The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies starts with an ending – or what seems like it should have been an ending. Smaug’s attack on Laketown is a deeply peculiar choice to open the film with. Everybody’s in the middle of doing something, and we have no time to catch up as we’re breathlessly thrown into an elaborate action setpiece. The strange thing is, as soon as it’s over – and it doesn’t account for much more than 15 minutes of screentime – it feels like the film proper has started too, with the pace mellowing (temporarily) and plenty of time given to re-establishing the characters and their new motivations.
The entire Laketown arc would have worked well as one entity – whether as the ending of one film or the beginning or middle of another. Split as it is, with a gap of a year since the pointless Desolation of Smaug cliffhanger and its resolution, the sequence here serves as an ill-judged prologue. It’s separate from the rest of the Smaug story for no obvious reason other than some perceived need to open with an action spectacle – something that can’t help but seem surplus to requirements in a film where a good half the running time is given over to action spectacle anyway (the clue’s in the title).
It is but one more symptom of a problem that has been obvious since An Unexpected Journey, arguably even since the announcement of the three film plan – The Hobbit never needed three films. There’s one, maybe two, good films buried in here somewhere, but they have been smothered as a result of the method of delivery. Some of it will play better when all three films are available to watch in quick succession – better yet, when somebody does a much-needed, clinically brutal fan edit (it won’t be Peter Jackson, who has released Extended Editions for these films which badly need the opposite approach). But watching them in the cinema with a year between releases, The Hobbit has been a slog – worse, a trio of slogs.
I consider this pretty faint praise, but The Battle of the Five Armies is probably a little better than its predecessors. Not insignificant is that it’s a good bit shorter than either of the first two films, meaning it’s less top-heavy in terms of ‘stuff’. Adjusted expectations also surely factor into that, along with the fact that there have never been any illusions that the film was going to be much more than an extended battle scene. There’s more to it than a five army melee, but not much more.
The battle itself… well if you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings you know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s an hour-long affair, cutting back and forth between the various factions a la the battles of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith. While there’s plenty of individuals to follow, to Jackson’s credit he allows us relatively lengthy unbroken stretches with most of them, meaning it doesn’t feel as disjointed or hyperactive as it could have been. The battle itself is fine, I suppose – it’s pretty standard fare, enlivened by a few imaginative moments (a new twist on the Orc battering ram stands out). There’s still an over-tendency towards having characters swoop in at the last second to manufacture drama – a trick Jackson has overplayed throughout the series.
The eponymous battle also serves as a firm reminder of Jackson’s over-reliance on CG, which has been another major sticking point throughout The Hobbit saga. While generally far less cartoony than the other films, there’s still a real lack of physicality to much of Five Armies’ action and characters, the Orcs particularly. Although this is often obvious during the action – one shot of Legolas running across a collapsing bridge is very poor indeed – it’s almost worse during a number of dialogue-heavy scenes where actors are clearly standing in front of green screens. The The Lord of the Rings struck the perfect balance between CG and practical effects, makeup and locations. The Hobbit feels overly artificial, comparable to – dare I say it? – the Star Wars prequels of all things.
On either side of the battle – and even occasionally during it – there are some solid character moments, however. Bilbo’s relationship with Thorin is well handled (bar a misjudged ‘dream’ sequence that fumbles badly in its attempt to visualise Thorin’s descent into madness), and gives Martin Freeman in particular some great material – that’s a good thing, considering he has often been relegated to the sidelines in a film where even the title declares him to be our protagonist. Near the end, Freeman also enjoys a great, almost silent scene with Ian McKellen as Gandalf, albeit one undermined slightly by a less impressive follow-up a couple of minutes later. There are plenty of subplots to resolve, but the film does not spend quite as much time on them as Return of the King did, which is a relief.
The Hobbit may be a marginally learner and sometimes meaner films that its predecessors, but that’s not to say there isn’t filler – in fact, there’s plenty. The screenwriters’ manufactured ‘star-crossed love story, and Legolas too!’ subplot is a dreary distraction, that amounts to little more than Evangeline Lilly’s character learning the meaning of true love. Blegh. Several characters could easily be excised to the benefit of the film’s pacing. That, for example, is true of Alfrid, played by Ryan Gage, and not coincidentally another of Jackson and Co’s own creations. He’s a crudely written stereotype even in a franchise that trades in archetypes, and bafflingly several of the film’s key characters repeatedly trust him to carry out important tasks despite the fact that he’s clearly a backstabbing rat and does little to disguise it. The sheer bulk of characters, meanwhile, means Jackson cannot possibly afford many of them much screen space, and hence they often disappear for huge swathes of the running time (the band of dwarves particularly suffer in that regard). In some cases, we don’t hear from them again at all for no apparent reason.
Battle of the Five Armies also continues The Hobbit series’ tradition of clunky callbacks to The Lord of the Rings. There are several remarkably unsubtle nods to what is to come – they could only be more obvious if the characters in question turned to the audience and remarked “this is a reference to what’s going to happen to me in The Lord of the Rings, by the way”, followed by a cheeky to-camera wink and a ‘To Be Continued’ title card. That said, the superfluous prequelising of the story does lead to what is easily the film’s – and possibly The Hobbit as a whole’s – best set piece. Several of Middle Earth’s most recognisable ancillary characters get to show off their fighting skills in a visceral supernatural showdown, with Jackson illustrating a sense of brutal visual panache barely seen elsewhere in the trilogy. It’s the climax of a redundant subplot spread out across all three films, but hey at least it concludes in style.
The Hobbit ends as it started – bloated and clunky, albeit with scattered moments that capture, however briefly, the alchemy that made The Lord of the Rings so successful. That’s a formula the new trilogy failed to replicate consistently or convincingly as it stretched a modest adventure story beyond breaking point. Maybe a fan edit will salvage it one of these years – creating the one great film The Hobbit could have, perhaps even should have been.
Anybody have Topher Grace’s number?
12A (See IFCO for details)
Battle of the Five Armies is released 12th December.