Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (2014)

14. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Once again, December has rolled around. With it arrives another movie based in the world of Middle-Earth. However, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is different then the roughly six thousand hobbit movies to proceed it in one very important way: It’s the last one. Despite being a touchstone for a fairly large nerd subculture, Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films have been met with increasing ambivalence by the people who are supposed to love them the most. Even the film’s trailers, packaged with a Twitter hashtag that says “One last one!,” seems more relieved that it’s over then excited to go on another adventure. It doesn’t matter if “The Battle of the Five Armies” is any good or not. We, and by “we” I mean nerds and dorks, are obligated to see it. Is there any chance that the concluding chapter of the over-extended “Hobbit” trilogy will be better then the first two parts?

Picking up where the cliffhanger ending of “The Desolation of Smaug” left us, “The Battle of the Five Armies” begins with the mighty dragon Smaug burning Lake-town to the ground. (Water?) That film’s other cliffhanger, Gandolf’s investigation of an awaking necromancer, earns a hasty resolution too. However, these storylines only make up a small portion of the film. Instead, the third “Hobbit” adventure focuses on the band of 13 dwarves and their hobbit pal Bilbo finally reclaiming their gold. Thorin, the leader of the group, is consumed by greed. This becomes a problem when the elves of Mirkwood and the men of Lake-town arrive, seeking a portion of the treasure. The opposing forces nearly come to blows before a fourth army, evil orcs with plans to wipe out all the goodness on Middle-earth, arrives, uniting the heroes. A late appearance by a flock of eagles provides the fifth army of the title.

The most compelling part of the previous “Hobbit” epic was the dragon Smaug. The dragon was a singular presence, a visual wonder, and the properly gripping villain the floundering films desperately needed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one bothered by the last part ending just as it was getting really exciting, just as Smaug descended on the cities of man. Considering how overlong each “Hobbit” film is, you’d expect the movie to focus plenty on Smaug and the destruction he causes. Instead, the dragon is dead in the first fifteen minutes. He swoops overhead, burning the village down, creating chaos. Bard retrieves the black arrow and takes aim at the fire drake’s weak spot. Smaug receives an arrow in the crack in his armor and spectacularly falls to his death. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portentous vocals only get a single line or two. The effects are impressive, the sequence is exciting, and the dragon remains a threatening character. Yet “The Battle of Five Armies” cuts off its most exhilarating storyline.

Most of “The Battle of Five Armies” is focused on the aftermath of Smaug’s demise. The dwarves have regained their gold and reclaimed their kingdom under the mountain. However, there’s still two hours of movie left. Jackson devotes the lengthy middle portion of the third “Hobbit” to setting up the titular conflict. The men of Lake-town, shakily led by the newly instated Bard the Bowman, would like a little gold for rebuilding their town and think they’re owed it, since they slayed the dragon in the first place. An army of elves, lead by the arrogant Thranduil, arrive as well, seeking a collection of diamonds the dwarves took from them decades ago. There are long scenes of characters debating a truce and arguing their demands. The men of Lake-town approach gingerly, not wanting a war after a dragon just scorched their home. The elves are more demanding, seeking their jewels and refusing to take no for an answer. Considering the battle is what the movie is named after, the film devoting so much time to its set-up makes sense. Yet I wonder if these moments could have been better paced or less laborious.

The reason war nearly happens is that Thorin Oakenshield is not willing to loose a penny of his newly-earned mounds of gold. This is the most problematic aspect of the film. Thorin’s greed is unreasonable and the text recognizes this. He is overcome with “dragon sickness,” an overwhelming desire to horde his treasure. How this tendency is passed along from Smaug to the dwarf is only loosely explained, an inheritance of the location. It’s a contrived plot development, one designed to ramp up tension before the inevitable war. The dragon sickness turns Thorin into  a massive asshole too. He snipes at his fellow dwarves. He accuse Bilbo of stealing the Arkenstone, the movie’s big fat plot device. (Of course, he’s right about that.) This subplot wastes Richard Armatage’s acting ability, sticking him in “blustery” mode. It also allows the film to stumble into melodrama. The worst example of this is when Thorin, gone mad with greed, stumbles onto the castle’s floor of gold. He is haunted by a shadow of Smaug and whispering voices before the floor attempts to swallow him up. Gee, almost as if his greed is consuming him! Real subtle, Peter.

The only good thing about “The Battle of the Five Armies’” middling second act is that it refocuses the story on Bilbo. The hobbit, otherwise known as the main character of the trilogy, was a little overlooked in the last film among the barrels, elf love triangle, and wizards. Bilbo is given a juicy role in the concluding chapter. Thorin’s paranoia is justifiable, as Bilbo really did swipe the Arkenstone. However, he holds onto it not out of greed but because he fears possessing it will only make Thorin crazier. Instead, he uses the stone as a bartering chip, in hopes that it will help prevent war between the three armies. This ends up not working, as Thorin’s greed is irrepressible. The subplot is mostly another example of the movie spinning its wheels before the action starts. However, it does pay off in one notable scene. Bilbo shuffles an item in his hand, causing the dwarf king to jump down his throat, suspecting him of theft. Instead, Bilbo is holding an acorn he picked up two movies ago and the two discuss a happier memory. It is a rare emotional moment in a film full of bigger events and allows Armatage’s and Martin Freeman’s charms to shine through.

All of this makes it sound like I don’t enjoy the action elements of “The Hobbit” films. All of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies are action flicks. “The Battle of the Five Armies” features plenty of diverting action and even a few balletic or clever moments. As the orcs march on the Lonely Mountain, the elven and dwarf army put their differences aside. The dwarves slam their shields down on the ground, creating a wall of protective iron. Just as the monsters are about to attack, the elfs leap over the shields, swords out and ready to attack. The orc army is accompanied by a number of burly trolls. One of my favorite gags has a troll, head equipped with a battering ram, slamming himself into the castle wall, making a large hole. Immediately afterwards, he passes out or drops over dead, which is a funny moment of physical comedy. Thranduil, a fairly useless character up to this point, gets a few stand-out moments. He rides around on a giant battle-elk, which is certainly a unique steed. At one point, after knocking a crap load of enemies off a bridge, he picks up six orcs with the elk’s antlers, decapitating each with one sword stroke. The movie also introduces Billy Connolly as a dwarf warrior who rides on a furry pig, which is a moment whose appeal needs no further explanation. While the action sequences in the last two “Hobbit” joints felt overly dependent on CGI gymnastics, this one brings a sense of fun and reality back to the battles.

Except when it doesn’t. One of the many subplot the film is juggling involves Bard the Bowman. After Smaug dies, the dragon’s corpse crushes Stephen Fry’s leader of Lake-town. Fry’s sniveling sidekick, Alfrid, is inexplicably pushed to the forefront several times. He sucks up to Bard, trying to get in the new leader’s good graces. While the battle is raging around him, Alfrid smuggles gold by dressing as a woman. One review refereed to the character as the most annoying comic relief character in a big budget genre film since Jar Jar Binks. It’s not quite that bad, especially since Alfrid is only in a few scenes, but the character’s appearance at all is baffling. Bard’s subplot is probably the least involving of all the film. He has a wife and son to defend, even though his kid seems capable enough with a sword. At one point, Bard rides a rickety cart down the mountainside, leaping into a malformed troll, sword drawn. That’s an example of some of the film’s shakier CGI. Some times the battle scene actually seems to waste its potential. A pair of giant death-worms burrow out of the ground before disappearing totally from the conflict. Beorn the Were-Bear makes a big entrance, leaping off the back of an eagle, transforming in mid-drop, and taking out some orcs. He too vanishes immediately after that. Out of all the stuff added to these movies, you’d think werebears and death worms would be the stuff worth keeping.

Aside from the giant friggin’ dragon, another plot point was left dangling last time. Last we saw Gandolf, he was trapped inside a cage, hanging off the cliffs of Dol Guldur. The wizard snakes his way out of that bucket of syrup fairly quickly. Arriving to help are three other familiar faces. “Battle of the Five Armies” brings back Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, and Christopher Lee’s Sarumon. It’s nice to see three of the most talented faces in the series one more time. Let’s face it, half the reason these movies got made was to revisit fan favorites. Weaving and Lee, or more accurately Lee’s stunt double, even get an action scene. The two fight off a group of ghostly knights summoned by Middle-earth’s big bad. All of that stuff is fine. Fun even. What baffles about this scene is its conclusion. Before the trio can make its escape, the mountainside explodes revealing, once again, Sauron’s Ominous Eyeball of Doom. This forces Galadriel to go Super Sayian. Her skin glows green, her voice deepens, and she magiks Sauron back to the netherworld. It’s a laughably silly moment and brings down an otherwise fun sequence.

The biggest plot tumor weighing down the previous “Hobbit” flick was the love triangle between Killi the dwarf, Tauriel the invented elf love interest, and returning hero Legolas. That story arc, thankfully, gets a blunt resolution this time. After Killi and Tauriel share a few romantic moments together, the love birds are separated until the final battle. There, the love triangle is clipped rather dramatically. The resolution isn’t even that important, the movie brushing the remnants of the plot line away before the conclusion. Though Evangeline Lily remains lovely, and Tauriel has a decent action beat or two, her entire storyline remains the most disposable in “The Hobbit” series.

Slightly more compelling is Legolas’ half of that subplot. Tauriel isn’t much more then his sidekick and the two go on an unnecessary journey to check out some giant bats or somethin'. The film builds up Legolas’ dad as a character and star-on-the-rise Lee Pace is given more to do. The seemingly cold elves come to an understanding, Legolas learning a little about his dead mom, father and son learning more about each other. Mostly, Legolas’ screen time is preoccupied with ass-kicking. He grabs hold of one of the aforementioned giant bats. He snipes orcs from a watch tower. Most notably, he has to face-off with Bolg, the archenemy this trilogy decided Legolas had to have. This is when the action scenes leap from amusing to overdone. Legolas and Bolg face off on a stone tower wedged between two cliffs. As they fight, the stone crumbles around them. After banishing the bad guy, the fight scene reaches its absurd pitch. Legolas, in slow motion, runs up the stones as they collapse, just barely escaping death. Sure, I like Orlando Bloom too and the warrior elf continues to be an ideal fit for his charisma. But, once again, the movie overdoes its attempt to make him appear superheroic.

In the “The Hobbit’s” mutation from a simple fairy tale to an epic action-adventure blockbuster, Thorin received an archenemy too. The rivalry between Thorin Oakenshield and Azog the Defiler comes to a head here. The two battle atop a frozen water fall, which certainly makes for a memorable visual. Though the fight starts out interesting enough, especially once you factor in the bad guy’s awesome sword arm, eventually it overheats too. Azog gets the bright idea to swing a large stone around on the ice. Predictably, this causes the ice to crack, which the hero turns against the villain. However, instead of finishing Azog off when he had the chance, Thorin allows the orc prince to make a dramatic escape from the ice. The two scuffle a little more before blades met flesh. Not to spoil too much but “The Battle of the Five Armies” is faithful to the book’s ending and handles the resolution decently.

Unlike “Return of the King,” “Battle of the Five Armies” doesn’t have six endings. It merely has four. The dwarves bury their fallen comrades and Bilbo heads back home. He has a conversation with Gandolf that drips with foreshadowing. While cute, it’s little more then an acknowledgement of this trilogy’s more popular predecessors. The film retrieves a smidge of its humanity and humor in its final minutes, as Bilbo gets an unexpected, and unwelcomed, surprise upon returning to the Shire. Peter Jackson doesn’t belabor the point and wraps up “The Hobbit” series decently enough. Though plagued with problems, you can’t complain about the ending.

And that’s the last we’ll see of Middle-earth, at least until the Tolkien estate mellows out. This is probably for the best, says I. Is anyone but the most passionate of Middle-earth devotees anticipating Peter Jackson’s ten-part, thirty hour adaptation of “The Silmarillion?” Maybe the director can return to quieter territory next and produce something hopefully better then “The Lovely Bones.” As for “The Hobbit” prequel trilogy, it is plagued with problems. The cast is excellent, including the fantastica Martin Freeman and many of the returning faces. Middle-earth remains an impressive visual creation. Smaug was easily the high-light of the whole ordeal. The third part might even be the best of the trilogy, as it has the least filler and the most diverting action. Out of the three overlong films, there’s easily enough material for one pretty good three-hour epic. (And some enterprising fans saw fit to create just that.) Taken at their theatrical lengths, there’s so much about the films that are frustrating or tiresome. Now that it’s over, I’m mostly just glad it’s over. [Grade: B-]

No comments: