Dragons, battles and Bilbo... It's time to say goodbye to The Hobbit
Peter Jackson's near twenty-year odyssey through Middle Earth finally comes to an end with the last Hobbit film.When the concluding part of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was released back at the end of 2003 the anticipation was palpable. The two previous films had generated almost universally good reviews, huge box office and a hat-full of Oscar nominations. So as the The Return of the King arrived in cinemas it became only the second film after Titanic to break the $1 billion dollar barrier at the worldwide box office. It also became the first fantasy film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, ultimately taking home eleven Oscars and equalling the record jointly held by Titanic and Ben Hur. What a difference eleven years makes. This time around cinema goers seem exhausted rather than elated; perhaps just glad that Jackson has finished with his bloated adaptation of The Hobbit.Despite the same creative team and many of the same actors, the new films just haven't earned the same praise or popularity that the original Middle Earth trilogy enjoyed. The reviews have been generally mediocre, the box office a disappointment and the first two films have received almost no recognition from the Academy - not even in the technical categories. There's no doubt that The Hobbit's long journey to the screen didn't help matters; tied up as it was in legal wrangles. The decision to shoot in digital 3D and at 48fps created a certain amount of animosity before people had seen a single scene and horror once they had. Jackson's empire building in the Southern hemisphere probably didn't win him any finds in Hollywood either; no longer the plucky Kiwi but a direct competitor.
However it was the decision to turn a 300 page children's book into three, three hour movies that really upset much of the cinema going public. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, wasn't affected as much by this decision and stayed reasonably close to the book, even if it did suffer from awkward shifts in tone. However the need to create an entire second film, in the shape of The Desolation of Smaug, resulted in a great deal of new material being created to pad out the running time. The film also ended on a cliff-hanger rather than showing Smaug's attack on Lake Town; a decision that seems even stranger when those events are essentially cleared up before the main title of the third film has appeared on screen.
Which brings us to The Battle of the Five Armies, which itself was subject to a last minute title change after everyone realised that the original title - There and Back Again - didn't make a lot of sense and was frankly a bit rubbish. The final film certainly manages to achieve a more even tone, going much darker and feeling more like the Lord of the Rings trilogy than the other two films. There are specific scenes that set up the events to follow and the film culminates in a huge battle in much the same way as The Return of the King. There are familiar characters, plenty of action, some impressive effects and production design, and even a few nods to the original Middle Earth movies; so why does it ultimately feel unsatisfying?
There are two simple answers to that question. Firstly despite the notoriously long running times of these films, The Battle of the Five Armies is by far the shortest at 'only' 144 minutes. It might seem strange but it could have done with being a bit longer. The final third in particular feels very truncated and if you blink you're liable to miss the appearance of both Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt). There are plenty of loose ends that are just left hanging and the majority of the dwarves barely get a look in. It's a safe bet that when the inevitable extended edition arrives on Blu-ray next November, there will be a good thirty plus minutes of additional footage.
The other big problem is the excessive use of computer generated images throughout all three films, but especially this last chapter. It would appear that Jackson has fallen into the same trap as George Lucas and relies more and more on CGI to make up for poor writing, directing and pacing. It seems incredible that despite the advances in technology, the effects in The Hobbit films actually appear less effective than those in the Lord of the Rings movies. Those films may have used CGI as well but they did so in combination with a number of other effects techniques that gave the battle scenes a visceral and realistic tone. There are just too many rows of CGI soldiers all moving at the same time or characters jumping around with a total disregard for gravity.
Lost in an orgy of CGI, the final Hobbit film fails to deliver the emotional beats that made The Return of the King so good.Legolas (Orlando Bloom) suffers from this the most and you wonder if he even bothered to turn up to the shoot because so much of his performance appears to be animated. Pretty much everyone that can, returns for one last bow so you get Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) all ganging up on Sauron (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch who's on double duties having voiced Smaug the dragon as well). You even get Ian Holm as the older Bilbo in a nice little bookend scene that leads directly into the same scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, only seen from a different perspective. However the more the filmmakers try and remind you of the original trilogy, the less these new movies feel like the Lord of the Rings.
The story simply lacks the gravitas and emotional weight of those earlier films and so when Bilbo says goodbye to the remaining Dwarves, it feels strangely lacking despite the music's efforts to wring a tear out of you. The romantic subplot between the Elf maiden Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) seems especially forced and you just don't buy it for a second. However that's not to say there aren't some good moments in the film. The relationship between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the Dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) is very good; whilst Ian McKellan's Gandalf is always worth watching. The arrival of Billy Connolly as the Dwarf Dain also livens things up a bit, even if he does look silly riding on a big war pig.
There seems to be an excess of characters riding inappropriate animals, from the Orcs on their Wargs to Thranduil (Lee Pace) on his giant Elk and Thorin and company riding what appear to be huge mountain goats. Frankly it just looks silly and takes you out of the film; although the arrival of gigantic worms will have you wondering if you're not suddenly watching a new film version of Dune. The film often appears over-designed, as if they just didn't know when to stop and at times the film proves that you really can have too much of a good thing.
In the end Peter Jackson's 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach doesn't really work; ultimately leaving you pummelled into submission and just thankful that you've reached the conclusion. It isn't finished of course, there's still the extended edition to come and you can bet some kind of super boxset of all six films will come out eventually with added footage. However, if you're a fan you'll love it and if you're not it's unlikely this film is going to change your mind. Was it all worth it? That's hard to say but at a reported cost of nearly $1 billion they certainly spared no expense!
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