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Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies.

(This review does contain spoilers for The Hobbit. I mean, the book's been out
for literally decades, but still.)

I never know quite what to say about the Hobbit films. I grew up with The Lord of the Rings, both the books (which were contained in one large, leather-bound tome in my house) and the films, which were a startling object lesson in what it looked like for a director to slowly get a handle on adapting a canon as vast and detailed as those particular books. But I've never had the same connection to The Hobbit: I never read it, and while I was reasonably enthused about the films, I have always been amidst the ranks of people slightly confused that it needed to be three two-hour plus films.

Perhaps as a result of this, my feelings on the films have been very mixed. I absolutely loved the first film, despite the fact that I think it might not be anywhere near as good as the ones that came after it; I hated the second; and now that we've reached the third, I'm just kind of ambivalent about it.

Battle of the Five Armies takes place just after Thorin and company have taunted Smaug out of Erebor, and picks up with the dragon devastating Laketown. Once Smaug is defeated, Laketown - now led by Bard - turns its attention on Erebor, seeking the riches that were promised to them, with which to rebuild. They aren't alone, as the elf lord Thranduil quickly arrives with an army, intending to take a share of the riches for himself. However, Thorin, struck with a dragon-sickness that makes him obsessed with gold, refuses to negotiate. As this is happening, Galadriel and the White Council engage Sauron, who has sent an army of orcs to conquer Erebor, in battle.

That's quite a convoluted plot summary, but I suppose that's to be expected from the third in a trilogy.

On the bright side, Thorin is very pretty.

Perhaps the main problem with it is that so much time is devoted to the battle. The engagement between the White Council and Sauron, while it looks very striking, is very short and doesn't really impact any part of the plot - and after it, the only characters from it that you see again are Gandalf and Radagast (in a brief cameo). The build-up to the battle, and Thorin's sickness, also only takes up about a third of the film, meaning that the largest portion of the film is devoted to the epic battles that Peter Jackson is known for.

Except Jackson has never had quite this much battle in any of his films. Return of the King, probably the most battle-y of the bunch with a battle for Minas Tirith and a fight at the Black Gate, didn't spend nearly as much time on its sweeping, epic fights between vast armies: Rather, more time was spent on the build-up to them - Aragorn's journey to seek the army of the dead, Denethor's madness, Merry's budding friendship with Eowyn. He also had an entirely separate side of the plot that had nothing to do with said sieges. The result was that the battles were the high points of that film, but they were far from its entirety. 

Lookin' stylish, Thranduil.

You can make an entire piece of fiction about a single engagement in a war (not that this is really a war, but I've used the word 'battle' so much that it no longer looks real to me), it has been done before. But to do so, you need to have twist and turns - one side using clever strategies and another blocking them, a chance to see what the soldiers are doing when they're not fighting, strategy meetings, internal conflict. A siege is fertile ground for a story, just not this siege, which lasts maybe a day at most and mostly consists of a bunch of armies hitting each other on a large field.

And in a way, this is a problem of too little story being spread over too large a film, especially since there are unnecessary aspects added in. Was it truly necessary to give Legolas a prolonged duel with an orc? Had this series been two films, the battle could have been condensed to half the time, and had the early chunk of the film be devoted to Bilbo's attempted burglary of Smaug (a sequence in the middle film which was far, far too stretched out as well).

Yet, yet, despite this film having so little actual plot to string over such a considerable length, I still felt that it was rushed. The pace wasn't slow - if anything, it was too fast, blurring past important plot points and character development moments with the speed of a bloody freight train, usually to get to another set-piece battle. This is like the Krull problem on steroids.

"This was actually from Appendix B of Lord of the Rings," Galadriel said softly.

Speaking of character development, we should, um, talk about Tauriel. Despite some very irritating comments made by her actor, and her not being in the book, I'm not actually against the inclusion of Tauriel's character - I think she adds some colour to the Mirkwood elves, and gives us a perspective on them that isn't just needlessly-antagonistic-kind-of-racist-elf-king. I'm not against her romance with Kili, either.

But in this film, that romance reaches a head with her having almost nothing going on except a love triangle, and that really grates on me, especially since come the end of the film, her character arc simply ends on 'she's heartbroken over Kili's death', and doesn't include any mention of, for example, whether she returns to Mirkwood, or what she does after the battle at all. Legolas - who also wasn't in the book, I should note - at least gets a 'I'm going to go find the heir to Gondor' mention.

And Bilbo gets his 'going home to the Shire a broken hobbit' ending.

The film is very pretty to look at, even if the CGI makes people's faces look a bit plasticky at points, and it has an excellent soundtrack. The acting is superb, and I can't make any complaints about that. The vast battle is always striking to look at. This is a film done very much in Peter Jackson's very distinctive Lord of the Rings style, which many people have tried to imitate but hardly anyone seems to do successfully, and it's nice to see that make a return. The man has a talent for making every shot gorgeous, and he should be commended for that.

He apparently has less of a talent for adapting very short books into very long films, though.

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