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Film Review

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (and recap of the prior films)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Directed by Peter Jackson

This is an odd film to write about, especially as a fan of the material and of Jackson’s Middle Earth films, as I’m essentially recommending the film for all the wrong reasons. If, like me, you feel like you have many years of cumulative anticipation, and many, many hours of actual screen time, invested in the franchise, then it’s almost inconceivable to imagine not watching this, the last of the films. But the inherent problem is that this is a film that ably demonstrates its own unnecessariness.

Two years ago, the studio eagerly unveiled “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” with advance press screening in the films new high frame rate format – and many of the press articles covering the film focused as much on the technology as on the adaptation. I certainly wrote about both (as you can find at great length here), explaining the technical aspects of the production as well as discussing how inappropriate it seemed to plan to make three long films out of a relatively short, light children’s book.

Since then, in the Sacramento market at least, they haven’t shown the press the high frame rate versions of the films and, as I discussed last year, it was a pleasant shift in focus as the press coverage (mine included) moved away from the novelty of the format and towards the content itself. At that time I listed multiple concerns I had with the storytelling but also described my own enjoyment, on balance, of the film – despite still feeling that three installments was an unnecessary case of dollar-chasing bloat.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” ultimately proves that point. The title almost says it all – it’s a film about a battle, of five armies – with very little else going on. The entire film feels more like the last scene that should have come in the prior film. By comparison, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” the third in the “LOTR” trilogy, had far more going on in far more places and, as with the other films in that series, felt narratively substantial (as well as seemingly unwilling to ever end).

The worst aspect of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (the second “Hobbit” film) was that it had that “middle child” feeling of no beginning and no end. And it ended in a manner more reminiscent of a season-ending TV cliffhanger than of a film that’s supposed to have stand-alone enjoyment value. Smaug, the dragon who had been sitting on a mountain of buried gold in an under-mountain Dwarf city had just flown off to incinerate Laketown – and then: “Fade to black.”

So now, the new film picks up at that point with no pause or setup. And the dragon vs. town fight becomes a pre-title-sequence visual appetizer that feels relatively trivial, disjointed as it is from all the Smaug character build up a year ago. Whereas it would have been so much more satisfying without the episode break. Even more than the “LOTR” films, this is a series that will play better in a three-film marathon than in annual helpings. (I’m still waiting for someone to have the guts to show a multi-part series with weekly or monthly openings, rather than annual intervals.)

And that leaves the entirety of the rest of this film premised almost exclusively on the title battle, with very little narrative arc. Sure, a few people change their minds along the way and we see some distant skirmishes that showcase some of the characters, but it’s primarily two more hours of assorted groups fighting over the unguarded treasure or simply fighting those who are fighting over the unguarded treasure. This doesn’t feel like a whole film – it feels like a final scene of a film, albeit a really long one.

In that sense, this third film is what makes the original two-film plan seem to make sense. Even that seemed at one point to be a lot of running time for so little material (compared to “LOTR” at least), but I think it could have resulted in a very satisfying two-part experience. Instead, it feels like we held our collective breath for a whole extra year just to get what could have been the end of last year’s film.

That sense is made worse by lingering scenes that seem padded as though trying to justify this third installment, and scenes that seem to exist as a nod towards the “LOTR” films (and in a way that the book didn’t do, given that it was written first with no plans for anything to follow it). This already feels like an extended director’s cut – and yet, presumably, there’s even more of that to come on disk.

Visually, the film is very appealing – it looks good and it’s certainly action packed. But I couldn’t ever shake the overwhelming feeling that all I was getting felt like we’d collectively fast-forwarded to the final game of a sports movie.

Which brings me back to my opening point: If you like these films and material as much as I do, you absolutely have to see this just for closure’s sake. But, ideally, you would have achieved that closure a year ago with a far greater sense of narrative urgency and overall satisfaction.

It’s uncertain if we’ll ever get any more Middle Earth films. So far, at least, the estate has retained all film rights to the rest of Tolkien’s work. But I still suspect that somewhere there’s a studio executive attempting to figure out how to cut them into the smallest pieces possible.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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