes break The Hobbit apart into smaller, lesser pieces rather than serving to help stitch the existing storylines tighter together.

The greatest failing in this area can be seen in the last movie of The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies.  Here, the title of the movie should have concerned fans of the novel from the get-go.  How can an event upon which Tolkien spent barely five pages encompass the majority of an entire film?  Of course, the similarities between this and the Battle of Helm’s Deep are numerous.  However, in the case of the battle in the LOTR film The Two Towers, Jackson and Co. took the source material and enhanced it, taking the existing event in the story and embellishing it for entertainment value, while not detracting from the novel’s narrative.

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The Battle of the Five Armies is altogether different, not in its changes to the story so much, as the majority of it unfolds similar to Tolkein’s narration. Differences yes, but not major ones, and none that harm the story. But the feeling of it all, the manner in which its portrayed, are altogether different.

In Tolkien’s story, he spent a dozen or so paragraphs on the battle between elves, men, dwarves and the orcs led by Bolg from the North.  He gave an abbreviated account of the events, and Bilbo’s participation in them (or lack thereof), as a means to an end.  Yes, there was a great battle, and yes it’s part of the story, but perhaps, just perhaps, Tolkien didn’t think that event worthy of much attention because it really boiled down to an ugly fight over gold.  And as we learn from Thorin’s struggles with himself and his love of the dragon’s hoard, gold shouldn’t occupy so much of our time or attentions; there are more worthy goals in the world.

Alas, Jackson’s adaptation seems to spend far too much of its time and attention reveling in the ugly fight for gold.

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