Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

I've been a defender of The Hobbit films to this point. While I was never on board with the decision to break down such a slight text into three endless films, I could get behind the storybook lightness of the first couple entries in the series. There were dwarf songs and overeating to buffer some of the questing action, and the characters felt like they were being developed here and there over the course of the bloated run time.  They weren't great films, but they were entertaining to watch and quite lovely in their way.  Which is why all I really need to say about The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies can be summed up with a throwing up of hands and a resounding 'WTF'.  My time as a Hobbit apologist ended somewhere in the midst of the battle sequence that makes up most of this film's two-and-a-half hour run time, and the things that frustrates me the most is the way this lazy piece of storytelling casts a pall over the entire franchise.  Much like George Lucas before him, Peter Jackson has taken too many liberties with the world he manages.  Unlike Lucas, Jackson's alterations are a betrayal not only to his own work, but to J.R.R. Tolkien's.  He's transformed a slight volume into a war-heavy act of political tedium so pointedly directed at tying the mythology into The Lord of the Rings that it nearly forgets to include the title character for impossibly long stretches of time.

There's no real way to describe the tedium of the battling at play in Five Armies.  There was a time when we were all enthralled by the technical marvels involved in building the battle sequences for LotR, and where we might have found ourselves hungry for more scenes that succeeded at that scope and scale.  Indeed, Five Armies is still impressive in its rendering of space and attention to mundane details like fight choreography or the textures of an orc's flesh.  When these aspects appear to take precedence over the act of storytelling, though - particularly in a film so reliant on keeping characters and questing arcs together -  things fall apart rapidly.  

Five Armies begins immediately after the conclusion of part two, and we watch as Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) descends upon the people of Laketown.  Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) makes relatively quick work of him, but not before much of the town is burned to a crisp.  The now homeless survivors of the attack soon make their way to the Lonely Mountain to demand reparations from Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), as they know it was the dwarves who awoke the dragon. Thorin, though, now sitting atop the riches of the Mountain, is suffering from "the dragon sickness" - also known as a rather pure and spiteful greed. The Laketown folks aren't the only ones who want their share of the trove, though. In a confusing sequence of events, everyone ever seems to reenter the story.  The elves arrive with an army, so do the dwarves of the Iron Hills, and -lo and behold - we also get roughly a million orcs.  And the battle commences.  It's worth noting here that I had almost no recollection of this battle happening in The Hobbit.  It's been a long time since I read it, sure, but it seemed unlikely that I could misplace something the film devoted so much time to.  As far as I can tell (from a cursory glance back through the book), Tolkien only gives the battle a few pages. Jackson?  An hour. Yes, you read that right. An hour.  For that hour, the film is essentially a silent one. Characters stop talking, plots stop moving, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) basically disappears, and the movie becomes an onslaught of relentless, meaningless action to the point that when major characters are killed it seems wholly unremarkable.  
I get the desire to use the medium to your advantage. I get, too, that the book's ellipses on the battlefront doesn't quite work to show us the carnage.  What I don't understand is why, after the trajectories of the first two films, we would need this chapter at all.  The battle is so grossly over-inflated that it allows the audience time to reflect upon all the decisions Jackson and the studios made leading up to it, and causes us to feel duped.  One long movie would have been fine, two films probably better, three? We all just shelled out holiday cash to watch thirty minutes of story and two hours of padding.

Adding insult to injury, Jackson has altered the timeline so much that it's frequently quite difficult to tell precisely what's going on and how it pertains to the rest of what we're seeing.  He's finding space to bring in Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) here, but as we watch them stave off Nazgul to save Gandalf, it's depressingly unclear why we're being given this scene at all.  Similar questions surface as the Jackson-invented Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) reenters the story essentially to offer a statement about her love for Kili (Aidan Turner) and to provide some additional reason for Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to show up at all.  Jackson moves rapidly between moments, characters, and places that it grows impossible to orient one's self on the movie's map, and frustrating to even try.  When true Tolkien fans (and there are a couple in my family) leave with questions as to whether they missed a seemingly crucial plot point, something has gone very wrong indeed.  In this case, the diagnosis is clear: Jackson forced the epic nature of the Lord of the Rings onto a storybook, and he sadly may have collapsed his house entirely.

If we're lucky, where the first saga brought a want for extended editions, this time we'll get a condensed one.  The smartest thing Jackson could do right now would be to start work on a director's cut that trimmed the fat and gave us the story as it was.  Leave the fan fiction on the cutting room floor.  

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