Summary: Today film critic Locke Peterseim reviews the last of The Hobbit films, The Battle of the Five Armies. Peter Jackson gives us fare that well suits 21st century America, a spectacular but shallow and overly long war. Three hours of CGI carnage without meaning or emotion, just like our real wars (except to those who wage them). It’s a built-for-export product, whose action transcends the lack of characterization. Post your comments about the film or the review!
Trust me, I well know that books are not movies and movies are not books. I’m fully aware of (and fascinated by) the differences in how the two mediums tell stories and create meaning and experience. And I also know that in this age of Internet tribalism, Hel hath no impotent, squealing fury like a fan who feels the movie on the big screen doesn’t quite match his or her version of the beloved, sacred source material. I know you’re supposed to address the film that was made, not the film you wanted made.
Which is to say that I don’t think The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies — Jackson’s final visit to Middle Earth and the closing chapter in his two-trilogy, six-film, nearly 20-year Tolkien filmmaking journey — is a bad movie. I was somewhat bored by it, but these days I’m more often bored than thrilled by big-screen CGI martial whiz-bang.
Obviously many of you are out there enjoying the film fully, dutifully enthralled by it, and most critics follow the same lines when “reviewing” films like The Hobbit — they focus on how well they’re paced, do they hold together, and most importantly for your two and a half hours and 10-plus dollars, do they entertain enough?
(Also it should be noted, critics and fangirls/boys alike have a subconscious desire, a need to like films that close out much-anticipated but highly problematic films series like Armies with The Hobbit — or, say, Revenge of the Sith with the Star Wars prequels. It’s pop-cultural survivalism: We want so much to like these closing films, to have this beloved, drawn-out, multi-year endeavor end on a positive note, that we cling with hope to mantras like “Well, it was better than the first two.” There’s too much emotional investment in the previous films and the source material, and it’s too depressing to accept that these films aren’t all that great.)
As a life-long Tolkien lover, my personal problem with The Battle of the Five Armies, and the Hobbit films in general is that there is no sense that anyone involved with the films — not Jackson, his co-writers and producers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, or the studio brain trust at Warners ever truly asked and answered, “How is The Hobbit fundamentally different from The Lord of the Rings?” (Other than one has a dragon and the other has Ents.)
Instead, in this fearful Industry age of known, bankable properties, big budgets, big spectacle, and painfully milked franchises, the only question anyone seemed to care about was, “How can we make this as much like Lord of the Rings as possible?” Give the people what they want: Action! Huge CGI battles! A couple ruggedly handsome Aragorn stand-ins! And Legolas! Legolas! Legolas!
The irony is that in the 11 years since Return of the King closed out Jackson’s first trilogy, the film business has changed drastically in part because of the success of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series (both Warner Brothers/New Line franchises). I and so many others — including both old Tolkien fans and new converts — loved the LOTR films because not only did they make High Fantasy cool again, but they completely upended and breathed fresh, sincere life into the notion of the big, blockbuster action-adventure film. They felt honest and filled with creative integrity — made out of earnest love for the material, not the materialistic.
But since then, every big film must be based on a proven popular property with instant “poster recognition;” extended into a multi-film franchise; and should, if possible, feature as many massive CGI battles and as much sweeping, jaw-dropping, eye-popping wowsa as budgetarily possible.
The success of Jackson’s LOTR films helped foster that paradigm, and now his Hobbit films feel almost solely, soullessly born of it. Victims of their forbearers’ success, they feel like product created to cash in on trends, not set them — creatively, they follow, not lead. At best, they garner an “ahh” of recognition, not the “oooh” of true surprise and delight.
It may be a few decades before all the behind-the-scenes details slip out in Industry tell-all books, so much of this is just speculation. But Jackson gave every indication beforehand that didn’t want to direct The Hobbit films himself. In part because he know what a huge, Herculean, exhausting undertaking such a thing is, but also, I think, my facetious accusations aside, because he knew he didn’t have the same affinity for the source novel as he did LOTR. Perhaps Jackson did know The Hobbit was different, and he knew the differences didn’t play to his strengths. So he tapped Guillermo del Toro to helm the prequels, but after doing plenty of writing and pre-production designing, del Toro dropped out as years of legal wrangling over rights issues kept postponing the start of shooting.
Peter Jackson the person says he identifies best with the hobbits and would most want to live in the Shire, and I believe him. He loves his hobbits and their cozy hobbit holes — he captured the Shire perfectly in Fellowship, and the opening dinner party sequence of Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey might have worked if it hadn’t been so painfully and perfunctorily drawn out.
But Peter Jackson the filmmaker can’t quite put his trust in Tolkien’s gentle tone and doesn’t seem able to find that more fable-like gear. His instincts, so on point for LOTR, are completely off for The Hobbit, perhaps out of disinterest or distraction, perhaps due to the dictates of a greedy studio. So Jackson, I’m sure with Warners’ encouragement, began altering The Hobbit films more and more to play like a second LOTR go-‘round.
And once Warners decided The Hobbit would have to be three films (and no matter what Jackson claims, I find it exceedingly hard to believe that the pressure to split two films into three did not come directly and forcefully from the studio accounting department), why did each have to be well over two-hours long? Why not make three tight, neat, effective 105-minute films? In part, I suspect, because the longer running times make audiences feel like they’re experiencing an epic event, something bigger — and longer — than just any old run-of-the-mill action movie, and therefore not just worth their extra 3D-cash, but demanding of it.
Some of it may also be Jackson’s inadvertent ego — humble as the hirsute little Kiwi filmmaker may remain, he’s now the guy who’s made some of the highest-grossing films of all time, and that makes it difficult for others and even him to say to himself, “maybe this all isn’t completely necessary.”
This raises the literally billion dollar question: Would del Toro have found the right, different gear for The Hobbit? Had he not bailed out, would his Hobbit films have better served Tolkien’s novel? It’s safe to assume they still would have put their emphasis on action-adventure first and foremost, and of course Jackson would still have executive produced them, but nuance is everything, and, giant robot vs monster movies aside, del Toro can be a much more nuanced, adult, and often more insightful fantasist than Jackson. He may have approached the material with a much different, more layered tone. But of course, this can only ever be a great, lost “What if”. Given the current rate at which franchises are rebooted and remade, I suspect I may still see yet another screen adaptation of The Hobbit and LOTR in my ever-ticking-down lifetime, but I doubt it will involve del Toro.
Contributing to the beauty and brilliance of the LOTR films was that New Line/Warners never cared much about them as they were being filmed in the late ‘90s — they’d been budgeted cheaply (three big films for the price of one big one), had no stars, and were being shot literally on the other side of the world in the pre-Skype age, making it much more of a hassle for studio suits to pop in for meddling set visits and panic-button meetings.
That is certainly not true of The Hobbit films. Warners knows exactly what is riding on the films, exactly how important their financial success is to the studio in the post-Potter era, how much they must appeal to everyone who loved the LOTR films, and therefore how they must push the exact same market-tested buttons.
Which is why the Tolkien’s aged and embittered greybeard Thorin Oakenshield becomes Richard Armitage’s much younger, hunkier Aragorn look-alike, and the book’s bit-player Bard (Luke Evans) gets a much bigger role (and a family of adorable moppets to protect!). And while there’s no doubt women are under-represented in Tolkien’s novels, the addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and her ill-fated romance with Kili (Adian Turner) feels opportunistic — whatever female empowerment is gained by showing an ass-kicking female elf is offset by the obvious effort to gin up another Aragorn-Arwen-style love story in order to pander to a desired demographic.
And of course there’s Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. Lots and lots of Legolas; way too much Legolas in this third and final film. And always with the now de rigueur “cool Legolas fighting move,” which in each film is bigger, more outrageous, and sillier than the last, until at this point, as the elf warrior runs in mid-air up falling pieces of rubble, the effort to top previous feats simply destroys the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The LOTR films worked very hard to ground the world of Middle Earth in a rustic authenticity, but Jackson has been increasingly willing to trade that realism away for cheap thrills.
I joked about Desolation of Smaug that you come for the giant fire-breathing dragon and stay for the Laketown politics, but in Armies Smaug is dispatched in the first 10 minutes, before the title credits, and Jackson spends an unfathomable amount of the film’s remaining time fussing around with skeevy, conniving Laketown bureaucratic assistant Alfrid (Ryan Gage) and his greedy slapstick antics. (Seriously, you get the sense that rather than The Hobbit, Jackson would have much rather have made just one Pythonesque comedy: Alfrid: The Woeful Comic Misfortunes of Laketown’s Bumbling Deputy.)
Such non-canon padding, dictated by the decision to make three Hobbit films instead of two, doesn’t just hurt the film because it’s such distracting, time-wasting side business. It’s more than just boring; the filler requires Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens to overstrain weak character motivations and plot threads until they nearly snap in order to squeeze out one more fight sequence (or dull romantic side street — I’m looking at you Kili and Tauriel).
I’m more of two minds about the filmmakers’ addition of the Sauron/Dol Guldur/White Council material — on the one hand, it’s so blatantly shoe-horned in to tie The Hobbit closer to LOTR, with more Elrond (Hugo Weaving), more Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), more Gandalf (Ian McKellan), more Saruman (Christopher Lee), more Nazgul (CGI phantoms), and of course more Sauron (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). And part of me loves that sort of sweeping, epic, mythic, good-versus-evil stuff on a grand scale.
But unlike LOTR, The Hobbit isn’t supposed to be an epic film about good-versus-evil on a grand wizard/elf scale. Tolkien wrote a quiet fairytale about how a one quiet, little hobbit has his horizons forcefully broadened and has to deal not just with dangerous adventure but horrific, pointless bloodshed and loss. It’s supposed to be Bilbo’s story, not Sauron’s.
And yet, despite the title, this final film in The Hobbit trilogy continually pushes Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins into the background. There is very little of the hobbit in The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, and the absence of Bilbo from the film’s narrative is more than just an annoyance. It robs the adaptation of everything that made Tolkien’s novel so special, so charming. Biblo’s personal tale has become, on the screen, much more Thorin and the dwarfs’ story, and even they have to step aside in its final act to make room for sexy fan-favorite Legolas and his circus-elf tricks.
(None of this is a knock on the actors. Most of them are doing a fine job by this point, whether they’re new to the franchise or dusting off their old LOTR robes. But these days, even more so than a decade ago, the mostly British Commonwealth actors know what they’re getting into when they sign on for a multi-film blockbuster CGI action franchise. They know what is and is not expected of them as performers and what depths and nuances their character will, or more likely will not, have. They show up, do their thing as best they can, passionately emoting in front of green screens, and hope their performances aren’t entirely swallowed up in the spectacle. And yes, I enjoyed Billy Connelly’s bawdy Dain despite myself. I can’t resist Connelly’s lovable Scottish brogue.
What’s most egregious is that with Bilbo having to cede most of his screen time to Thorin, Bard, and Legolas, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ends up being much more martial; all about the battle rather than about Bilbo’s reaction to it. As in Jackson’s LOTR films, there are massive marching armies of CGI orcs, stunning martial spectacle and giant battle beats — including leaping elf warriors, walking troll catapult/tanks, and big heroic Aragorn-esqe charges. The abandoned town of Dale gets re-jiggered into a mini Minas Tirith, complete with innocent families and children under siege. And it all winds up with a big, protracted dwarfo-e-orco throw down on a frozen lake between Thorin and Big Bald Baddie Bolg (John Tui).
Tolkien wrote The Hobbit after having fought in The Great War and seeing the futility of a senseless war fought primarily out of misguided and arbitrary alliances, historical claims, and petty greed. In contrast, Lord of the Rings was written after World War II and it is a very different book, especially in how Tolkien, post-Hitler, views the sometime need for a “Good War” to put a stop to a Great Evil whose quest for deadly power threatens the entire world. LOTR is pro-war; The Hobbit is very much not.
Like Return of the King, The Battle of the Fire Armies is, as its subtitle suggests, a war film. But where Return of the King earned its battles – the LOTR trilogy is essentially about the march to war – the massive martial excess of Battle of the Five Armies feels forced and artificial, super-sized just so it feels more like Return of the King.
In re-reading parts of The Hobbit last week, I was reminded how little emphasis Tolkien puts on wars and fighting in the novel — despite his first-hand experience, being properly British, the author politely, reservedly never dwells on the shock and horror of war. His novel doesn’t linger over exciting battle scenes, strategic details, or grand heroics. Instead we hear of the entire War of the Five Armies only in hindsight from Bilbo’s sorrowful point of view.
It’s also obvious that what truly mattered to Tolkien, where his prose loved to dwell, were the many scenes of comfort and security around the hearth of a protected home, be it Beorn’s or Elrond’s, or Bilbo’s own Bag End. In his post-war adulthood, Tolkien cared more about appreciating a safe, warm peaceful place between the adventures. Of course he enjoyed weaving tales of all the heroic figures and the battles they fought to make that peace possible, but he knew better than to emphasize them over the simple pleasures of a pipe by the fireplace.
These days films — especially big “event” films — are seen as entertainment only, and in order to entertain big audiences, that means either big love or big war. (Or preferably both.) Constant fighting and giant battles sell giant numbers of tickets, and unlike the LOTR films, these Hobbit films feel driven only by that need to sell tickets. That’s why I ultimately dislike them and mourn the wonderful opportunities they missed. It’s not so much the choices Jackson made, but why, apparently, he made them.
Tolkien wrote with sad resignation about how the Age of Man, with its increasingly industrialized world (including its warfare), was slowly pushing aside both the epic myth and magic of the elves and the pastoral simplicity of the Shire and its agrarian hobbits. With Battle of the Five Armies, it’s clear these new Hobbit films are made by and for men, not hobbits.
(2) About the author
Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.
Some of his other reviews:
- “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution
- Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America
- 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War
- Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe
- “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again
- Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind
- A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman
- Elysium Shouts Big, Loud Messages About Health Care & Immigration Reform. Gun Control, Not so Much
- “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us
- Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien
- Fury: the big screen display of America’s love of war, & inability to understand it
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