Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies: At long last, the grand finale!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense fantasy action violence and some truly scary monsters

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.19.14

Peter Jackson certainly knows how to stage a spectacle.

He’d have had a great time during Hollywood’s Golden Age, choreographing the fabled casts of thousands.

As a massive battle between elves, dwarves, humans and nasty orcs rages about them,
Gandalf (Ian McKellen, left) and Bard (Luke Evans) realize that the ghastly orc armies are
being directed by the orc lord Azog the Defiler, standing on a nearby hilltop. Clearly, he
must be stopped ... but how?
That said, he has become a poor judge of narrative structure. Although this final installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit builds to a rousing, suspenseful, crowd-pleasing climax, this cinematic saga definitely didn’t deserve the three-part presentation that seems to have been dictated entirely by commerce.

Consider the irony: We couldn’t get enough of Jackson’s three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and fans eagerly snapped up the extended-edition DVDs, to savor all the additional scenes left on the cutting-room floor. That adulation was entirely warranted, because those three books are extremely dense.

But The Hobbit lacks that complexity; it’s a shorter, single book, and — more significantly — is aimed at a much younger audience. Granted, Jackson and his fellow scripters — Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and horror maestro Guillermo del Toro — drew from the 125 pages of notes and appendices included with modern editions of The Lord of the Ring ... but, even so, this newest trilogy has suffered from bloat since its first installment. (I still haven’t recovered from the slapstick, Disney-esque dwarf songs in Bilbo’s dining room.)

Although the major plot points have been impressively realized, there’s a definite sense of treading water along the way, and extraneous characters we’d be better off without. Notable case in point: the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his weaselly aide (Mikael Persbrandt), who popped up in the middle installment and return here. They’re no more than stunt casting, particularly in Fry’s case, and their characters seem to have wandered in from a Blackadder installment. Very poor judgment, on Jackson’s part.

More disappointing, though, is the fact that — in this third and final installment — Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins has become a bystander in his own story. That’s a shame on all sorts of levels, not the least of which is the lessened degree to which we’re able to enjoy Freeman’s marvelously subtle performance. I just love the way he twitches his nose, or starts to say something, checks himself, and then decides that silence is the better part of wisdom.

Freeman gets more mileage out of Bilbo’s double-take decisions not to speak, than many of these supporting characters deliver via pages of dialogue.

Yes, Bilbo gets his shots at the action, and he remains the voice of reason during several key encounters. And yes, he has continued to mature as a character, his initial nervousness and terror having yielded to valor and pluck. Then, too, he continues to be tempted by the “precious” ring concealed within his pocket, tantalized by the cloak of invisibility it grants, but all too aware of the spiritual corruption it bestows.

So: When last we left our heroes...

Bilbo, having penetrated to the heart of Lonely Mountain and successfully snatched the jeweled Arkenstone from the clutches of the dread Smaug, watched in horror as the enraged dragon took to the air with the intent of destroying the nearby human settlement of Laketown. The one man possibly capable of killing Smaug, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), has been tossed into a Laketown prison, leaving his family in the care of the Silvan Elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).

Bilbo’s dwarf companions have found their legendary kingdom of Erebor, built protectively within Lonely Mountain, but its evil guardian — Smaug — isn’t likely to fly away out of the goodness of his serpentine heart. And until Smaug is dealt with, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his dwarf comrades can’t really lay claim to Erebor.

Elsewhere, the virtuous wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) lies helpless within the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur, trapped by the ghastly orc lord Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) and his equally loathsome spawn, Bolg (John Tui). Still elsewhere, the condescending Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace), although loathe to offer assistance up to this point, has taken an interest in the doings at Lonely Mountain: The many treasures guarded by Smaug include elven star gems that Thranduil wants back.

And yet elsewhere, operating clandestinely, Azog and Bolg have readied a massive orc army for a surprise assault on Lonely Mountain.

And you thought you had problems!

Sidebar stalwarts include the Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett); the white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee); the Elvenking Elrond (Hugo Weaving); the somewhat addled, environmentally conscious wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy); and the overall series’ favorite character, the High Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom).

The dwarves eventually take control of Erebor; the displaced populace of Laketown, burned from their homes, take refuge in the ruined, once-great city of Dale, strategically located close to Lonely Mountain and Erebor. Clearly, all forces are destined to meet in battle — this film’s subtitle promises as much — and you’ll likely be counting fingers, trying to deduce the precise nature of the “five armies” involved.

On top of which, a new crisis emerges: Thorin, initially delighted by Erebor’s immense vault of treasure, falls prey to the “dragon sickness” that comes with gold too long exposed to one such as Smaug. The increasingly paranoid Thorin comes to doubt the loyalty of his longtime companions, placing his trust solely in Bilbo ... who, ironically, is the very individual concealing the Arkenstone from the dwarf king who has become his best friend.

Thorin’s increasing madness is an affliction that Bilbo recognizes all too well, thanks to the constant evil tug of his aforementioned ring. The question is whether our hobbit hero can save Thorin from himself, before the orc hoards invade.

The many pieces thus assembled on this huge chessboard, Jackson builds the tension until the all-out melee that erupts on many fronts. And it’s no small thing that our attention remains held during an increasingly extensive battle sequence that rages for the film’s final hour. Jackson is clever; he intercuts between raging army clashes and furious, more intimate skirmishes that involve our key characters.

All the players have their parts, although we spend much more time with some. Evans’ Bard remains the stalwart human hero, and he has some solid scenes with John Bell, as Bard’s plucky son Bain. Armitage persuasively handles Thorin’s psychological deterioration, and McKellen remains appropriately feisty as Gandalf ... who, badly weakened by his ordeal at Dol Guldur, now relies more on his trusty staff, than magic.

The kindling romance between Tauriel and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) ignites further, much to the displeasure of Thranduil, who despises dwarves in general; Pace remains appropriately haughty and contemptuous. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel gets an unexpected opportunity to demonstrate just how powerful Galadriel really is, and as for Bloom ... well, let’s just say that Jackson saves the best for last, with respect to this athletic elf bowman: a final mano a mano duel that’ll have you cheering in the aisles.

Production designer Dan Hennah and visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri once more do marvelous things with all these settings, again granting us the impressive sense of size and scale that cinematographer Andrew Lesnie films so superbly. These many settings — Laketown, Erebor, Dol Guldur — always look, sound and feel real, as if Jackson and his crew somehow found a portal to the actual Middle Earth.

Howard Shore supplies another of his densely layered orchestral scores, finding opportunities to employ character themes — notably for Bilbo and the “precious” ring — that we recognize immediately, from previous films.

And, yes, Jackson concludes by carefully setting things up, during a couple of scenes, for the Lord of the Rings trilogy that chronologically follows these events.

But however much we enjoy this concluding chapter of The Hobbit — made more powerful by heartbreaking moments of loss — we can’t shake the impression, looking back across all three installments, that Jackson has overplayed his hand. He has only himself to blame, since he set the bar so high with the previous trilogy ... and he probably should have given this project to del Toro, as a two-film series, as was the original plan.

(And you gotta love the bits of del Toro’s involvement that remain, above and beyond his script work: notably the jaw-droppingly horrifying über-orcs that he concocted. Pure del Toro horror stuff.)

I guess Jackson couldn’t help himself ... and, to be fair, his Hobbit is plenty enticing on many levels. It just isn’t the cinematic masterpiece that left us breathless and thrilled, after seeing 2003’s Return of the King.

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