The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

January 10, 2015
Martin Freeman in 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' (2014)
Martin Freeman in 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' (2014)

If Mr. Turner finds a director at the top of his game, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the work of a mad scientist defeated by a monstrous machine of his own devising. This third and final installment of the Hobbit trilogy, following on from the hugely popular Lord of the Rings trilogy, gives the impression that Peter Jackson and his collaborators could hardly wait to get rid of a burden that has occupied them for almost 15 years. These films have brought Jackson a financial bonanza and critical acclaim, but this last effort shows him making a furious, groggy dash for the finish line.

Anyone lately arrived from Mars who had never heard of Tolkein or watched the previous parts of the trilogy, would have no idea what was going on in The Battle of the Five Armies. It picks up where part two, The Desolation of Smaug, left off, with no lead-in or explanation. It is assumed the audience already knows the score, or is happy to watch and be dazzled without the need for a plot summary.

There is creative impatience in this approach, but also commercial cynicism. The early reports from the United States pronouncing that box office receipts have defied the critics, give a very clear indication of the might-is-right philosophy prevailing in the Dream Factory today, where a film can earn in excess of $250 million and be declared a commercial flop.

It wouldn’t matter if every critic in America decided to damn the new Hobbit film because the franchise has such momentum the masses will go along just to see how it ends. Every reader of Tolkein may already know what happens, but we all understand the difference between a story and its execution on screen.

In the case of The Battle of the Five Armies that difference consists chiefly of the amount of padding stuffed into the narrative to transform one slender novel into three long movies. In the book the climactic battle was over in a few pages, but this was without the benefit of a slew of new characters and sub-plots, or a relentless procession of action sequences making full use of the latest CGI technology.

The final installment is hardly more than one long CGI punch-up, entertaining but empty, in which various plot-lines are concluded in perfunctory fashion. Neither have the writers made much of an effort with the dialogue, which is corny when not simply banal:

Tauriel: If this was love, why does it hurt so much?

Thranduil: Because it was real.

Audience: Urrgh!

The film begins with Smaug the dragon laying waste to Laketown, while the humans flee in disarray. It’s spectacular to watch, but the only suspense consists of wondering how long will it take for Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) to fire off his fateful arrow while Smaug soliliquizes like a B movie villain. That moment is delayed while every drop of pathos is squeezed out of the scene like toothpaste being coaxed from an old tube.

The next move takes us to the Dwarves’ mountain stronghold, where head Dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), has gone ga-ga over the huge horde of gold he now possesses. As Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the rest of the crew wonder what to do about Thorin’s growing madness, the Humans and Elves are mustering for battle at the gates. Yet this is only a preliminary distraction, because the Orc armies are on the move, intent on claiming the mountain for the forces of evil. We know, with absolute certainty, that the good guys must quickly settle their differences and confront the baddies. After a minor delay when another set of Dwarves shows up, led by Billy Connolly astride a feral pig, this is precisely what happens.

The ensuing battle occupies much of the film thereafter, although the final act is treated in a surprisingly casual manner. By this stage the battle has taken second place to the small-scale struggle between Dwarves and Orcs on a nearby craggy peak, with a reborn Thorin confronting Azog, the leader of the Orcs.

Not for the first time are we left wondering why the Orcs, who are bigger, uglier, stronger and more aggressive than any other creatures, are so useless in combat. Like a failed rugby team they would have been wise to replace their coach before the season began.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boynes & Guillermo del Toro, after the novel by J.R.R.Tolkein
Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lily, Orlando Bloom,
New Zealand/USA, rated M, 144 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 10th January, 2015.