So finally Peter Jackson’s odyssey comes to an end, with momentum and the noise of five stampeding armies, but the emotions which accompany the grand finale of The Hobbit trilogy are far from those experienced watching the last moments of The Lord of the Rings; rather, it is a feeling of relief that it is finally over. The truth is that many will have watched The Battle of the Five Armies through a sense of obligation rather than excitement but also with the sentimental hope that it might be able to rekindle the depth of emotion which accompanied the moving conclusion of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien’s fans were aware that The Hobbit was a very different story from The Lord of the Rings and loved it for what they knew it to be, a simple but beautiful fairytale originally intended to entertain children, complete within itself with no need for alteration or expansion. But this was not so for Peter Jackson; for him, the sole purpose of The Hobbit was to serve as a prologue, the opening chapter to the War of the Ring, and this became his undoing.
Attempting to recreate the acclaim and success of his previous trilogy, Jackson forced into his vision of The Hobbit characters and threads which were not part of the literary source, stretching the short story into three overlong parts, expanding scenes beyond the limits of indulgence. Did he succeed? Yes, but only because of the love of the fans for J R R Tolkien and his creation, and even in spite of that The Battle of the Five Armies leaves a profound feeling of disappointment which has only compounded with each subsequent instalment as each opportunity to make a faithful adaptation of a book beloved by generations for seventy five years was further squandered.
Having arrived at the Lonely Mountain and gained access, the company led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has enraged the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who now attacks Esgaroth, laying waste to the timber buildings; only Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), jailed by the Master of Laketown, has the skill to defeat him.
Deep inside Erebor, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) has found and concealed the Arkenstone of Thrain which Thorin covets; increasingly paranoid and distrustful of those around him, Thorin refuses aid to the refugees of Esgaroth who have arrived at the ruins of Dale, barricading the gates of the mountain.
When they are joined by a company of Mirkwood elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) also seeking return of treasures lost within the mountain, Thorin refuses to negotiate despite Bard’s warnings that battle will follow.
Across Middle-Earth, north of the Misty Mountains, Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) is held prisoner in Dol Guldur, but he is not alone: his most powerful allies have come together, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett, ageless in conspicuous contrast to Orlando Bloom‘s Legolas), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), to rescue him and unmask the evil that lurks within that ancient stronghold, the Ringwraiths.
Throughout the trilogy, four issues have arisen numerous times, and the opening hour of The Battle of the Five Armies demonstrates that all are present once again. The structure of all the films is off kilter, with logical breaks in the story shunted out of place in order to satisfy the three studio demand that it be reconceived as a trilogy.
It was this unnatural partitioning of events which necessitated that Smaug’s attack on Esgaroth be moved from its logical place as the triumphant conclusion of the second film, supplanted instead by an hour of needless padding in the mines beneath Erebor, so the scant twenty minute battle (including more needless business with Bard’s jailbreak) could open the final part.
This padding comes in two varieties: that which is extraneous to the story which form the genuine core of The Hobbit but does at least have some legitimate value (the relationship between Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the discovery of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, drawn from Tolkien’s history of Middle-Earth) and that which serves no purpose but to fill screen time and exasperate the audience with utterly pointless noise (every time the tiresome Ryan Gage clogs the screen up with his wretched face as Alfrid, unwanted and unwelcome aide to the Master of Laketown; for the presence of this character alone Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens should hand back the Oscar they received for best adapted screenplay for The Return of the King).
The fourth issue is that of the technological approach Jackson has adopted on the films, which despite heavy handed and unnecessary foreshadowing for a set of sequels which the audience have already seen apparently take place in an entirely different world.
Where The Lord of the Rings utilised a combination of location shooting, large constructed sets and “bigatures” to create Middle-Earth as a fully realised and convincing world, production on The Hobbit shifted to a largely digital realm reducing the action to that of a sophisticated video game in which the characters are pawns moved around by Jackson, a child in a candy shop who has lost his judgment in his need to constantly outdo his previous achievements, never so much as when Saruman and Elrond fight the Nazgûl at Dol Guldur, a scene more J K Rowling than J R R Tolkien, or the unexpected crossover with the works of Frank Herbert as the orcs arrive at Erebor atop Shai-Hulud.
A slip which began with his tortuous remake of King Kong, the freedom of switching from largely practical to predominantly digital effects has granted Jackson a latitude which has blinded him to whether an idea is good or not, with too much included simply because it can be. Where once existed a world which felt real and dirty, now the fantasy realm has become fantasy itself, replete with preposterous stunts in impossible circumstances, runaway carts used as flying battering rams, elves hitching lifts on giant bats, free falling masonry used as stepping stones, digital armies running across digital landscapes with digital bats flying overhead: it’s the antithesis of the ethic of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Against these conspicuously unreal backdrops drift flat characters spouting contrived dialogue, the most egregious intrusion when Thranduil inexplicably suggests that Legolas seek a ranger of the Dúnedain and befriend him, the most clumsily shoehorned plot exposition since Yoda told Obi-Wan Kenobi that Qui-Gon Jinn had returned as a Force ghost at the conclusion of Revenge of the Sith.
Thorin’s possessiveness over the mountain gold is portrayed as a parallel to Frodo’s grasp on the One Ring in Return of the King, but it’s overplayed, his irrational actions as unconvincing and out of keeping with the rest of the film as the nightmare which leads to his overwrought epiphany. Where Lord of the Rings was the tale of a king of men, Aragorn of Gondor, this tale of dwarves is noticeably smaller in stature, a generic studio blockbuster where once it stood head and shoulders above the pack. “Don’t underestimate the evil of gold,” Bilbo is warned, a lesson New Line, Warner Brothers and MGM comprehensively failed to learn.
Next to the honest brutality of Game of Thrones, this feels sanitised, facile, the characters lacking the complexity of that small screen competitor, the plastic aesthetics overpowering the story of Bilbo Baggins and his friends with even the deaths of lead characters – tellingly the only three dwarves not saddled by comedy prosthetic noses – diminished by having the characters put their grief into words, effectively narrating moments which should be felt rather than expressed.
There is no doubt that this is the best of the three and there are moments of magic such as the elves stepping effortlessly over the dwarves ranks to protect them, but that does not make up for what should have been, and during the interminably drawn out concluding scenes when Bilbo says goodbye to his friends one thought is paramount: through the 474 minutes of The Hobbit, behind all those special effects were Tolkien’s characters, their emotions, their hopes, their internal transformations, prejudices and friendships but in the flood of technological fireworks these were swept so far downstream they were almost forgotten; regrettably the lifeguard on duty was Peter Jackson, and his failure in his duty is the loss of all.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX