Friday, January 2, 2015

Movie Reviews: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
directed by Peter Jackson
I really wasn't planning to see this but the regular season of college football is over. I had a few hours to kill during my all too brief holiday break. And I can be a completist. So I figured what the heck. In the previous two reviews I already pointed out my modest displeasure with Jackson's alteration of source material supposedly to make the story more female friendly, the inclusion of greater violence, and the general more and more approach to padding out a simple children's book into 3 sprawling LOTR prequels.  Well been there, done that. Jackson and his co-creators have a certain style and preference. I don't think any of them are changing those things at this point in their lives. Either you can deal with it or you can't. I probably should have waited for DVD for this release as my brother has promised he will do. There is the greater question of how far can you stretch an adaptation before the original meaning of the story or the characters has been lost. As we've discussed before this is always a tricky issue. The films Exodus, Noah and The Passion of the Christ take key protagonists who are critical to Christianity and Judaism and portray them as European when these characters were not European. One reason for this is almost certainly financial but another is likely the fact that most of the people producing, financing and directing such films are of European descent and see no issue with writing themselves into the center of the story. I mention all of that to point out that I think that such changes to religious depictions are much more damaging to people than Jackson and crew changing Tolkien's fantasy work to include more women warriors, doomed cross-species romances and aggressively Scottish dwarves. As an interesting aside, in real life Tolkien mused that his dwarves might be considered similar to Jews (slightly different creation story, different language, and lost homeland). Anyway. It bears repeating that this film is less of an adaptation of The Hobbit and more of an "inspired by The Hobbit". I had to keep reminding myself of that while I was watching the movie. In the big picture, Jackson's alterations, whether they work or not, whether I like them or not, don't change the book.

The movie is also AFAIK the last Tolkien piece that Jackson will be able to interpret for the big screen as the Tolkien estate has steadfastly refused to license any more of Tolkien's novels to anyone, most especially Peter Jackson.

When last we left our bloated storyline Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) had just departed The Lonely Mountain to bring fire and blood to the human inhabitants of Laketown. Smaug's attack was suitably impressive. It reminded us of just how dangerous dragons can be. In ancient times the Dark Lord Morgoth had several such dragons, far larger than even Smaug. Smaug is likely the last of his kind and not as large as his forebears. But he's still deadly enough to lay waste to Laketown. He does just that right up until the time that Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) escapes from jail and puts his last arrow, the Black Arrow, into Smaug's heart, killing him. As the previous town master has perished in the attack, Bard becomes town leader by popular acclaim. He decides to seek shelter in the Mountain and the ruined human city of Dale, hoping that the dwarves will provide assistance and also some wealth to help rebuild the homes of their human allies and neighbors. It's the right thing to do. Not all of Smaug's hoard was dwarvish in origin. And Bard did after all kill Smaug, who would not have attacked were it not for the dwarves. A heroic act like that ought to be worth a little something in Bard's opinion. But the dwarvish leader and now King Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is really not that interested in helping others at present. And he has exactly no intent of giving up any of his gold. He's looking for the Arkenstone, the most valued jewel among all the treasure and symbol of his rule. He's unaware that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has it. Thorin is becoming increasingly paranoid and prejudiced about non-dwarves. And as the search for the Arkenstone drags on, Thorin starts to cast a side eye at his dwarvish relatives and friends.

In what I thought was the film's most interesting and well done scene the White Council led by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) attacks Dol Guldur, rescuing Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) and drives out the revealed Sauron (Cumberbatch again) and his Nazgul. Of course by now everyone and their mama has heard of the death of Smaug and the presumably undefended hoard. And everybody wants some. So an elvish army led by the primly prejudiced King Thranduil (Lee Pace) shows up at the Mountain to bring food and gear to the human refugees but more importantly to stake their own claim to elvish heirlooms in Smaug's hoard. Thorin is becoming a greedy lunatic but he's no stranger to war. Seeing the gathering hosts he sends off a message to his cousin Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly from The Boondock Saints) to come heavy right now. By Gandalf's account Dain (and Connolly really has fun with this role and his accent) is by far the less reasonable of the two cousins. Although Bilbo and Bard both try to negotiate peace war appears imminent among men, elves and dwarves. Until the Orcs show up.

This film (especially the last 45 minutes) was a special effects extravaganza but it didn't really need to be. There's very little that's emotionally involving. This is unlike the book. It's seen most clearly with Fili and Kili, Thorin's nephews. In the film Thorin's tactical mistakes and the aforementioned elf-dwarf romantic love lead to his relatives' doom. In the book it's honor and loyalty (feudal and familial) that bring their end in the true Northern warrior tradition. "Fili and Kili had fallen defending [Thorin] with shield and body, for he was their mother's elder brother". Perhaps, all things considered, this is a small change but to me it's an example of how Jackson missed or misread some key themes in The Hobbit. YMMV. It was particularly needlessly maudlin to have women and children at the battle. Some of this looked like outtakes from the Helm's Deep battle in LOTR 2. Much of the quirkiness and sense of wonder that was there in the book was lost in the translation to the screen. To be fair by the time of the battle the book had taken a slightly darker tone but that was a brief change in something that until that point had been mostly whimsical. I think Jackson was pushing the prequel idea a little too much. This was nonetheless the most satisfying installment of the trilogy, primarily because it's over. It had some humor but little from the book. You can safely wait to see this on DVD or VOD unless you just have to see long battles or drawn out duels right this instant. I am interested in seeing what else Richard Armitage has done or will do. The film's running time was about 2.5 hours.
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