Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Saying Farewell to Old Hobbits
"...a Handful of Jewels"

Peter Jackson takes the last ship to the Undying Lands in the West, bidding farewell to the Shire for (probably) the last time (barring, of course, anyone wanting to buy the film rights to J.R.R.Tolkien's doodle pad*). The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the final part of Jackson's ambitious trilogy adaptation of Tolkien's first book—the prequel of sorts to his epic "The Lord of the Rings." Some slim connecting tissue is provided to bridge the two trilogies, but not much, which is surprising since, as the briefest of the six films—clocking in at 2 hours, 24 minutes—it still manages to burst at the seams with new material, expanded—even engorged—from the book's slim contents.

It may be the shortest, but it "feels" like the longest, which is a guarantee that something is wrong with the film; I've seen four and five-hour films that have flown by (and still have you asking at the end "Is it over?"), and I've seen 60 minute films that seemed to last an eternity. A person's body watching a film has its own personal gladiator asking itself "Are we not entertained?" If we are, the gladiator fights alone unnoticed; if not, we find ourselves checking our watches, even if we haven't worn one in ten years.
The Hobbit: TBOTFA ** has issues so large you could drive a were-worm through it (and don't ask). The relatively short length (including an aptly-named Closing Credit crawl) with all of its import seems to drag (as compared to the longer and relatively speedy Lord of the Rings films) due to the material needed to wrap up the character arcs of the various Middle-earth humanoids and establishing why the favtions (dwarves, elves, halflings and men as well as the wizards, wargs and goblins) are so danged distrustful of each other at the start of The Fellowship of the Rings.
The movie can be divided into three sections: the battle of Lake-town against the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), the temptation of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) once he acquires the dwarf-mines of Gundabard (under the Lonely Mountain), and the long build-up and extended battle for control of those mines. Each one of these segments is interminable.
Let's talk about the battles: Jackson has always set up the scope of the things; with the advance of MASSIVE©*** software, he's luxuriated in showing Nuremberg rally numbers of warriors in neat, tidy rows giving the sense of scale—we can see from the Great Eagle-high perspective what the odds are at a glance. Then, once battle commences, it's a free-for-all with vignettes of battle with significant characters and notable moments of attack and destruction. Perhaps we (or we and Jackson) have become inured by large battles royale—they've certainly grown in scope from the days of Eisenstein and Welles. But being post-Matrix, it seems like Jackson (or second-unit director Andy Serkis) has decided to just have his warriors flailing and that proves more wearisome for the viewer than it does for the combatant—although there's no chance for a missed swing with these special effects fights, because the fights are green-screen solo efforts. There's no sense of weight and effort, merely hacking and slashing to empty air, the actor going through fast tai-chi exercises and the post-effects crew just throwing pixels at them in various shapes and sizes.
And when your stage is a green-screen backdrop and you're suspended by wires that no one will see due to post-production work, then such things are possible as running up the falling stones of a collapsing bridge, so there's no sense of risk as the physics are that of a roadrunner cartoon.
Apart from the simulated physical, it is nice to see so many participants we've become familiar with****Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett (Stephen Fry is featured again, briefly, as Lake-town's mayor, and there's a new dwarf leader voiced distinctively by Billy Connolly). Cumberbatch does what he can with his brief vocal appearances, but Smaug is mostly visual here. Ian Holm makes an appearance as old Bilbo. Martin Freeman blends with him just as seamlessly, but, try as he might, his Bilbo is less heroic for his lack of being not heroic (as in the book) and mostly seems resigned—his change of character having occurred two years ago in the first film. Most of the drama goes to Evangeline Lilly as the elf warrior Tauriel and Aiden Turner as her dwarf paramour Kili, while Richard Armitage is stuck with having to sustain an attitude that goes far past its dramatic need so that you cease caring about the character's thick-headed obstinance caused by his greed.
It's not the actor's fault, as Oakenshield's greed is only out-matched by the producing studios (New Line Cinema, M-G-M, Wingnut Films) in its efforts to out of the slim source.
And that is the main issue with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and, for all that, this entire trilogy. The novel would have been better served being done in two, rather than the three films for reasons of pacing and character. But, movies, as with celebrity deaths, seem to have to come in three's, so, as with The Lord of the Rings (which was three books of approximately the same length, each), The Hobbit had to be stretched out to a trilogy. It was expected, I guess, and it was what the market would bare. But not the material. It is ironic that a movie that has as its theme the destructive power of acquisitiveness in Middle Earth is undone by its own version of it in Hollywood. It is a very real cautionary fable in Tinsel-town that when a scrappy new-comer is given too much power, too much money, and too much opportunity, that the ingenuity displayed in its absence goes away.  Peter Jackson is far from a newcomer, but these films (as with The Lovely Bones and his King Kong) don't have the same verve, the same narrative drive, or the ability to flesh out the material that he displayed in the first trilogy.

Here's hoping it comes back.  In the meantime, a lot of New Zealanders got work.
Dwarf-warrior transport in The Battle of the Five Armies:
first person to say "Ramming Speed!" has to watch all three movies in a row again.

* One gets the impression, we've already seen that, as well.

** TBOFTA sounds like some geographical landmark of Middle-Earth.

*** It actually stands for something—Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment.

**** A nice touch: the song over the credits, usually assigned to an edgy rock-star, this time goes to Billy Boyd, who played Pippin in the "Rings" trilogy.

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