Perhaps because I spent the weeks leading up to the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies reading every negative review I could find, when I went to see the film the other night I was pleasantly surprised.
Does the film resemble anything like Professor Tolkien’s slim and elegantly funny little book?
Does it, in fact, completely disregard its source material and betray the book’s central message about the wastefulness of war and greed in a manner that would make the good professor writhe in pain?
Does it criminally waste Martin Freeman and feature a scene in which, for all intents and purposes, Thranduil tries to make up for being a shitty dad by setting Legolas up on a date with Strider?
However, while Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy fails to capture the spirit of either Tolkien or of the previous film trilogy, the final Hobbit film does at least succeed on its own terms by wrapping up all the random character detritus of The Desolation of Smaug, and by, quite unexpectedly, developing a theme.
At the end of Desolation of Smaug, our awesome evil dragon-pal earned his “Smaug the Golden” moniker after Jackson’s CGI shenanigans saw him dipped in a river of molten karat. This is one of the goofier things that happened in that film—but it’s a good lead-in for what follows. Shortly after Smaug is dispatched (and dude, if you were going to bloat the fuck out of these movies couldn’t we have had at least ten more minutes of Benedict Cumberbatch’s evil drooling?), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) becomes obsessed with hoarding the dead wyrm’s gold.
This is one of the points at which the film succeeds: we finally get some verisimilitude. Back in the first Hobbit, we saw how Thorin “never forgave, and never forgot” how his people were shunned. Now he decides to do some shunning as well, and is given extra motivation to embrace his dark side by a raging case of “dragon sickness.”
(To be fair, in Tolkien’s Hobbit, Thorin had already embraced his dark side. He was never a fallen hero but rather prickly, greedy, and unfriendly to a fault. Only on his death bed does he realize that Bilbo’s hobbit simplicity and kindness might have been a better way to go. If more people were like you, he says at the end, the world would be a merrier place. He says this in the movie too, but it’s hard to buy it given how we’ve just spent umpteen hours glorifying in battle.)
Nevermind. Jackson’s Thorin is a tragic hero who still has a shot at redemption—and this is gloriously visualized by Jackson’s costume design team who first outfit the dwarves in gold-trimmed armor and, later when Thorin’s gold sickness has passed, restores them to their old clothes for a last heroic foray.
That gold armor is a great touch. It literally armors the dwarves against outsiders and, visually, keeps the notion of gold as an isolating force firmly lodged in our subconscious. It also plays into Thorin’s subsequent—and much talked about—catharsis in which he envisions himself literally swallowed by that previously spilled lake of gold.
About that scene: it’s gotten mixed reactions and is, let’s admit it, ludicrously on-the-nose. However, the shot that sets it up—an aerial shot of Smaug’s shadow swirling around Thorin as if the dwarf is at the center of a drain—is potent, beautiful, and classic Peter Jackson. Jackson does something here that is similar to how he dramatized Gollum’s double nature in Rings. Reading reviews before the movie, I thought this Thorin-epiphany scene would be more needless bloating, but it was actually, for me, a heart-stopping moment that cut right to the meat of Tolkien’s moral philosophy. Ah, I thought. There’s the Hobbit I know and love.
Speaking of love…Look: I’m not going to deny it: I’ve waited my whole life to see Smaug nuke Laketown. Not out of any militaristic sentiment, obviously, (Stephen Colbert is still down there!) but because film was created to dramatize such sequences. That opener is taut, well-acted, visually stunning, and continues to build on the gold = greed theme by having Smaug expire on top of Laketown’s nefarious “Master” (Stephen Fry – crushed while trying to flee on gondola of stolen gold). Jackson’s attention to detail is particularly fine here as he allows us to see Smaug’s inner fires sputter out like a candle before splashdown.
Other great sequences: that battle. Against all sanity: that battle. Perhaps I’d have hated it if I hadn’t binge read a bunch of reviews, but it worked for me, perhaps because 1) I felt it had a focus (everyone is either trying to kill or defend the dwarves), 2) unlike the excremental “barrel chase” sequence, it actually happened a lot like this in the book, or 3) the visual splendor beat me into submission. Is the whole thing over the top? It is. Are there a ton of characters running around that shouldn’t even be there? This is the problem with the entire trilogy. But I appreciate enthusiasm and I recognize it here. Beorn—anthropomorphizing into a bear as he dives from an eagle! Thranduil’s stag/moose orc beheading gag! (I feel consistently dreadful for the poor orcs in these films but I giggled maniacally at this one ), the whole Bolg/Azog/Thorin waterfall sequence in which that whole idiotic subplot finally pulls some weight and drops some bodies. (Azog floating under the ice, accompanied by Howard Shore’s unearthly score will haunt my dreams, CGI overkill or no.) Maybe my joy in the whole crazy mess was the subliminal realization that the whole experiment was finally over.
Because, ill advised or no—all the random threads are tied up in this film in a way that at least makes sense for the previous unfurling. We finally get rid of Bolg and Azog (the only two orcs who deserve decapitation). Tauriel plays out her tragic arc (the luminous Evageline Lilly is the best thing to happen to these movies). Legolas gets that date with Strider (why is Legolas even here???), and Lee Pace’s Thranduil finally becomes some kind of character, albeit a cold, steely, irritatingly-gorgeous bastard who is never getting invited to tea at Bag End. (I’d also like to give a shout out to the whole Dol Goldur sequence. As a geek who always wanted to see some of Tolkien’s appendices dramatized I actually liked this random time-wasting sequence—and I got the Christmas present of my life from the whole Galadriel/Sauron smackdown. Girl POWER motherfucker!!! I’ve never agreed with what Jackson did to Galadriel but if you’re going to go there—go there the fuck like this.)
And then of course, there’s Bilbo.
Ah yes. Bilbo.
Do we even remember, at this point, that these films are called The Hobbit? I felt Bilbo had more to do here, particularly as the moral center of things—but what has consistently boggled my mind over the last three years is how you can under-utilize the ridiculously gifted Martin Freeman in a trilogy in which he actually stars. I’ve never seen such a unique actor—one who says worlds with a simple “hmm.” Even here, when these films have done their damnedest to bury him in an avalanche of CGI and Orlando Bloom cameos, he still manages to steal your heart. That acorn seed. His confrontation with Thranduil. Finally: Lobelia and the spoons. In the end, the under-utilization of the hobbit himself and the sacrificing of Actual Moments from the Book ™ in order to create little more than a violent romp is the unforgivable sin that sinks these films.
I’m not in the camp that thinks Peter Jackson made The Hobbit out of dragon sickness. (I mean Jesus, have you seen the poor man in the making-of videos? That disheveled, haunted, “I’ve got three locations to manage and a small city to pack and unpack and teehee! what the hell is sleep?” guy does not strike me as some Lucas-level despot who is phoning it in.) That said, there are other maladies. In Jackson’s case, it is the proven fact that he has never met a troll he couldn’t bash with a mallet. This unfortunate predilection has been the driving factor of The Hobbit films which, to me, read as mostly elaborate, troll-bashing sets ups incidentally interspersed with some scenes resembling Tolkien’s. (By the end of the Desolation of Smaug, Legolas had decapitated so many orcs, I was hoping the White Council would call an intervention.)
This is tragic. Tolkien’s entire point in creating the character of the hobbit was to have someone represent the everyman, inevitably caught up by greater forces. At tale’s end, watching the battle unfold around him in clangor and chaos, Bilbo consciously decides he wants no part of any of it. He puts on the ring and sits it out. This is the “defining moment” of the Tolkien moral universe and it’s MIA here. Instead, Bilbo is knocked unconscious before he can make a cognizant choice.
It’s a fitting metaphor for the whole filmed-Hobbit experience. I have no doubt that thought, love, and enthusiasm went into these films. There’s real joy in a lot of the performances. There’s real craft in the costumes, set pieces, and swords. But at some point, the dazzle and the spectacle won out and carried everyone off on a dream of unearned greatness. The Hobbit is about a little man. It says something that these films were just too damn big.