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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

December 17, 2014
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

At last, we come to the end of the needlessly expanded Hobbit movies. I wasn’t terribly excited for The Battle of the Five Armies after seeing The Desolation of Smaug, but it’s become Hobbitual.

Sorry, I needed to get that out.

Truth be told, this third part isn’t as bad as the second, mostly because the screenwriters indulge in fewer silly diversions that don’t sit at all well against a backdrop of Tolkien’s own storytelling. The single biggest complaint I have about the movie series is the way it feels like random, amateurish fan-fiction tales have been inserted between chapters of the original text, and the dissonance is jarring.

But ultimately what we have here is more of the same: more big visuals without enough story to back them up. And since it’s the last one we get giant computer-rendered armies flowing over each other, to boot. The dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is driven mad with jealousy for his reclaimed throne; armies of wood-elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) and orcs led by Azog (Manu Bennett) descend on Erebor once Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) flees); and hobbit burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) must somehow get out with his life. Which of course he will, since this is a prequel and it descends deep into prequel-itis towards the end of its comparatively-short 144-minute running time.

So, instead of examining in detail all the points that ring out with a resounding “meh”, I’d like to make the case for why, with the full benefit of hindsight, this should have been two movies at the most. There’s a bit of a spoiler coming, but it happens early on, and honestly the book is over 75 years old by now.

The key point is apparent right at the beginning of this episode: after fleeing Erebor, Smaug descends on the Lake-town Esgaroth, only to be felled by Bard the Bowman. The problem is that this comes a scant fifteen minutes into the movie, and it brings the action to a screeching halt until the invading armies and Thorin’s jealousy can be spun up.

Now, I understand that there’s a very good reason this short set-piece couldn’t have been moved to the end of the second movie, where it would seem to fit. Namely: if it ended with Smaug dead it would be a hard sell to get audiences back into theaters for the third part, since it’s really not apparent at that point what’s left. As it is, at least they’re already in their $15 seats with giant tubs of popcorn, so they may as well hang around for the rest. Besides, The Desolation of Smaug already tipped the scales at 161 minutes, and it couldn’t really bear another fifteen or twenty minutes.

But there is an answer: instead of three movies, cut the story in two. And, in retrospect, the cut point is obvious. Right after the action-infused escape from Mirkwood, the company washes up on the shores of the Forest River in the hills above Lake-town. Close on a vista, with Esgaroth and Long Lake to the right of the frame, and the ruins of Dale and the heights of Erebor against a darkening sky to the left. It places the journey there, to the foothills of Erebor in the first part, while the second part consists of achieving the goals of the company and returning Bilbo back again to the Shire.

Of course, cutting the story there means cutting something out. I’m willing to grant that — with this choice of cut-point — the escape from the Mirkwood now has an actual point to its action as the capstone of the first movie. The prime candidate to be cut is then everything Gandalf does apart from the company. And yes, given that the events at Dol Guldur were part of Tolkien’s own commentaries they form the least awful of Jackson’s extravagances. Still, they’re not necessary to the plot, and don’t help it in any way.

It may well be that the choice to move from two movies to three was motivated by nothing more than greed, but I’m feeling generous. It seems to me that Jackson and his team were simply too infatuated with their own work to realize that large swaths of it were simply not very good, and they weren’t willing to cut the excess. And maybe this is the only way we’d get a big-budget cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s book anyway.

I’m hoping that this time we can restrain ourselves from giving Jackson another silly awards-season victory lap on the basis of special effects alone. Maybe, in that case, he’ll show a little restraint of his own when he turns to mining The Silmarillion for its treasures. You know it’s only a matter of time.

Worth It: only if you have to finish out the series.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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