The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Review by David Turpin
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett
The third, and final, instalment of Peter Jackon’s second Tolkein trilogy picks up where its predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug left off. Having been wakened from his slumber by a band of plunderers led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and including Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the suave but ill-tempered dragon has flown forth to lay waste to nearby Laketown.
Meanwhile, armies of assorted races are massing to converge on the dwarfs’ mountain, and something mystifying is happening with Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and a horde of transparent spectres. Yes, it’s another day at the office in Middle Earth.
Each of the Lord of the Rings films had weaknesses, but taken collectively they amounted to an authentic triumph. The Hobbit performs the opposite trick, with each of its three parts containing splashes of the wonderful, while the whole amounts to a disappointment, if not an outright disaster.
While The Lord of the Rings films were marvels of compression, the Hobbit films are case studies in bloat. There is not a single scene in The Battle of the Five Armies that couldn’t have been shorter – battle scenes extend past the thrilling into the monotonous, conversations reach their point and then restate it, as if the players are stalling for time. At one moment, a scene involving Thorin’s interior monologue plays out, fades to black, then seems to begin again from the top.
Troublingly, Jackson seems unable to determine the wood from the trees, in narrative terms. Plot devices such as the One Ring and the Arkenstone are briefly foregrounded and dropped again; secondary business crowds out the central Bilbo narrative, possibly in an effort to disguise the fact that this strand reached its natural climax with the confrontation with Smaug at the end of the last film. Not all the additional material is unwelcome – Evangeline Lilly makes an appealing member of the ensemble, and there’s something touching about the idea of a dwarf-elf romance – but the Laketown sequences are extended agonisingly, with a thin comic subplot involving weasely lickspittle Alfrid (Ryan Gage) given a baffling amount of screentime.
The earlier Hobbit films were also distended, but they felt closer in spirit to Tolkein’s essentially gentle and humane story. The first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, had a strain of psychedelic humour that lent it a distinct identity apart from the more Wagnerian Lord of the Rings series. That levity is all but gone from The Battle of the Five Armies – its lone remnant being Sylvester McCoy’s charmingly realised Radagast the Brown, with his hare-drawn carriage. In place of this welcome goofiness is something that feels more than ever like an ersatz Lord of the Rings instalment, albeit with the narrative drive removed. Rather than marvel at what Jackson and his team have accomplished, one finds oneself wondering what might have been, had storytelling prevailed over commerce. Throughout, the film is blithely oblivious to the irony of its many homilies on the danger of losing one’s way in the service of greed.
In another of the wrong-headed decisions that have blighted this project, The Battle of the Five Armies is once again shot in a High Frame Rate format that looks disconcertingly like television sports footage. The minutely detailed digital images flatter the breathtakingly realised special effects and otherworldly New Zealand locations, but they do the actors and the special effects make-up few favours. The eye of Sauron himself could scarcely be more unforgiving, with Orlando Bloom’s Legolas looking very much ten years older than he did in the Lord of the Rings films, while Lee Pace’s Thranduil occasionally sports a most un-elfin five o’clock shadow.
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