The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (hereafter referred to as Hobbit 3), was always going to be a big hit. Those who supported the first two-thirds of the trilogy had to see how it was all going to end, especially in the light of changes to the book that director Peter Jackson was making. Plus it presented the last fumes of the juggernaut that was The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After the maximal dollars and minimal cinematic impact have been measured, this film may well sum up the strengths and weaknesses of Jackson as an adaptor and director.
Much of course has been made of the fact that a rather slim volume, aimed at a much younger audience than that of The Lord of the Rings books, has been broadened, stretched, and some say, contorted, into a sprawling epic that doesn’t quite suit the actions or the theme. Not being a reader of the books, I cannot bring in my prejudices or disappointments, and can only look at the film as a standalone or as the conclusion of a three-part series.
Hobbit 3 certainly looked better than the first film, whose use of a 48-frame-per-second speed made the film look amateurish and awkward at times. I saw Hobbit 3 in 3D IMAX, but not in High Frame Rate 3D (which is how the marketers are expressing things). It looked richer and deeper and more immersive, a definite improvement.
With the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson was guided by a strong storyline that kept forcing him back to the plot, which resonated with Tolkien’s sad but redemptive worldview while the direction of the action and actors seemed blissfully unaware of its depths. That worked in two ways: One, there was no forcing of the beauty and profundity of the author’s deeper meanings, and the film was the stronger for it. Secondly, Jackson’s propensity for violent, gruesome creatures and their PG-13 grisly action was held in check, as there was a story to tell, and he was already cutting characters and action to fit it all in as it was.
The Hobbit (book) offers no such restraints on Jackson, and instead of telescoping the action, he was obliged to expand it. For those loving and defending the book, it wasn’t about what was left out as much as what was added. For those who didn’t read the books, we must look at what is there.
And what is there is both thin and bloated, with those elements kept in some kind of balance by the fact that this third part of the trilogy imposed upon the director the need to wrap things up and to end the whole thing. But the strong central plot line of the LOTR films is missing, and the central character is pushed nearly into the background. Imagine Frodo as a supporting character, and that is pretty much what we have here with Bilbo Baggins. He appears here and there, but almost more of an observer than an agent, which robs the film of a directness and focus it needs.
Thankfully, Bilbo is Martin Freeman, the heart and soul of the Hobbit films. This immensely likeable actor still manages to carry the film in spite of limited screen time, much of which is given to the mental and emotional struggles of Thorin (Richard Armitage), which seems the inverse to what’s happening with Bilbo in the film. Thorin’s struggle seems like a minor subplot brought to the front (and therefore given too much weight), and Bilbo’s story is shoved to the back. Jackson wraps up the story with Bilbo, as he should. But it’s too little too late, and the lack of focus on Bilbo’s story and the absence of Freeman on the screen tend to disperse the other narrative threads rather than concentrate and organize them.
This leaves Jackson his opening to bring in army after army for battle after battle. Lacking the narrative thrust demanded by the LOTR plot, Jackson fills his space with growling orcs, several instances of impending doom, and rushing armies. We all know that Jackson can organize a good fight, but it’s too much fighting for too little reason.
Yet there is a certain pleasure in seeing old friends. Any appearance of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) for any reason is a joy, even if his place in the plot isn’t always clear. The same with Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, though his connection to things is even more tenuous than Gandalf’s. Apparently part of the reason for his appearance is to add some tension to the love story that is teased and then (spoiler alert) used for tragedy, accompanied by some rather purple exclamations on the relationship between love and pain.
The special effects are generally so good in these six films that one doesn’t give a second thought to them. But the fighting with Legolas and a certain large monster looks a bit cheesy, which doesn’t help the grand suspension of disbelief the viewer has to provide for this whole sequence in terms of the believability of the action in the fight scenes.
As he did with LOTR: The Return of the King, Jackson provides several Act Threes. As a conclusion to a genuinely epic saga, the many endings in that film worked and wrapped up the story in a way that respected it as a grand legend. Here the many endings strive to do the same thing, but the only thing that is grand about the Hobbit films is the expansion given to the source material. Since the story is actually a prequel, there can’t be too grand a finale, as it has to end with a hand-off to the LOTR films and their story. So the many endings are finally not a goodbye to the story and its characters, but a farewell to the six-part cinematic saga.
For those who love the world of Tolkien and its characters, or the actors who play them here, this last film is an enjoyable last get-together. Its excesses and deficiencies will be forgiven because it’s our last visit to this particular world presented by this particular director. It’s not a great film by any stretch, but it will always be a culturally significant one.