The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 23 December 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Director: Peter Jackson
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), New Line Cinema, WingNut Films
Released: 12 December 2014

Seven years ago it was announced that Peter Jackson would oversee a revival of the Tolkien cinematic world as a two-part film series, with new director Guillermo del Toro on board. A drawn-out and difficult production path followed with Jackson eventually resuming director duties, and ultimately assembling three films instead of two. With this new film's release the journey through Middle Earth is again concluded. Perhaps what is first notable is just how short it is compared to the other Hobbit films, and indeed the original 'Rings' entries. This however seems appropriate as much of the early exposition and scene setting was done in 'An Unexpected Journey' and 'The Desolation of Smaug'. This film focuses a lot more on all-out action, choosing to embellish greatly on certain passages of the Hobbit novel and almost ignore others. The prior set-up and expansion of various subplots in the earlier films needed closure, with somewhat mixed results achieved here. Ultimately the key for viewers is one of expectation - do they want a strong challenger to multi-Oscar-winner 'Return of the King' or do they want something that works as a fun and mostly undemanding action epic?

One major aspect of 'Desolation' was its choice to have a huge unresolved ending. At the time I was rather unsure if this was wise of the creative team. With Smaug central to that film's plot, it felt logical for his story to be resolved. However the execution of his cruel attack on Lake-town, in which there is little chance of escape for the exposed citizens, is a wonderful set piece. I did wonder if the dragon would get anything to say, as he constitutes an overpowering source of visual terror - leaving the dramatic duties to the humans and elves threatened. Thankfully we do get reminded of Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of supreme villainy. His hubris, arrogance and complete lack of fear manages to come across as rather impressive and menacing. This also ensures that his final fate works resoundingly well; the effect used to show he has been 'extinguished' is perfect. I did find the shoe-horning of Bard's son into the killer arrow climax a bit self-indulgent of the movie, but not jarringly so.

For those wondering if Stephen Fry's slimy Master of Lake-town will get some form of punishment for his lack of morals and flagrant disregard for his people, there is a very satisfying answer. It also serves as a strong modern-day retelling of a classic cautionary tale on greed. Less welcome however is the consequent focus on the Master's surviving servant Alfrid. Jackson has used comic relief well beforehand in his movies, with even some of the Orcs and Goblins being effective, as well as the fascinating Gollum. This annoyingly spineless character, who keeps surviving against the odds, instead provides one lead balloon joke after another. And this does indicate that like its predecessors, this Hobbit film has a somewhat uneven tone to it for much of its running time. Admittedly this is a problem quite common in action cinema, but one that never seemed noticeable with the classic original trilogy.

Thankfully the actual plot is decent. Although films' one and two had somewhat pedestrian middle acts, here I enjoyed the sections that preceded any of the battle sequences. Smaug is gone but trouble persists as the humans, dwarves and elves squabble over the many riches left in Erebor now that its giant custodian is vanquished. The way in which the dwarves virtually barricade themselves, just as Lake-town's refugees side with the Elves against Thorin's small company is really quite suspenseful. This development manages to later flow into the loud battle sequences such that emotional investment pays off and the film is comfortably coherent.

Those wondering if the White Council storyline from the first film ends up going anywhere should be satisfied enough with developments here. There is a rather terrifying moment where Sauron/ The Necromancer is unquestionably revealed to be back, and the reactions of the various elves and wizards is spellbinding. I did dislike the CGI overload of the Ringwraiths, who seem to exist in transitional form like their master. They were a great component of the original trilogy - in 'Fellowship' especially - but feel contrived here and lack their previous menace. It also is very distracting to see Saruman use some kickboxing skills, when his character always relied on sheer power of magical ability and persuasiveness.

I gained great satisfaction from the psychological themes presented by the dwarves being helpless to stop Thorin from falling victim to powerful vanity, narcissism and irrationality. Once again titular Hobbit Bilbo is underused, but at least he is crucial in making sure that the forces of good stop squabbling in time to face the fearsome hordes of the dread Necromancer. Gandalf also plays his mediator part to perfection, the viewer being able to trust in Ian McKellen's gravitas.

Acting from all the returning actors from the original trilogy is indeed strong and assured, and the cast introduced for this trilogy mostly is generally equally strong. Although it is disappointing that Bilbo is sidelined yet again, this does not stop Martin Freeman from being note-perfect, and at least the equal of Ian Holm in the role. Freeman is one actor who has an effortless dimension to his technique but somehow never appears to be lazy in the process. I have also enjoyed the charisma of Richard Armitage's Thorin; making the most of his disturbing character arc, which eventually focused on resounding bravery despite terrifying odds. Luke Evans and Lee Pace really excel in the roles of Bard and Thranduil, with markedly different styles of asserting authority over their respective forces..

I did find the final showdown between chief Orc Azog and Thorin to be a curate's egg. The contrast of a man-o-mano fight with the bewildering battle of five armies is welcome, but it feels rather a mismatch such is Azog's brutal power. Later on the viewer is confused over the extent of Orc biology, with no real foundation to set things up, as a contrived twist sees Thorin letting his guard down to devastating effect. Luckily the final moments - with Bilbo utterly helpless to save the Dwarf king, and their mutual re-affirmation that they are true friends in spite of all their obvious differences - are terrific and avoid the trap of being maudlin.

Less successful though are the final touches to the Legolas/ Tauriel/ Kili love triangle. I got involved more with this new storyline than quite a few Tolkien fans, but had hoped it would build on the bones presented in 'Desolation'. Instead we get a procession of clich├ęs, including a predictable saving of one another's' lives. Kili recieves no kinder a fate in this movie than he did in the source material, and likewise his brother Fili - who surely deserved more of a story arc himself.
There is some glimmer of interest earlier on when Thranduil briefly seems to consider killing Tauriel and even his own son Legolas, but it gets overwhelmed by the multitude of battles and hand-to-hand combats raging on at the same time. Evangeline Lilly still engaged me as the graceful and empathic Tauriel, and Aidan Turner's Kili is serviceable enough. Orlando Bloom is not a bad actor in anyway, but in keeping with the original 'Rings' trilogy Legolas is far more impressive in the heat of battle than he is when stationary and speaking.

The various field battles that justify the film's title constitute entertainment that should stir the heartbeats of any reasonable audience member. There is no chance of really getting worn down as there is so much variety and good choreography distinguishing all the different participants involved in combat. I was waiting with bated breath for the emergence of Beorn in the battle - a character that registered firmly with me when I read the original book when young. Yet he is barely featured in this theatrical cut, which seems a waste. The concept of a shape shifting man/bear is as fascinating now as ever and a complement to the Warg element concept found in TV smash 'Game of Thrones'. More reassuringly, the use of the Eagles is once again magical, as they come in to help conclude the battle in the interests of the forces of good.

And by the time Bilbo and Gandalf do return to the Shire, the film has not taken too long to wrap matters up. It may still seem a bit excessive to some moviegoers, but anyone who recalls the twenty minute 'Rings' ending that broke new ground for all the wrong reasons back in 2003 need not worry about a repeat. A nice bit of continuity features as Bilbo has to deal with an auction of all his possessions left behind - his being assumed dead due to his long absence. There is also an excellent transition back to the older incarnation of Bilbo, and the opening of Fellowship is nostalgically revisited without feeling self-aggrandising.

Overall 'Battle' is a solid enough winter blockbuster, which should satisfy many fans of Middle Earth and the fantasy/action film genre. It may be weakened by being a prequel to a much more compelling and thematically rich story, and furthermore some characters fates are known already. But it is definitely worth seeing, if under the proviso that newcomers should make the effort to see parts one and two first, as there is no time spent on convenient flashbacks or verbal reminders. The biggest question left now is, will there be any new live action films based on JRR Tolkien's universe made in years or decades to come?

FILTER: - The Hobbit - Film

The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 12 February 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Director: Peter Jackson
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), New Line Cinema, WingNut Films
Released: 13 December 2013
With the release of this middle chapter, Peter Jackson's much anticipated revisit to Middle Earth gathers steam. Without any doubt this is a much more assured effort and should please a greater cross-section of faithful fans and casual moviegoers alike. The experiment of a different frame rate has been altered to something more traditional following enough of a negative response from viewers. Otherwise the presentation is of a rich and lively nature, which is reflected by a far superior sense of pace than was the case in Part One. Although songs sung by Thorin's company are pleasant enough in media like radio or stage, for the purposes of an action adventure film their absence this time round is arguably for the best.

There is some material however which probably is dispensable for the film to make sense and yet it is still enjoyable enough that the progression from opening to middle and finale is not hindered too much. I personally didn't have the temptation to keep checking the time such was my immersion in the story - the mark of a cinema experience which exceeded expectations.

I felt that the character development here was also much improved, even in the case of minor or completely new characters that did not feature in the original book. Smaug himself was worth the build-up and acts as a great central villain. The dragon who has commandeered the Lonely Mountain and was only teased as a presence in 'Unexpected Journey' is suitably portrayed as a beast of greediness and arrogance, but also wit and perceptiveness. One embellishment that I particularly liked from Walsh and Boyens' script was Stephen Fry's 'Master of Laketown' - he is in his own way as uncaring and selfish as the dragon, but knows when to ride with popular opinion. One of the very best scenes not involving wall to wall action involves Thorin's rousing speech as the dwarves confirm their intent to set off on their seemingly impossible mission of liberation and restitution.

However there are still teething problems. Martin Freeman's winning portrayal of Bilbo Baggins continues to come across as a supporting role, despite what one would expect from the title. With so much added to the original and comparatively simple story, there is a consequential element of various stars vying for the audience's attention. In the case of the minor roles and even the elves this is fine, but I still left the cinema struggling to discern hard-or-fast character traits for the majority of Thorin's dwarf company. This may simply be a knock-on effect from the source material - especially when it is compared to the 'Rings' trilogy. 'Fellowship' was nigh on perfect in its depiction of species and individual character for the nine companions. Given such high standards, I can partly forgive Jackson and his team for being a little lacklustre here.

Another issue is that, despite his striking presence on the poster, Gandalf is barely featured. He is almost a 'gate-keeper' - letting the dwarves know what he expects from them and trusting them to come through unscratched. On one hand it is a narrative necessity to demonstrate that the dwarves and Bilbo can deal with danger by themselves, but it does mean that the most iconic of Middle-Earth characters is not utilised to full capacity. 'The Two Towers' was very selective in its use of Gandalf, but very effective at the same time. 'Desolation' just does not quite pull off the same trick. Ian McKellen however does not let this situation affect his performance, and reliably builds upon all his good work of yesteryear. I am surely not alone in regarding the 'grey' wizard as a firm presence in contemporary pop culture.

Some viewers and critics believe Jackson continues to over-egg his Middle Earth pudding with endless fighting and bluster. And yes, there is still a sense at times that a fight scene could work better with a minute or two taken out. Yet the action's choreography, quick dialogue and variety of jeopardy is still impressive and would not even be attempted by a less ambitious and creative director. Few fans of the Lord of the Rings have forgotten Shelob - a particularly ugly and cruel arachnid. Depending on whether you want a worthy opponent to Bilbo and his comrades or just a sharp little jolt, then the set piece with the spiders in Mirkwood should satisfy accordingly. This action co-incidentally ends up in a plot development that focuses heavily on the Mirkwood elves, who played a very brief role in a middle chapter of the book.

One of these elves is rather familiar, in the form of Legolas, but the other two of note are perhaps more intriguing - namely Thranduil and Tauriel. Both of these respective newcomers held my attention and wanted me to know more about their world and their overall place in Middle Earth. Tauriel is every bit as beautiful as her fellow elf Arwen, but benefited from both more screen time for this particular film and a convincing range of emotions from actress Evangeline Lilly. Thranduil comes across as a stern figure, yet one who guards a well of compassion - much the same as his counterpart in Elrond. He clearly believes Tauriel should be involved with a valorous elf such as Legolas, but her interest in the maverick dwarf Kili serves to frustrate this conventional attitude. Lee Pace may be relatively young, especially in comparison to Hugo Weaving, yet has the appropriate gravitas for this performance.

Many seem to feel this romantic dynamic of dwarf has been incorporated for the sake of filmgoers who normally see rom-coms or dramas instead of fantasy. Whilst perhaps true, I did enjoy the work of the actors concerned, and it was a different change of pace from that employed in 'An Unexpected Journey' last winter. This somewhat controversial love triangle is kick-started at the same time that Bilbo is given a chance to use his cunning and stealth to help his comrades - and the most memorable outdoor action scene is unleashed upon the viewer.

The much talked about barrel scene is verging on the ludicrous at times - showing some bold ignorance of physics and making the dwarves and elves' anticipation of imminent danger rather convenient. Yet I didn't mind this bit of light-heartedness as the film's story was being progressed efficiently at the same time. It is somewhat interesting that the dwarves' audacious escape from their elfish captors is combined with the renewed hunt by the orcs and that the elves play more than their part in aiding the dwarves' survival. Later action scenes such as Gandalf's clash with the Necromancer and the Mirkwood elves' showdown against orcs in Laketown are perhaps more disposable, but are still watchable enough at the time.

For those coming to the first Hobbit film without seeing the earlier films or reading Tolkien's books, some of the returning characters would have been some what baffling and lacking in context - such as Galadriel and Saruman. There is a bit less of that in this film, although Legolas' sudden addition to the story may upset some purists. It is obvious why Jackson chose to re-employ Orlando Bloom as the near invincible and lightning-fast archer - he has been in several big franchises and is a household name. Of course some suspension of disbelief over his appearance contradicting the chronology of events is inevitable. This could have been a similar issue as well in the first Hobbit film with Bilbo and Frodo, but their limited screen time allowed for convincing enough de-aging to be featured.

Perhaps more disappointing is the re-appearance of Radagast, as played by Sylvester McCoy. This good wizard took up a portion of 'Unexpected Journey', but here is almost a-blink-and-miss element. I appreciate Jackson's love for Doctor Who, and McCoy is certainly the most wizard like of all the Doctors, but he just isn't relevant to the story even with all the extra sub-plots employed to make this story a trilogy.

So having briefly praised Smaug the character earlier on, what more can I add? Well this is a triumphant example of source material, script, voice acting and digital effects flowing together beautifully. Benedict Cumberbatch could easily have taken a live action role and been a great asset but he is still more than effective as this gigantic adversary for the film's heroes. Perhaps the dynamic of Steven Moffat's Dr Watson and Sherlock squaring off in another genre provided an extra intangible that makes these scenes work so well. Or perhaps Jackson's casting team are just very solid. There is a rather noticeable change to the original Smaug passages as the dwarves that venture to Erebor are much more proactive in doing all they can to make life uncomfortable for their enemy. This is such a mismatch that the viewer is almost feeling the dragon's glee at his multitude of options to snuff out the 'threat' at hand. However readers of the book will know just how relevant is the saying - 'pride comes before a fall'. There are echoes of the 'Fellowship' Moria sequence in this finale which are quite effective. Likewise the closing few minutes are full of suspense as an audacious plan which could only be pulled off by skilled dwarves ends up with a somewhat different outcome.

So I will finish where I started. This is a fine film to tide one over during a bleak mid-winter. As all the obligatory introductions and exposition have been done, Part Two dives straight in with a real sense of pace - much like 'The Two Towers' did over ten years before. The open ending is perhaps a little cruel on the viewer but it will hopefully lead to a finale which continues to improve on the story so far, and surprise both the hardened fantasy aficionado and the more easygoing movie lover.

FILTER: - The Hobbit - Film