Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review - "The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies" by David Pretty

For better or for worse, Peter Jackson's vision of The Hobbit is finally complete. And make no mistake about it, this is most assuredly the New Zealand director's take on the venerable children's fantasy yarn since it bears about as much resemblance to Tolkien's original text as Olive Garden does to an Italian restaurant.

Smaug the dragon (voiced by prerequisite presence Benedict Cumberbatch) has been evicted from his squatters lair in Erebor thanks to a gutsy extermination effort by the displaced dwarves. The olde wyrm decides to punish their temerity by turning the nearby hamlet of Laketown into a giant hibachi. This concludes with a fateful encounter with the dauntless and dead-eyed Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans).

With Smaug out of the picture the new dwarven King Thorin Oakenshield decides to celebrate by diving Scrooge McDuck-style into the freshly-liberated treasure horde. As a result he begins to suffer from "dragon sickness", a corrupting influence left over from Smaug's extended proximity to the gold. Overcome by greed and paranoia, Thorin barricades the front gates of Erebor like the Middle Earth version of Cliven Bundy.

And his paranoia may very well be justified. The Elves, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace) have arrived en masse to recover their heirlooms which were stolen by Smaug over the years. The survivors of Laketown also come a-knockin', looking to file a dragon fire insurance claim. Even worse: hordes of orcs are converging on the relatively undefended stronghold, demanding their own piece of the action.

The best thing I can say about The Battle Of Five Armies is that all the irrelevant mush that Jackson and his screenwriters have dragged into the story are all action beats this time out. Well, most of it is anyway. For example, the subplot featuring the Wormtongue-esque Alfred Lickspittle (Ryan Gage) is completely superfluous but at least Gage is fun to watch. Equally superfluous is the color-by-numbers non-existent love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili the hawt dwarf (Aiden Turner).

At this stage, Jackson isn't even trying to replicate the tone of Tolkien's classic kid's adventure book. It's been re-purposed to conform with every single other modern blockbuster: in other words it's a dark, noisy and hideously violent action movie. There's absolutely no sense of adventure, discovery or wonder, just a constantly-escalating parade of digital spectacles. And that's really a bloody shame because The Hobbit should have been a training wheels version of Lord of the Rings for kids: something short, sweet, lighthearted, funny and occasionally scary but maybe not too scary. Instead we get an incessant bombardment of sound and fury signifying Jackson shouting "Are you not entertained?!?" to the widest theater-going demographic possible.

Moments of insight, emotion, tranquility and reflection are few and far between. Sadly I'm at my happiest when the dwarves are trucking along a real mountain ridge, Gandalf is galloping across the New Zealand countryside or Bilbo is crossing the threshold of the Shire. Many of the practical sets, including the dwarven realm of Erebor, the charred and ruined city of Dale and the desolate peak of Dol Guldur showcase a fine attention to detail, but most of the digital backgrounds and establishing shots look like cut scenes from Diablo III.

I also wish that the dwarves looked more rough n' tumble, like Gimli did in Lord of the Rings. It's bad enough that Legolas and Thranduil are under so many freakin' filters that they look like plastic, pointy-eared versions of Bruce Jenner but the dwarves are equally well-coiffed. When you superimpose one of these flawless, ruddy, rubbery ("ruddery?")-looking bastards in the foreground of an equally fraudulent digital background I feel as if I'm watching some sort of competent-looking fan film. For example, when Scottish comedian Billy Connolly shows up as Dáin all I could think of is how much better Varric from Dragon Age: Inquisition looks.

Jackson makes amends somewhat by serving up some of the trippiest moments of the entire Middle Earth saga. When the White Council featuring Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) suddenly bomb in like the Super Friends to confront the embryonic Ring Wraiths, you'll swear that you just popped a tab of brown acid instead of a Milk Dud. After witnessing the incongruous sight of 92-year-old Christopher Lee kicking ass and taking names like Jackie Chan in a Drunken Master movie you'll also get a load of Galadriel foreshadowing her Fellowship freak-out by going full Ozymandias on the re-constituted Lidless Eye. By the time you watch Thorin sinking into Smaug's lake of gold like a deleted scene from The Lawnmower Man you'll begin to wonder if Jackson is just trying pay homage to his earlier, infinitely more interesting low-budget horror movie career.

But for every WTF?!? moment of  there are three instances of eye-rolling idiocy, most of which involve *surprise, surprise*, I mean Legolas. I was willing to accept his patented light-as-air arm sweep / arrow in the skull bat-glider scene, but when he steers a troll around with a cranium-embedded sword and then runs up a series of falling bricks like Bugs Bunny I audibly shouted "Check, please!" in the theater. Honestly, just because the movie looks like a cartoon does the action hafta go all Looney Tunes on us as well?

But I can't criticize all of the spectacle. Smaug's attack on Laketown is harrowing and intense. The titular Five Army fracas is an epic scrum of humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, goblins, giant bats, and sandworms who apparently took the wrong turn on their way to Arrakis. But even the best-visualized action scenes get boring after awhile, especially if you've been given so little reason to identify with the characters who are supposedly in peril. The reason we cared so much for Frodo and Sam in the Rings trilogy is because we spent so much time with them and suffered as they did. Here Bilbo is just trying to keep his head down as a bunch of greedy assholes get into a very stabby rugby match over a pile of gold.

It's bad enough that the characters are under-written but the action scenes drag on and on. At one point I thought that Thorin had actually used his noodle to abbreviate an already-prolonged scrum with Azog but seconds later we get a predictable, hackneyed, slasher-villain style jump scare that anyone can see coming a mile away. Eventually I started to suffer from hyper-extended spectacle fatigue and began to tune out.

Thankfully the film is aided by a horde of capable actors who give credence to the alternately functional, interchangeable and / or stilted dialogue. Martin Freeman's performance is a bit self-conscious and labored but I think that he's just trying to wring some passion and nuance out of the wafer-thin material. For a film titled The Hobbit Bilbo sure spends a lot of time in the background peeking over shoulders or wordlessly staring at other characters as they do more interesting things. Ian McKellen is his usual great self and the jarringly-quiet pipe-cleaning scene he shares with Freeman is something that I wanted a lot more of.

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield enjoys a functional, if rather dragged out, character arc. It takes nearly two hours for him to go from an obstinate, avaricious hermit to a valiant, take-charge warrior. Unfortunately, it isn't the eponymous hobbit that prompts this epiphany but his aforementioned psychedelic gold whirlpool nightmare. Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly are stalwart and stiff-upper-lipped as Legolas and Tauriel. Luke Evans also deserves considerable praise for filling in as an Aragorn understudy.

I feel churlish criticizing a film as well-made as The Battle of Five Armies. The sets look cool, the music is solid, the actors are strong, the costumes are convincing and the special effects are especially effective. It just has no heart and no soul. In his effort to make The Hobbit as epic and earth-shattering as the chronologically-distant Lord of the Rings, Jackson stripped that humble little tale of everything that made it quaint, charming and unique.

Even worse, if you watch Fellowship of the Ring right after a Hobbit flick you'll realize that the two don't even dove-tail visually and tonally with one another. The Lord of the Rings still feels like a comparatively lean and mean little quest tale featuring three-dimensional characters and practical special effects while The Hobbit reeks of the modern cinematic failure of trying too hard.

   Tilt: down.

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