Review: Do Enlist in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

6 minute read

“Of course!” said Gandalf. … “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.

With those words J.R.R. Tolkien ended his book The Hobbit, which he wrote from 1930 to 1932 and which, when published five years later, introduced the world to the Middle-earth of Dwarves and Elves, humans and the small, hairy-footed Hobbits of the Shire. By 1949 the Oxford don had completed an epic sequel, published in three volumes as The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955. Without much doubt the great fantasy books of the 20th century, The Lord of the Rings in its film-trilogy version became the first fantasy movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Spurred by that success, as well as by his connection to the material and his eagerness to expand on the CGI artistry pioneered by his Weta Workshop, director-producer Peter Jackson made three feature-length episodes of The Hobbit, concluding this week with The Battle of the Five Armies. And now, 17 years after the Hobbit-shaped director launched his quest to bring Tolkien to the screen — and supervising two mammoth shooting schedules, each of 266 days — it’s over. “I’ve sort of done the once-in-a-lifetime experience twice,” Jackson said recently. “But not a third time. There won’t be a third time.

The three Lord of the Rings films (titled, like the books, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King) were essential, enthralling viewing. Jackson’s The Hobbit, on its own terms a satisfying rough cut of a very long good movie, could only be an ornate codicil to the thrilling endeavor of The Rings — however appealing the new series’ directorial vision, however robust its characters and tantalizing its emotions.

The plodding first act, An Unexpected Journey, released in 2012, was saved from terminal tedium by the encounter in which “Bilbo the Burglar” (Martin Freeman) steals the One Ring from Gollum (Andy Serkis). The trilogy sprang belatedly to dramatic life last year with wondrous set pieces in The Desolation of Smaug: a giant spider attack on the Dwarves, the escape from the Elves’ castle down a raging-rapids river, the siege of the humans’ Lake-town and Bilbo’s climactic confrontation with Smaug. A dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) as pompous as it is powerful, Smaug allowed Bilbo to outsmart it when he slipped on the Ring and disappeared with the Dwarves’ most precious treasure, the Arkenstone.

In the new movie, Jackson and his screenwriting colleagues Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens begin with a Smaug alert. Escaping his lair, the dragon flies to Lake-town for a sensational blitzkrieg defended by the episode’s unsullied human hero Bard the Bowman (stalwart Luke Evans). The tragic figure here is the Dwarf king Thorin (a splendidly conflicted Richard Armitage) who, having recaptured his people’s ancestral cave of gold, is tainted and maddened by it. Asked by the Elf king Thrandull (Lee Pace) if he will have peace or war, Thorin bellows, “I will have war!” and the five armies — Dwarves, Elves, men, Orcs and an unexpected fifth contingent — amass for a battle that consumes the last 45 mins. and nearly matches The Two Towers in its masterly visual choreography of sustained combat. (All hail Serkis, absent as Gollum but contributing his talents as second-unit director.)

Within the confines of a bustling war-movie — and, at 2hr.24min., by far the shortest film in either trilogy — Jackson is obliged to telegraph the moments of personal emotion. Yet the Elf princess Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) has time to make elevated love, and to go to war, with her Dwarf darling Kili (Aidan Turner). And in an interlude back in the Elven kingdom, the magnificent Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) fights off an unwelcome spectral guest with the intervention of Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the still-beneficent Saruman (Christopher Lee, still royally charismatic at 92). So many plot lines need tying up, under the martial supervision of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), that the lone Hobbit is often in the background; at times you may ask, “Where’s Bilbo?” He proves his mettle and justifies the movies’ title by employing the resources of his heart and his cunning.

For all the craft and energy on display in Five Armies, few fanciers of the Ring cycle will mourn that, in Jackson’s words, “There won’t be a third time”: he means he will not attempt to wrestle a coherent story out of Tolkien’s sprawling, posthumously published The Silimarillion. Even Jackson’s longtime admirers may whisper “Thank goodness!” that the director of early splatter comedies like Bad Taste and Braindead, and the teen-girl murder romance Heavenly Creatures, can say goodbye to reverent fantasy adaptations and get back to his proper job of subversive satire in tones either gross-out or surreal.

Some might even see this three-part Hobbit project as an example of the greed that Tolkien defined as the cardinal sin in both of his grand fables. Love of gold drives Thorin to madness; and the One Ring debases all those who keep or covet it. (The abiding lesson of both stories: baaad jewelry!) Remember that Jackson originally assigned Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) to helm The Hobbit, which was planned as just two films. Then Jackson took over; he wanted The Hobbit for himself, just as he had possessed the Ring movies, and he decided it would be three features. Tolkien originally divided The Lord of the Rings into six books; if Jackson had carried more clout in the ’90s, when he started work on the series, we might have had a Ring sextet. (His sponsor, New Line Cinema, was already taking a $300-million risk in entrusting three features to a New Zealander with no hit movies on his résumé.)

The Jackson–del Toro backstory has a touch of the pathetic Gollum, who kept the Ring for ages and was corrupted by its possession before losing it to Bilbo and then Frodo. And why make a 300-page story into three movies? A potential billion-dollar worldwide gross for each! Next question?

But Jackson made good on his respect for the Tolkien books and their overarching theme of fellowship. These are tales about members of different species who become friends to achieve a single, near-impossible goal in time of war. Modern moviemaking is war by other means: acting on a bare stage in front of a green screen, and marshaling elements, real and CGI, that exist only on storyboards or in the filmmaker’s teeming brain.

If The Hobbit doesn’t equal the achievement of Jackson’s earlier Middle-earth movies — and, honestly, what could? — it is still, in sum, a thrilling effort, perhaps standing behind only Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as the most impressive and intelligent multi-film action epic since The Lord of the Rings. As Gandalf might say: You are a very fine storyteller, Mr. Jackson, and we are most grateful for your Hobbit.

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