Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, review by Greg Wright

What was that I was saying about Lee Pace being a welcome presence as Thranduil in The Desolation of Smaug?  When Peter Jackson has him ride to war on a caribou in The Battle of the Five Armies, I heave a heavy sigh. When the caribou’s antlers become weapons of mass destruction in the heat of battle, my popcorn comes up in my throat!

While Five Armies is, overall, the best-executed of the three Hobbit movies, Jackson just doesn’t seem to know when he’s on to a good thing and when enough is enough.

Eight years ago, when asked me to opine about plans for the Hobbit films, I editorialized as follows:

Without yet getting into the structure that such films might assume, it’s fair to say that Tolkien wouldn’t have written the same story that he did had he written it subsequent to The Lord of the Rings.

battle-of-the-five-armies-insetFirst, we know that, when Tolkien began writing The Hobbit, he had no intention of it becoming a part of the history of Middle-earth.  Second, we know that Tolkien had to later revise The Hobbit to make it consistent with his masterwork, retooling Bilbo’s riddle game with Gollum.  Third, we know that Tolkien had to temporarily suspend work on Rings in order to work out exactly how characters like Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the Hobbits themselves fit into his broader mythology.  Fourth, we know that Tolkien gave up writing a Rings sequel because the material simply became “too dark.”

Complicating matters is the general perception amongst many fans—a sentimental, romanticized, and unexamined perception—that The Hobbit is a light, whimsical fantasy.  It is not.  It is, in fact, an allegorical bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale, a story of loss of innocence.  It’s about children no longer covering their eyes in terror and imagining giants and bogies, but rather coming to see the world with eyes wide open and finding out that the most dangerous monsters may be some of their fellow adventurers.  The conventions of fantasy may dispose of Smaug quite neatly; dealing with Thorin—or Bilbo’s own complicity in a Great Wrong—is another matter entirely, but one which is at the heart of The Hobbit.

Given that The Lord of the Rings has already come to the screen, though (and stupendously so), we have already seen how blithe young Hobbits such as Pippin must learn to become grave warriors; we have already witnessed the darkness of battles like that at the Pelennor; through Théoden, we have already witnessed sleepers waking to the harsh reality of betrayal and self-deception; we have, in short, already lost the innocence of Middle-earth.  Trying to recapture it—on a scale that would duplicate the boxoffice success of Rings—would be a bit like returning to fifth-grade summer camp after a stint in college dorms.

So two choices present themselves: first, scale back the design of The Hobbit as Lord of the Rings Lite for the younger set, and hope that Peter Jackson’s fans have all spawned their own sets of Hobbit-sized kindergarteners who will be thrilled with a Curious George version of Middle-earth; or second, embrace the tone of the last third of The Hobbit and integrate the tale seamlessly with Peter Jackson’s other films.  Boxoffice potential almost dictates the wisdom of the latter choice, regardless of the “violence” it does to Tolkien’s original tale.

As much as I have chafed at the execution the very approach I suggested—a thorough embrace of the last third of Tolkien’s novel as the tone for the entire series of Hobbit films—in the end the choice does seem wise. The Hobbit films will indeed, as time goes by, prove to be a suitable legacy companion to the Rings films.

Five Armies, in particular, strikes the right balance where the other two Hobbit films failed: its tone is more consistent throughout than Unexpected Journey, and it doesn’t feel like a rushed sequence of chase scenes, as did Desolation.

Still, Jackson is not at his best form here.

For example: the film’s opening sequence, Smaug’s destruction of Lake Town, is a pretty fine depiction of what it would look like if a dragon attacked your wood-structure town; but Jackson can’t stop there. Instead, he stages a showdown between Smaug, the “Dragon Who Talks Too Much, Like a Bond Villain,” and Bard the Smuggler (um, Bowman) who, instead of felling the dragon with a simple (if legendary) black arrow, struggles to launch a six-foot steel quarrel, designed to be fired by a “windlance ballistae,” at the mighty lizard. Which he manages to do with, yes, a standard bow. Uh… I think not. So the setpiece falls as flat as a dead dragon, as CGI-thrilling as it is, because Jackson overreaches.

Similarly with the events at Dol Guldur. It’s not enough for Gandalf to have a showdown with the Necromancer cum Sauron; no. Gandalf must first confront an orc army, then all nine Ringwraiths (rather spoiling their much, much more effective appearances in the Rings films), and then he must be rescued by, of all people, Galadriel. As my niece’s husband Jesse pointed out the other day, Galadriel is, after all, a ring-bearer, so the decision makes some measure of sense; but Gandalf is himself a ring-bearer and (in the broader background of Tolkien’s fiction, though it does not enter into Jackson’s films) essentially an angelic being. As the Providentially-appointed Enemy of Sauron, Gandalf should not really require a cameo from the Lady of Lothlorien to emerge from Dol Guldur midly scathed. (And how did he manage to recover his keen cap and staff, by the way?)

And then, of course, there’s all the excesses of the titular battle itself. Enough said.

All the excesses notwithstanding, Jackson really does strike gold in Five Armies with Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo. Here, at last, Freeman is given plenty of room to sputter and pause, to stammer and harrumph his way to a very difficult moral decision. And that’s really at the heart of this tale—as I noted in my editorial for The One Ring.

Richard Armitage, as Thorin, also finally justifies his casting with a decent portrayal of Dragon Lust in the first two-thirds of the film. Between he and Freeman, the Hobbit films manage to conclude with some decent chemistry and a measure of heart.

However, as I confessed to Jesse the other day, I have not seen enough of interest to motivate me to seek out the Extended Editions of the three Hobbit films. Not even my professional curiosity has gotten the better of me.

Perhaps I have finally broken the dragon’s spell. Thanks, Peter.

Greg Wright is the author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004).

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is available to stream at Amazon.

Check it out tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!


2 Responses to “Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature”
  1. BirchCreek says:

    Thanks for the insights and reviews. I admit I’m a Tolkien nerd and very much enjoy the movies though I realize they do deviate from the books.

    • Greg Wright says:

      You’re most welcome. Have you seen the extended cuts of the Hobbit films? If so, what did you think? Were they significant improvements, as were the extended LotR films?

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