Thursday, December 25, 2014

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES Concludes The Middle Earth Odyssey In Epic Fashion


- And so it ends. After six movies and two trilogies, Peter Jackson's sprawling Tolkien adaptation is complete. And for that, I am sad - and, also, eternally grateful for what Jackson and his team have given us. Look, I get that a certain cynicism about Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings franchise, and this third Hobbit movie in particular has crept into both certain circles of fandom and the mainstream press. The Hobbit should not have been three movies. Peter Jackson has fallen in love with CGI at the expense of practical f/x with tangibility and soul. The Hobbit films have gotten so wrapped up with elves, dwarves, giant troll monsters, and the massive wars they wage that the titular Hobbit himself has all but gotten lost in the fray. I get it, and to some extent I agree with the knocks. But I also still love these movies, and I still think that they have a magic and a heart and soul that only Jackson could give them. You can pick 'em apart, sure, and god knows people have. But with these movies, and with FIVE ARMIES in particular, my doubts are overshadowed by a feeling that this version of Middle Earth - filled with amazing sights and memorable characters - is one of the greatest fictional worlds ever brought to life on screen. THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is, to me, a fitting goodbye to that world, a movie that's packed with action, but that also poignantly brings the series full-circle, and to a satisfying conclusion. I walked away with a smile on my face, but also with a lingering sadness that the end of this film marked the end of something truly special.

Over the course of multiple reviews I've talked about what makes Jackson's Middle Earth movies so uniquely great - but I'll talk about all of it just a little more here. Let me start by talking about the world-building. Maybe we take it for granted with these films, maybe we just figure that Tolkien laid so much groundwork, that ... of course these movies would follow suit. But look at how many fantasy and sci-fi film franchises feel like they take place in loosely-constructed, not well-thought-out worlds. We live in a cinematic age now where countless YA adaptations feel that a world based on a simple hooky gimmick is enough. But Jackson never took shortcuts with his Middle Earth films. These are lived-in, breathed-in stories, with history and lore and no detail taken for granted. Jackson and co. truly brought Middle Earth to life, and in my view that absolutely cannot be discounted. BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES serves as an exciting culmination of all that, bringing together the disparate factions and peoples of Middle Earth in a way that's often thrilling.

Of course, part of the thrill of seeing these conflicts play out is in watching such accomplished actors pitted against one another. There's a climactic scene in FIVE ARMIES in which Middle Earth's various great powers collide in a confrontation with a returned and slowly-but-surely re-powered Sauron. It's Ian McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee all being completely and utterly awesome. Not just because they're great actors, but because over the course of six films these actors have wholly and unashamedly committed themselves to these characters. McKellan *is* Gandalf. Weaving *is* Elrond. Blanchett *is* Galadriel, and Christopher Lee - 92 by-god-years-old and still kicking ass - *is* Saruman, and hot damn, the man deserves some sort of award for being possibly the greatest and most badass person alive. In any case, these actors and so many others have really gone above and beyond the call of duty for this franchise. Specific to FIVE ARMIES, I of course have to mention Martin Freeman. In a year in which he's impressed as Watson on Sherlock and as Lester on Fargo, he again nails the part of Bilbo Baggins - bringing the same sort of understated expressiveness and comic timing to this role as he did to those others. Few doubted that Freeman could pull off a great Bilbo, but I think his excellence in these films is oft overlooked. In this final chapter, Freeman's Bilbo has ample opportunity to shine, even in the midst of many conflicts that at times overshadow Bilbo's hero's journey. In particular, I loved the interplay between Freeman and Richard Armitage's Thorin. Thorin, here, finally goes almost-full-villain - mad for power and corrupted by the cursed treasure won from Smaug. Armitage really kills it and nails the character's descent into darkness and eventual return to the light.

Freeman and Armitage's fantastic performances need to be talked about. So too do the incredible visuals of this movie. Yes, I agree with the masses who wish that the original trilogy's more "solid" look was kept for the prequels - which suffer at times from too-glossy CGI that hampers the believability of some scenes. At the same time, I feel like these complaints sometimes come at the expense of giving Jackson the proper credit he deserves as a director and visual stylist. For every moment in FIVE ARMIES where I wished that perhaps there was a bit less CGI, there are several more in the film that just plain wowed me with their visual splendor. There are so many scenes that are just gorgeously framed, that look like the Tolkien-inspired illustrations I saw as a kid come to glorious life. Jackson is still a master at doing those iconic storybook-esque shots that make the film seem *un-real* in the best way possible - fantastic and painterly and larger-than-life. Jackson's large-scale action is still in many ways the best in the biz. His sense for portraying size and scope is unmatched, even if chaos occasionally overwhelms geography and cohesion. But still, the big battle scenes in this film are epic as all hell. At the same time, there are smaller moments in the movie that just look and feel perfect. I'm thinking, in particular, of a quiet scene towards the end of the movie in which Bilbo and Gandalf sit and reminisce about the adventure they've had. Talk about storybook visuals - the scene looks like something out of a Hildebrandt painting. So to those who endlessly knock Jackson's visual storytelling abilities (especially those who don't also acknowledge his unmatched strengths), my perspective is: I don't think we're watching the same movies here.

On a related note, the entire production team on these movies needs major kudos. The costumes, the sets, the overall aesthetic of the Middle Earth films is just so, so good. And it really shines here as armies converge - each meticulously adorned in unique armor and clothing. These films are simply awesome to spend time with. And a huge part of that is the impeccable production and art design. And the music. I mean, that music. Howard Shore's various LOTR themes are modern classics, and these Hobbit films have carried on the tradition of having absolutely epic, atmospheric, at times haunting scores. I will say that FIVE ARMIES does an excellent job of mixing in classic Middle Earth themes at just the right moments. Conversely, I love some of this trilogy's newly-created themes. The Laketown theme is, to me, a new classic.

So what doesn't work in FIVE ARMIES? Let me list my main gripes that keep the movie from being *as* good as it could have been:

a.) Not enough Bilbo. In general, I agree with the general sentiment that The Hobbit didn't necessarily need to be three movies. I always liked the fact that the book was a simple fantasy story that then set the stage for a much more sophisticated and sprawling epic. But oddly, FIVE ARMIES feels a bit rushed, in that so much is going on that the trilogy's central thematic throughline (at least in theory) - Bilbo's journey - seems to get shortchanged. To it's credit, the movie comes back around to Bilbo by the end, and sort of makes up for leaving him on the sidelines for much of the movie's middle. But what did irk me a bit is that Bilbo's story and character arc is slighted in favor of stuff we didn't need. The movie has too much Legolas, for example. We got enough of him in LOTR - we didn't need even *more* extraneous scenes of him kicking ass in this one. There's also a bit too much time spent on Laketown's comically conniving villain Alfrid, who is better, I think, in small doses.

b.) Battles that lack cohesiveness. Late in the movie, as the film shifts its focus from the main battleground to more personal fights, I couldn't help but feel a bit frustrated that elements introduced in the war scenes never got proper resolution. For example, we see giant sandworms introduced by the evil orc army, but we never see how they are defeated by the allies. Later, I had to roll my eyes a bit when a familiar deux ex machina from the original trilogy returns to serve as the tide-turners in the war. Lame.

c.) Too much cartoon-physics. I get that this is Middle Earth, and I am aware that in LOTR we got Legolas sliding down the tail of a beast as if surfing. But that was one funny/kewl moment. In FIVE ARMIES, we get several of those moments, that come right in the heat of otherwise intense battle scenes. It's one thing when an entire sequence is staged with a certain aesthetic - i.e. the barrel scene in Desolation of Smaug (which I love). But to insert random videogame moments into gritty battles is sort of annoying.

d.) That Strider call-out. There's one super cringeworthy moment in the movie - a bit of unnecessary foreshadowing of LOTR that feels very forced. Should have been left out, or at least handled in a more organic fashion.

Those were my chief complaints, really. And though I have those grievances, they are still not enough to turn me against FIVE ARMIES or Jackson's Hobbit trilogy in general. I would have loved a single, simple Hobbit movie that related to the LOTR trilogy in the same way the book does. But I take these for what they are, and I can't deny that I've enjoyed them. And there really is a lot to love. In addition to stuff I've already mentioned - the great performances, the visuals, the music, the world-building - I could spend paragraphs giving shout-outs to all the stand-out stuff in this film. Here are a few. Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel adds a strong female character to the story, and she's just kick-ass in general. Lilly is great in the part, and you can't help but root for her worlds-collide would-be romance with the dwarven Kili. Billy Connelly! The beloved comic and actor appears in FIVE ARMIES as leader of a dwarf army, and man, I grinned bigtime when I heard that distinctive Scottish-accented voice rally his diminutive troops to battle. Lee Pace is also, again, sort of great as Elven king Thranduil. The Piemaker does a great job at playing the stoic, emotionally-distant monarch. Mark Hadlow as elder dwarf Dori is also great. He's sort of the heart and soul of this trilogy, in a way. Finally, I love the movie's ending. It's a perfect segue into Lord of the Rings, and it made me want to immediately go and watch the LOTR trilogy. Jackson manages to make the ending comforting and poignantly sentimental, all while hinting, slightly ominously, at dangers yet to come.

It's been quite the ride. I think back to the release of the original LOTR trilogy, and remember each of those films being a true pop-cultural mega-event. I was too young to have seen the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters at the time of their release - and these films felt like that sort of monumental moment for me. Not only that, but as a kid I'd read and loved and become perhaps slightly obsessed with Tolkien's fantasy novels, and seeing those stories realized on-screen in such epic fashion was an undeniable rush. The fact that, after so many fits and starts, Jackson and key cast members returned for The Hobbit - it was an unexpected bonus. And though these films have not been the masterpieces that the LOTR films were and are, they have been true pleasures nonetheless. To be able to visit Middle Earth again, to be able to go back to this world, to see these characters again - it's been not just fun, but in it's own way, sort of magical. As I said, you can critique and pick apart these films, but man, if you can't see the magic that happens when Sir Ian McKellan dons his wizard's cloak and becomes Gandalf the Grey ... you might need to turn in your film-fan card. I only hope that we continue to see genre films - be they from Jackson or others - that carry on the tradition of what Jackson and his team did with their Middle Earth odyssey. But what's special about these films is that they now exist as a sort of portal to this world. For years and decades to come, people will revisit this cinematic world when in need of some of that magic. They'll watch as a reminder that even the smallest and unlikeliest of creatures can make a difference. They'll watch when in need of fellowship, fantasy, and great adventure.

My Grade: A-

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