The biggest laugh I heard from the audience at my screening of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies came after seven words in the end credits: "Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien." Just picture that tweedy Oxford philologist nodding in approval at this adaptation of his lark of a children's fable, especially at the kabooming violence of the last hour, which shakes mountains and severs heads and plays like Middle-Earth Smash Bros.
The film builds to a series of boss battles against scarred, gum-fleshed orc chiefs, and they aren't in Tolkien's book. They're individually spectacular, staged with the full invention and brio of Peter Jackson, who is as good at this stuff as anyone in the history of movies. But they just keep coming, like frozen yogurt from a self-serve spigot a kid forgot to turn off — more and more in a relentless gush. The Hobbit is less a trilogy than it is a heaping mound of sugary goo.
Nothing wrong with froyo of course, despite the risk of brain freeze. That too-muchness — or is it generosity? — makes this film the most crowd-pleasing of the series, although it's also the one most likely to enrage amateur Tolkien scholars, who have always balked at Jackson's cheery vulgarizations. Nevertheless, I savored much of this last, stabbing-est Hobbit. Its first 90 minutes are some of Jackson's surest, sharpest storytelling since The Fellowship of the Ring. The conflicts and relationships are clear enough that even folks who napped through An Unexpected Journey will follow along, and there are none of the narrative ditches these movies routinely veer into. (Nothing in The Hobbit is as goofy-dumb as Aragorn getting saved from a cliff-fall by the love of a nice horsey in The Two Towers.)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro. Based (ha!) on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Ken Stott, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Graham McTavish, Lee Pace, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee and Ian Holm.
Besides the usual pomp and scenery — the goblets! the braids! the deflated soccer-ball faces of the orcs! — there are some new wonders. The opening dragon attack is spectacular, shot with clarity and power missing from The Desolation of Smaug's botched drown-the-beast-in-popcorn-butter climax. A haunted-city showdown between ghost knights and the super team of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) is almost as grand. It's sad that Hollywood filmmaking is so often about realizing the dreams of children, but isn't it still notable when someone does it?
This installment benefits from the presence of a theme other than walking takes a while. The theme is an obvious but meaty one — the corrupting power of greed — albeit it's a bit sanctimonious for the third movie adaptation of a one-volume YA novel to take a stand on the topic. Richard Armitage plays head dwarf Thorin, a gold-mad, Treasure of the Sierra Madre hardass who forsakes the world for treasure. As always with Jackson, a stubborn king refuses to aid a world in need, and when he softens he's bathed in divine light, in-story source or no.
The local elves want their cut of the loot, as do refugees from the town destroyed by the dragon that Thorin and company awoke in film two, and then — right on schedule — there's one of those orc armies that continually surprise everyone in Middle-earth movies. And then there's another. And then there's fighting. Spoiler: Jackson's dwarves and elves behead orcs with all the ease of a young David gathering Philistine foreskins. Some heroes fall this time, but only diehard fans will feel much. These Hobbit pictures are about spectacle rather than emotional stakes.
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Series MVP Martin Freeman, so endearing and resourceful as Bilbo in the first two films, is more or less given the bench this time. Bilbo and the Shire appear in the final reel, of course, but the goodbyes aren't as protracted as they were in The Return of the King. Aside from overkill on the killing, this installment suggests Jackson is finally making concessions to bladders and run times. The Battle of the Five Armies wraps up in under two and a half hours, some 15 minutes shorter than its predecessor, but still roughly the length of Bilbo's dinner party in part one. The resolutions of many plot lines have been curtailed, most likely to be restored in an eventual director's cut release.
The longer versions of all of Jackson's Middle-earth films have played more coherently than their theatrical cuts, but this time he's trimmed out something absolutely vital, the one element that — besides his mad, gore-minded grandiloquence — has kept everything together five films running: an attention to the emotional lives of his hobbits.
Reviewing any chunk of Jackson's Tolkien-flavored fantasy-combat-simulation project is like reviewing a holiday party or obligatory family get together. You know whether you're going, you know who you'll see there, and you know that you'll either grit through it and be glad when it's over, or you'll lose yourself in it and miss the ritual when it's over. Regardless, consider this: Watched from beginning to end, Jackson's series would take almost a full day to get through. And yet, even here, at the end of all things Middle-earth, the filmmaking and world-crafting and orc-decapitations are still brash and vigorous, still lavish, rousing, grating, wearying and hilarious.
When orc and dwarf spill through fog onto a silvery frozen lake, and then, in that gorgeous, roller-rink moonscape, keep their grudge match going both above and underneath the ice, you may carp that it's all too much. But it's hard not to marvel at just how much too-much Jackson has whipped up — and how much of it is inspired.