In 2009, Peter Jackson adapted Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones into a bizarre, over-wrought mess that mistook special effects for imagination. It was typical of Jackson’s post-Lord of the Rings career, whereby drama and subtlety were things of the past, and ‘small’ films had budgets over $90 million. The Hobbit series, though obviously action-based, is fraught with a similar contempt for source material, as a fetish for ‘epic’ overcrowds any interest Jackson might have once had in storytelling.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies is the final cog in an epic three-part moneymaking machine. It stretches out 90-odd pages of Tolkien’s text into 144 minutes of Jackson’s inane special effects, and it does so unapologetically, starting exactly where part two left off, with Smaug the dragon furiously entering Laketown.
That battle with Smaug is resolved within about 15 minutes of the film starting, an immediately odd decision given that Smaug’s defeat would have offered some narrative closure to part two. It makes for an alienating beginning for anyone expecting a traditional narrative build, but it gives at least a small thrust to Battle’s severely lacking storylines, and it’s undoubtedly the most impressive technical feat of the series.
Dividing The Hobbit into three parts was an inexcusable move by Jackson – the story simply isn’t cut out for it. This is something I’m sure you’ve heard before, but it becomes so utterly obvious in instances like these, and even more so when Jackson draws imaginary lines between events that are completely disconnected in Tolkien’s folklore. It’s quite telling that Azog, the series’ primary antagonist, is, according to Tolkien, one hundred years dead by the time Bilbo even sets out on his quest.
Battle also carries over a lot of the aesthetic issues from the first two parts, as the overdose of special effects reduces Jackson’s many interesting Lord of the Rings species to arid digital blotches. After hours of superficial, CGI battle scenes, you’re left missing the extensive make up and prosthetic work that balanced out Jackson’s first trilogy. It’s actually very difficult to explain this transition without assuming laziness, as it removes reality from a film already lacking in any sense of natural movement.1
Thankfully, this Hobbit runs only 144 minutes, which by Jackson’s standard is mercifully short. That said, most scenes still drag on too long and others seem terribly misplaced, as with Jackson’s forays into inter-species romance. The “battle”, though 45 minutes long where the book is a single chapter, is borderline indecipherable, as armies come and go nonchalantly, and the whole thing is resolved in a dismal (and familiar) fashion.
The Oliphant in the room when it comes to Peter Jackson’s series is that the Hobbit himself, Bilbo, is a well-crafted protagonist lost among a merry band of goofy-looking caricatures. Martin Freeman is at his best in Battle, building a character more interesting even than his equivalents in The Lord of the Rings series. While Bilbo shares his nephew’s idealism, he has a very distinct deviance about him, which is helped by Freeman’s masterful comic timing.
The problem is that there’s just too much for Freeman to do to redeem these films, especially considering he’s sidelined for most of the action sequences. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf also plays a periphery role, and instead we spend a large chunk of our time with Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Bard (Luke Evans), the conflicted leaders of the dwarves and humans respectively. Along with Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), these characters go about their swashbuckling duties, but offer very little with regards to actual character development. There are also all those other dwarves who, from memory, move around and do things.
The greatest tragedy of all this is just how good a single film The Hobbit could have been. There really is enough good scattered throughout each of these parts to have made that true, however, in a prolonged fit of narcissism, Jackson has claimed Tolkien’s story as his own, carving it into three brainless epics. For someone who loves Tolkien’s work so much, he has treated The Hobbit as if he couldn’t care less. The results have been predictably forgettable, and the final part is no exception.