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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Review: Tired Goodbye to Middle Earth

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is an uninspired goodbye to Middle Earth.

When Lord of the Rings arrived in the dreary year of 9/11, it set the standard for big epic battle scenes, wowed us with every beautifully-shot sequence and sequel, and even inspired a generation of filmmakers to outdo it. And yet, as its architect Peter Jackson delivered two prequels, The Hobbit has done something I could never have imagined: they became bloated, predictable, and even bored. Sadly, The Battle of the Five Armies does nothing to alleviate those concerns, displaying its true colors of drab and disappointment.

With the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) released to destroy Laketown, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his Dwarf allies must deal with a new problem: the dragon madness which is about to consume their leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Caught between Thorin's increasingly brutal demands and the arrival of the Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace), Bilbo, Gandolf (Ian McKellen), and Bard (Luke Evans) must try to diffuse a turf battle before Sauron's armies converge to wipe them all away.

There is absolutely nothing new or inventive here that we haven't seen done better by Jackson in other iterations. Fight sequences have become a morass of CGI, reduced to digital bits of do-nothing, while the bloated story by Writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and three others is uneven and uninspired. With so much of this trilogy manufactured, Armies tries to tie up every loose end without giving its parade of characters the time they need to end their stories. Levity is not Jackson's strong suit and the nearly 25 minutes of scenes with Cage as Alfrid Lickspittle are just painful. Once the dragon is slayed (rather easily it would seem), Evans' heft is gone, replaced with little to do except bargain and fight. Even the ending just doesn't know where to end, as we learn that Bilbo's home and possessions have been seized and auctioned off. It's a totally unnecessary ending.

Our hero, the person for whom the entire trilogy is named, is marginalized to the point that you wonder why he's there at all. And while Freeman does his absolute best - and remains the only thing I've liked from the prequels - his arc resolves nothing. In fact, the larger story of the Dwarve's home and who owns it, the future of Laketown residents, and the fate of Gandolf are needlessly pushed aside for more gooey action, all based around Jackson's odd choice for a title. Although it's quoted in Tolkin's book, it places the wrong emphasis on the story, as it leaves audiences trying to figure out who are in fact the five armies, rather enjoying the emotional connection of its heroes.

Lily's Tauriel - a welcome breath of bad-assery in Smaug - is reduced to a simpering pile by film's end, uttering horrible dialogue about unrequited love. Her surprising survival exposes a huge plot hole that Lord of the Rings cannot resolve, while her deliciously king does get his screentime, resulting in some of the best parts of the film. Yet, his sudden affection for his son Legolas - and his 'suggestion' to find Aragorn - is almost hilarious. And those eagles - damn their rehearsed timeliness!

By my tone, you might think I actually hated Armies or am planning to place it in my dustbin of worst movies of the year. Surprisingly, there was much I did like. The wizard battle to save Gandolf was terrific (but way too short), Smaug is perfect evil (but again poorly used), and the dragon illness' ravaging of Thorin leads to some pretty hefty exchanges between him and Bilbo. I suppose we'll see some of the obvious editing choices reversed in the extended edition, but this rather breezy just doesn't cut it. You can literally tell where Jackson made his cuts as characters stand out of place between exchanges.

Fans of the franchise will no doubt enjoy The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, shedding tears as their journeys to Middle Earth conclude. For me, that ship departed long ago, replaced by an undeniable conclusion: prequels largely do not work, and merely cashing in on one's past success always comes at a price. Let this be a lesson to those who are foolish enough to try.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images and has a runtime of 144 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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