“Farewell, Master Burglar. Go back to your books, and your armchair…plant your trees, watch them grow. If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place…”
The enduring popularity (and usefulness) of those gargantuan “Extended Editions” of director Peter Jackson’s celebrated Lord of the Rings adaptations – which graft between thirty and fifty minutes of exposition, exploration, and effects onto epic films that already pushed (and punished) the three hour mark theatrically – isn’t difficult to surmise. LOTR is an existential, near-apocalyptic, struggle, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a dense, fairly miraculous setting for a film, full to bursting with hidden treasures and wonders to behold, populated by many distinct races, each with its own obscure motives and ancient grudges to nurse, facing half a dozen or more delicious varieties of increasingly hearty evil, from giant spiders and undead bounty hunters, to treacherous sorcerers and impossibly vast armies of genetically-enhanced butchers, to the wellspring embodiment of darkness itself, to the heartrending corruption of the mortal soul. As subject matter, the three volumes of LOTR fairly cry out for added consideration, and if there are moments where Jackson, a super-fan charged with delivering a version of Tolkien appropriate cinematically to its outsized literary influence and renown, oversteps his bounds (to me, the Oscar-winning Return of the King still charitably suffers from bloat and at least two too many endings), his instincts are much more often correct, and his overall achievement magnificent: Middle Earth brought from the page to thrilling, vibrant, lived-in existence; a challenging physical and emotional journey, tangible in both its weariness and wonder; the thrum and danger of encroaching, all-encompassing darkness; all out, simply fantastical war on a scale never before seen. If Jackson has proved he knows one thing, it’s scale.
Then there’s The Hobbit, Tolkien’s comparatively modest and straightforward (yet no less beloved) single-volume LOTR prequel, and an invitation to speculate for a moment. Remember that, around the turn of the millennium, as Jackson engaged in increasingly tense pre-production wrangling with prospective financiers and distributors over the scope and direction of his LOTR adaptation, the film was proposed variously as a standalone title, and, for some time, as a pair of films, close, one assumes, in purview to the charming cel-animated oddities Ralph Bakshi produced in the 1970s. Only late in the process did it become clear that LOTR could generate equivalent movies for each of Tolkien’s original three books. Later, fans clamored for Jackson, coasting on the trilogy’s global success, to tackle The Hobbit next, but legal complications with the property’s owners and the Tolkien estate hamstrung any serious efforts. By the late aughts, however, Jackson had been reaffirmed by proclamation as, for all intents and purposes, the George Lucas of Middle Earth, and pre-production on The Hobbit began, with his LOTR brain trust joined by director and singular fantasist Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) and the 300-page source material somehow cast as a six-hour, two-part series, the first film recounting much of the original quest, with the second as a sort of bridge to the later trilogy assembled out of bits of stray story and filled out by the various Middle Earth-building appendices Tolkien apparently could never stop including in his books. As 2012 dawned, fans already excited for the Christmas release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, received some startling, potentially double-edged news: director del Toro had departed Middle Earth altogether to shepherd his own implacable Orc army of projects already in development, and what had once been the dubious two-part adaptation of a slender fantasy novel was now, almost inexplicably, a trilogy, just like its cinematic predecessor.
At this point, before a frame had even been viewed publicly, The Hobbit already smacked to some, like yours truly, as, potentially, Jackson’s very own Star Wars prequel trilogy, a high profile, deep impact vanity project and convergence of diminishing artistic returns with escalating financial returns, both of those results practically predestined. With the release of the second trilogy’s concluding chapter, and, one imagines, Jackson’s final word on Middle Earth, The Battle of the Five Armies, those twin prophecies have more or less come to pass. Even with the benefit of hindsight (which probably wasn’t as necessary in evaluating The Hobbit as it was the Star Wars prequels) it’s worth posing a question that speaks to the worth of the overall enterprise: If Peter Jackson’s big break back in 2001 had been a big budget, blockbuster adaptation of The Hobbit, what might have happened, and how might that film have been mounted? Would it have had similar impact? Would it still have unquestionably made Jackson’s career? Is there any conceivable way it becomes a single, three-hour film, let alone a lumbering trilogy of them? I pose these easily answerable questions not because I wish to pile onto The Hobbit, which, despite its crippling largesse, contains a fairly ripping spirit of adventure, along with certain sequences and individual shots that, by virtue of time and technical expertise, far exceed even the best the LOTR trilogy had to offer. That just makes its failure as an enterprise the more disappointing. As its director and visionary curator, Jackson probably arrived with the least number of dollar signs in his eyes, and clearly approached the second trilogy with a self-imposed mandate to expand the Hobbit source material’s scope into something with a more pronounced, sweeping, and relatable epic thrust, whether or not the material itself was worthy of such excess. Jackson had, as his model, the most critically and financially successful film franchise of the new millennium, one, at least to a degree, of his own devising. It is understandable why he thought he might well pull three films off, even as the decision looks hubristic in retrospect.
“The Battle of the Five Armies”, in Tolkien’s world, comprises not one-third of The Hobbit’s length but roughly one-fifth. As such, its cinematic namesake has the thinnest pretense for existence of any of the films so far, yet, it should be said, struggles heroically to outdo and exceed its inherent limitations. The story directly picks up the cliffhanger from 2013’s The Desolation of Smaug, which saw the fearsome, titular, Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced dragon storm out of his lair in the vast, gold-choked halls of Erebor to inflict fiery wrath on the human denizens of nearby Lake-town. Assuming his traditional posture, hobbit “burglar” Bilbo Baggins helplessly watches the carnage from afar with his dwarven fellowship, as Smaug cruelly dive bombs mile-long stretches of buildings, which explode into flame as Lake-town’s citizenry takes to its network of canals in a desperate escape attempt. After the fiend is eventually killed, Lake-town’s refugees trek toward the Lonely Mountain, displaced from their burnt-out husk of a home, while the dwarven company already there resettles Erebor, plundering its riches in search of the Arkenstone, a powerful, corrupting sort of discount One Ring/Middle Earth MacGuffin that leader Thorin Oakenshield fiercely covets as his birthright, and fortifying against imminent attack from one or more disgruntled parties. The five armies in play here are elves (high-horsed, or, in this case, moosed, as ever, but strictly looking for treasure), Lake-town’s human rabble (nobly/pitifully seeking payment for services rendered during the dwarves’ journey), an amusingly coarse, possibly drunk, dwarven host arrived to defend its newly reclaimed homeland, and not one but two armies of orcs*, a swarming harbinger of the far direr things to come in LOTR. At 144 minutes, Battle boasts the most streamlined running time of the trilogy so far, indicative of the machinations undertaken in attempting to escalate its merely climactic conflict into a titanic one.
*Both orc leaders see extensive screentime in the trilogy, variously dwarf-hunting and gearing up for war. One sports a chewed up, desiccated face that kinda resembles the Crypt Keeper from HBO’s ‘90s “Tales From The Crypt” revamp. The “Orc King”, who bears the Thorin Oakenshield character a particular grudge, looks, with his scarred, pasty face and ratlike ears, eerily like legendary oddball (odd-bald?) genre villain Michael Berryman, of “Weird Science” and “The Hills Have Eyes” (Wes Craven version) fame.
My elemental problem with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is my overarching problem with the entire Hobbit conceit: In Jackson’s hands, it is a simple, involving story blown out of any and all proportion, both physically and emotionally. Having already successfully visited the well once, Jackson’s Hobbit approximates impossible LOTR-level scale on events that warrant far, far less and seeks consistent LOTR-level impact in both stakes and relationships (importing numerous big wheels from LOTR – Legolas, Sarumon, Galadriel, etc. – that feel, at best, out of place, and even inventing one – Legolas’ melodramatic gal pal played by Lost’s Evangeline Lilly – for the purpose of creating a silly, unconvincing whole cloth elf/dwarf romance) that cannot hope to support it. If LOTR on screen was a thrilling and epic existential struggle against, to paraphrase a different British literary luminary, the dying of the light, The Hobbit, at its most padded, self-indulgent moments, of which there are many, is a fight for survival of quite a different type. The Battle of the Five Armies has exactly two extended set pieces to recommend it. Smaug’s razing of Lake-town is appropriately harrowing, interspersed with the efforts of Kate from Lost to escape via the canal system and Bard the Dragonslayer to earn his title, besieged atop a rickety tower, bow in hand. The “Five Armies” clash itself is sort of a rote, predictable affair, full of war cries, clanging metal and anonymous CG participants, with chaos recycled, if not seemingly lifted wholesale, from several of its five predecessors, all of which did the carnage appreciably better. However, about twenty minutes into the larger battle, our principals peel off on a daring mission to assault Michael Berryman and his orcs atop a precarious, vertiginous, mountaintop perch.
It is here that the film’s heart finally starts beating in earnest, and the assault on Berryman becomes, like Bilbo’s Desolation encounter with Smaug – despite attempting to turn the party’s subterranean flight from the Goblin King into a bravura Temple of Doom-level mine escape, Unexpected Journey has no comparable sequence – Battle’s de facto centerpiece. Jackson, who has, to this point, invested minutes by the interminable handful in exploring the politics and sociology of his human and elf factions, and by the bushel in his efforts to turn Thorin Oakenshield – the 1.5-note, miserly dwarf king of the Lonely Mountain – into first a tragic figure and then a tragic hero, instantly reminds his restless captive audience of his prodigious gifts as a CGI-abetted, grand action storyteller. CG Legolas may look as goofy as ever he did, this time zipping across a huge stone bridge as it crumbles in mid-air, but in the moments where Jackson stops trying so damned hard and starts just letting things flow, as in the outnumbered dwarves’ desperate last stand, or a patently unsettling moment where Oakenshield, having finally vanquished the Berryman orc by drowning him in a frozen lake, watches the body of his fallen opponent drift ominously beneath the ice, its fierce eyes slowly closing, the film is mesmerizing. Moments like that call to mind not just Jackson’s well-established bona fides as a wizard of blockbuster fantasy but echo his humbler, hungrier origins as a purveyor of colorful, close to the bone, low budget New Zealand indie horror…the kinds of echoes, in other words, that made him such an interesting choice to adapt Tolkien in the first place. The Battle of the Five Armies is five yards of fine cloth stretched across a fifteen yard board, a terrific ten-minute setpiece buttressed later by a cheer-worthy 45-minute sequence, with not much of anything occupying the spaces in between. Much of it is frayed and faded and hopelessly torn, though what remains intact is tremendous, a window into what might have been a worthy counterpart and lasting legacy in slightly more thoughtful hands. Jackson overdid The Hobbit at almost every possible turn. I just wish he had trusted the material, and his instincts, more.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (2014) 2.5/4 stars