I still remember the first time I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I was a child, a child young enough to sleep over a buddies house sharing the same pull-out mattress and stay up all night watching movies without having to vehemently deny the connotations that come with such a “slumber party” when boys reach a certain age (i.e. I was 11 or 12). I was unbeknownst to the power of cinema. Sure, like every other kid, I enjoyed movies. It’s a miracle my families VHS copy of Jurassic Park didn’t fall apart considering how many times I watched it.
But a good movie to me was just something that could hold my attention for a couple hours. I had heard about this “lorda the rings” movie. I had heard it was supposed to be scary, heard that it had sword-fighting. It became that cool movie to see. If you hadn’t seen it, you felt like you were missing out when everyone talked about it at school. Color me intrigued, right?
So we watched it, and needless to say, we were all blown away. It was an experience. From the prologue chronicling Middle Earth’s mythology to the closing credits, we were lifted into another world, thanks to childlike imagination and immense filmmaking skill of Peter Jackson. The visual storytelling and the world-building were unlike anything I had ever seen or have seen since.
Credit Jackson’s vision for bringing books that were supposedly “impossible to film” to the screen. Credit the perfectly-cast actors for making us feel attached to every character in this expansive universe. Credit the makeup artists, the animators, and the folks behind the miniature location models for making everything look so grand yet so grounded in reality. The entire trilogy is a technical and artistic achievement to be marveled at. It changed the way blockbuster franchises were handled. It’s perhaps the most resounding epic ever produced in the medium of cinema.
Unfortunately for the hoards of diehard fans who were transfixed by Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth like I was, his attempt to recapture that magic with The Hobbit trilogy fell flat. In no entry is that more apparent than this months The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, a film fundamentally misguided both visually and thematically.
You don’t need me to tell you that The Hobbit trilogy looks very different than The Lord of the Rings. While LOTR was certainly reliant on computers to an extent, it was nothing like in The Hobbit. As I briefly mentioned earlier, many of the visual effects in LOTR were enhanced by miniature models and groundbreaking scaled perspective shots. For The Hobbit, Jackson decided to scrap this formula in favor of a style completely dependent on CGI. I don’t posses the technical background to discuss all of the factors that went into Jackson’s decision to shoot the entire trilogy in 3D high frame rate (HFR) in detail, but I have good enough eyesight to describe what it looks like on screen. And it looks, quite frankly, like a video game. A very expensive and way too colorful video game.
To give The Hobbit: The Battles of Five Armies credit, it was surely the darkest of the three films, both figuratively and literally. There was less color in the final entry. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that almost the entire film takes place inside or in the areas surrounding the Lonely Mountain. We don’t get much of The Shire, the forests, or Elvish strongholds. There was a lot of gray, many different shades of it, in this film. That added to the grim tone of the story that Jackson thankfully didn’t shy away from.
I’m not in the business of sharing spoilers, so I won’t. Just know that this film attempts to be the most emotionally disturbing entry in the entire Middle Earth franchise, and for the most part, is successful when it comes to executing this. Everybody is going to have their own opinion on Jackson’s manufactured romance between his invented character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), whom the orcs would call a “she-elf”, and Kili (Aidan Turner), by far the most charismatic of all the dwarves. But at least Jackson doesn’t go overboard with the sentimentality in their relationship here. Doing so would’ve drastically impacted the feel of this finale for the worse. Jackson was committed to making this film the darkest of the trilogy, and in that regard, he succeeded.
However, I can do without a bunch of dwarves, elves, and hobbits lecturing me on how wealth is evil and how gold causes war and corruption. Sneaking that idea in as a minor theme? Sure. But The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies spent too much of its relatively sleek runtime (144 minutes) having characters try and teach Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) about what really matters. This isn’t the type of film you should notice any allegory in. This is a film where dwarves ride around on armor-clad goats and hit orcs with axes, and that’s cool. No reason to try to be more than that.
In LOTR, there was a plethora of characters we became attached to and got to experience the journey with. That isn’t the case in The Hobbit trilogy. We have Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman). That’s really it. Freeman brought his A-game throughout the entire trilogy and is an actor more than capable of giving a layered turn. The problem is that this trilogy didn’t give him the chance to do so because it was too focused on Thorin and his “issues”, issues that certainly weren’t enough to serve as the central character conflict for an entire trilogy.
The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies diverted to exploring the dynamic between Thorin and Bilbo, the issue of Thorin viewing BIlbo as a worthless hindrance to their quest. This would be interesting if it wasn’t already explored for the entirety of -and resolved in- the first entry in the trilogy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). These strange character moments the film wanted to show only took away from the should’ve-been epic battle that consisted of, you guessed it, five armies. Whenever the action, as comical as some of it looked, grabbed our attention we were quickly taken out of it. Not to mention that Bilbo was knocked unconscious and unseen for a key twenty minute stretch in the third act.
Jackson created a beloved universe with LOTR. Then he took advantage of those good graces to create another trilogy that should have been, at most, two movies. The Hobbit trilogy was a guaranteed commercial success before it even went into production. It already had a loyal global fan base that transcended generations.
Having such a loyal fan base can be a double-edged sword. There are going to be people who love the world of Tolkien so much that they’re going to enjoy any film set in it. There are also going to be people who have already gotten over their initial amazement from the LOTR trilogy and are expecting quality singular films rather than just simply a revisitation to Middle Earth. If you’re the former, that’s perfectly legitimate. We all have our tastes. Just don’t argue that this trilogy is even in the same ballpark as LOTR.
In fact, not only are The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies and its predecessors not as good as the LOTR movies, they’re just not good movies, period. They’re over-long, poorly paced, thematically lost, and visually problematic. In a few years from now, when the masses are over the “return-to-Middle Earth” hype, we’ll finally realize that.