Director Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth ends with this week’s release of “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies.” Thank heavens North Korea didn’t decide to suppress it! We’d have been left with an awful cliffhanger from the end of the previous film, with the invincible dragon Smaug en route to dispense fiery vengeance across a floating town full of innocent fishermen.
It was an interesting change of pace to walk away from the day’s news about a totalitarian dictatorship successfully censoring American cinema – with scarcely a peep of protest from the titanic mega-government of the United States, endowed with trillions of tax dollars to protect its citizens and their enterprises – and slip into the theater to watch a simple tale of heroic resistance against powerful, all-consuming darkness. It’s a good thing the Dark Lord Sauron didn’t think to conquer Gondor in “The Lord of the Rings” by exposing the private correspondence of its court and embarrassing them into submission.
Leaving the events of this world behind to focus on those of Middle Earth, the new “Hobbit” film has the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessors. The production values are tremendous, the acting is great across the board, and it has moments of great emotional resonance and breathtaking beauty, but it’s also too long, too padded, and trying to hard to jack itself into the mythology of its illustrious predecessor trilogy. The “Hobbit” movies have always worked best when left alone to tell their own story, without dumping a basket full of “Lord of the Rings” Easter eggs upon the audience.
There’s even a bit of dialogue in the final film where Gandalf tries to put the eponymous Battle of Five Armies into the context of the war that won’t be coming for decades, musing that the dwarf city of Erebor is too strategically important to allow it to fall into the hands of the orcs, and their Dark Master Who Was Way Too Obviously Who He Was. With the events of the Hobbit trilogy in mind, some of those wonderful early scenes of sussing out the return of Sauron in “The Fellowship of the Ring” make Gandalf look like he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. Why was anyone in the Middle Earth mystical power elite even slightly surprised about the return of the supposedly vanquished shadow they literally went hand-to-hand with, decades previously?
(Having said that, the canonically dubious smackdown with some returning villains from LOTR is a great sequence that nicely emphasizes just how formidable Gandalf and his immortal team of Middle Earth Super Friends are, while also maintaining the melancholy Tolkien theme of great powers passing into history as an age of legends concludes. Some of the “Hobbit” series feels like Tolkien fanfic, but it’s pretty good fanfic.)
It’s tough for any story to live and breathe when it exists entirely in the context of a greater tale already known to audiences. I wonder what the “Hobbit” movies would have been like if they had been filmed first. It’s also pretty clear that this was a two-film story, not a trilogy. The padding is most evident not in the additional material – which suffers from having not been written by J.R.R. Tolkien, but is otherwise competently handled – but in the way even the best set-pieces go on for a bit too long. The climax of each film, in particular, lumbers past the point where sharp editing could have shaved off a few minutes and turned them into classic scenes. Encounters such as the dwarf battle against Smaug in the second film, or the series of duels at the end of “Battle of Five Armies,” go on long enough to where they feel like videogame boss battles rather than movie scenes.
It doesn’t help that the excessive use of CGI makes them look like videogames. There was plenty of CGI in “Lord of the Rings” too, but while it might have been technically less sophisticated than what Jackson can do with another decade of software development on his hard drives, it was mixed with enough practical work to make everything feel more solid and real. There are some terrific beats in the epic battles and swashbuckling showdowns of the last “Five Armies” reel that would have been truly astounding if more of the effects work had been practical; knowing that it’s all just code hammered out in rendering computers can’t help draining a bit of the magic away.
Those quibbles aside, “Battle of Five Armies” is a fine conclusion to the “Hobbit” run, with a satisfying payoff for every plot thread, a dash of tragedy that gives the child-oriented source material some dramatic weight, and a great rambunctious climax that shows off Middle Earth as an inviting fantasy playground people will want to visit again. Alas, there are no more tales to tell, a finality this movie works to drive home despite the fact that it ends with a segue into the beginning of the series we watched a decade ago. “Fellowship of the Ring” was very graceful in the way it implied the rich backstory of Bilbo Baggins with just a few brief Ian Holm scenes; those scenes will work even better now that Martin Freeman has added so much with his portrayal of Bilbo in his adventuring days. I could have done with a bit more Bilbo in the finale; he’s thrust aside a bit too brusquely to let the Great and Mighty play out their tale of heroism and tragedy. I’d also have liked a bit more of a character-based motivation for the tragedy, instead of leaning on malevolent mystical influences. Then again, it’s a haunting bit of irony that Bilbo is carrying the mother of all malevolent mystical influences in his pocket, and nobody gets it yet. Watching Freeman’s warm, wise, and witty portrayal enhances the horror of what the One Ring will do to him; the already effective scene in “Fellowship” where lust for the Precious briefly transforms him into an outright monster will hit even harder.
But we know all about what the corruption of power does to people back here in the real world, don’t we? We know what happens when people rationalize oath-breaking and retreating from the challenge of evil.