20 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Review

My relationship with The Hobbit films has been a bit strenuous to say the least. Whilst I loved An Unexpected Journey, I was profoundly disappointed by Desolation of Smaug. Now we come to not only the end of The Hobbit series but also the end of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth films and I have to say, once again I walked out of the cinema disappointed.
The plot of the film continues immediately where the second film left off, with Smaug attacking Laketown before getting killed by Bard. After that, there are issues regarding what to do with the treasure in Erebor with Thorin getting dragon sickness, focusing on preserving the treasure and not willing to part with a single piece of this, with potential conflict being set up because of this. At the same time, an army of Orcs are heading towards Erebor to claim it for Sauron and use it as a base to capture all of Middle Earth. There are a lot of interesting ideas going on in this film regarding the use of Erebor as a strategic area and how Thorin is becoming more and more like Smaug, choosing to fight the armies of men and elves rather than give up any of the gold, but these interesting ideas get tossed aside halfway through with the arrival of the Orcs, with the majority of the film focusing on the titular battle. As a result, aside from Thorin and, at some points, Thranduil and Tauriel, there is very little character development. Even Bilbo doesn't do much, only contributing to the plot on a large scale once, when he takes the Arkenstone to Thranduil and Bard to try and stop the conflict. This continues a major complaint I had with the first film and the reason why I think the first film is easily the best, that being that in a film series based on The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is not the focus, Thorin is. Only in the first film is Bilbo the focus, which gave that film a clear narrative arc and emotional weight regarding Bilbo discovering his courage and whether or not the dwarves will accept Bilbo as a member of the company. From the second film, Thorin has been the focus, with Bilbo becoming more of a background character and, whilst Thorin's story is interesting, it is not what the focus of the films should be on. This leads into another problem I have with the series, I don't think it should have been a trilogy. There are so many moments in the series that could have been cut out with no impact on the plot, all the scenes with the Master of Laketown, the scenes with Beorn, about half of the titular battle etc. Whilst there are some additions that really work, most notably the additional character development for Bard and showing Gandalf's facing the Necromancer, most of the additions feel pointless. I also still feel that the opening of this film could very easily have been placed at the ending of the last film with nothing being lost from this film, but would add a sense of closure to the second one. Going back to the issue of character development, one issue that has been carried over from the book is the lack of character development for the dwarves other than Thorin. Whilst the films add more character development for Kili, half of the dwarves could very easily have been cut out and nothing would have been lost. One of the things that I thought the film would do would be to tie in this series with Lord of the Rings, and in the few scenes where it does that it's great, and I thought the ending was brilliantly handled but so much more could have been done with it being clear that Jackson cut a lot of stuff out. I'm interested to see what additional scenes will be on the extended edition to tie this in to Lord of the Rings.

The acting in the series continues to be strong though. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Aidan Turner, Ken Stott and Graham McTavish continue their strong work, whilst Benedict Cumberbatch, James Nesbitt, Stephen Fry and the other actors who play the dwarves don't really have much to do. There are also memorable appearances from Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee in a short but fun scene and there's also a fun performance from Billy Connolly. A weak link is seen in Ryan Gage as Alfrid, who is just a second rate Grima Wormtongue, whilst he does have a few funny moments, he feels completely out of place in this film. Out of the cast, the best work is done by Richard Armitage, who brilliantly shows Thorin's descent into madness brought on by greed, with great work done in the audio department in making his voice sound more like Smaug as the film went on. The highlight of this is when he sees Bilbo with an acorn with him going from anger thinking that Bilbo has the Arkenstone to kind and gentle when he sees the acorn and why Bilbo has kept it from Beorn's garden turning to rage when he finds out about the arrival of the people from Laketown, it's a brilliant performance from Armitage.

The film also continues the strong technical aspect of the other Middle Earth films. The production design, make-up, costumes and music are all excellent and Jackson directs all the action scenes brilliantly. The designs of the creatures are also excellent, with one creature in particular looking like in came from the Spider Pit in Jackson's King Kong remake, in a good way as it was a brilliant and horrific design. There is an issue I have with the technical side though and that's in the effects. The overuse of CG has been problematic throughout the series as it doesn't actually look that good. Granted there are some times when it works really well, most notably the opening scene with Smaug and the scene with the Ringwraiths but most of the time it is so obviously CG and greenscreen that I was distracted. The main offender in this regard is the CG for the orcs. In Lord of the Rings, every orc was done with prosthetics and make-up and they all looked incredible. Here, every single one is CG. This will make it so the film does not hold up a few years down the line, hell I don't think it'll hold up a few months from now. Again, when the CG is good, it's incredible but most of the time it looks so fake. The battle scenes meanwhile are incredibly well directed and engaging but they symbolise the excess of the series. There are way too many action scenes spaced together too closely and this got boring for me after a while. There are some incredible individual moments, such as the start of the battle with the elves jumping over the dwarves and the battle pigs and goats were enjoyably ridiculous but there are some moments that are incredibly stupid, and not in a good way, with a scene with Legolas being the main offender, feeling more like a bit from the Lego Hobbit game. Still, the vast majority of the film on a technical level is incredible.

Overall, The Hobbit series is one of two big 'what ifs:' what if it had been two films and what if it had been directed by Guillermo Del Toro as originally intended. We'll probably never find out how it would have turned out in those conditions and, whilst it was great to see Peter Jackson take the Middle Earth films all the way to their conclusion, The Hobbit series cannot help to be disappointing in comparison to Lord of the Rings and this film, more than Desolation of Smaug symbolises why. A lack of character development and a focus on spectacle rather than storytelling which prevented these films, with the exception of An Unexpected Journey, from living up to Lord of the Rings.

My Rating: 3.5/5

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