The journey of the three Hobbit movies has been an interesting one for me. I love the Lord of the Rings. I consider the Fellowship of the Ring to be one of the best movies ever made and while I don’t think the other two hold up as well as the first (Return of the King, in particular, has a lot of problems) all three films hold a very special place in my heart. I find myself watching the extended version of the trilogy at least once a year.
I was worried about the Hobbit films from the beginning, especially when I heard that they were making three movies out of a 200 page children’s book. The Hobbit isn’t really as compelling a story as LotR and to make three full movies out of this material would require adding a ton of additional stuff. But then again, Peter Jackson was back to direct. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who wrote the first movies, were back working on the screenplays. So it was with cautious optimism that I attended the first movie back in 2012, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
And it wasn’t that bad! It was clearly a kids movie with a lot of silly slapstick humor. As expected, they had to add a ton of stuff to fill a 3 hour movie that was only 1/3 of the book. They leaned a little too heavily on CGI in parts. But the movie had a lot of heart and was filled with some great moments. The Riddles in the Dark scene with Gollum in particular was incredible:
Most importantly, it felt like a Lord of the Rings movie to me. A lesser LotR movie, sure, but still a member of the family…like a second cousin once removed on his mother’s side. Maybe this thing wouldn’t be so bad.
And then came The Desolation of Smaug in 2013. Where the first movie felt a little long, Smaug was overstuffed beyond belief. Where Journey felt like it leaned a little heavily on CGI, Smaug was dripping with so much that some of it fell onto Legolas’ face and made him look like some kind of creepy mannequin.
Smaug didn’t even feel like it belonged in the same conversation as Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t a member of the family, it was that weird drunk guy that shows up to family reunions that you call Uncle Frank, but don’t know how he’s actually related to anyone. I could spend an entire article ranting about this movie, and maybe I will one day, but we’re here to talk about The Hobbit 3.
The Battle of the Five Armies is a jumbled mess of a film that manages to be both overstuffed and shockingly bare of relevant plot at the same time. At 144 minutes its the shortest Middle Earth film by far and yet somehow still feels like it takes forever. The movie starts right where the previous one left off with the raging dragon Smaug attacking the innocent people of Laketown, and already, we’re presented with a few problems.
First, the Smaug battle is the conclusion to a storyline started in the second film. It doesn’t make any sense structurally to have Five Armies open on this moment. The last movie should have ended with the battle between Smaug and Bard, allowing this movie to focus on the battle of the five armies (you know, that thing it’s named after). But instead we spend the first 20 minutes tying up loose ends from the previous film. The emotional stakes are only really built up if you JUST watched the last movie moments before going to the theatre to see Five Armies, which I hadn’t.
Secondly, I’m not really sure what type of movie they were trying to make here. The Lord of the Rings movies were lighthearted in parts, but the general tone throughout all three films was one of seriousness and melodrama. It was a battle to save the world, after all. As stated before, the first Hobbit movie took a different tone. The movie was much more lighthearted and aimed at children. Which was great, because so was the book. But in Five Armies it feels like we want to do both, and the opening Smaug scene is a perfect example of why this doesn’t really work. We’re treated scenes of dragon fire burning people alive, inter-cut with joking, childish scenes about the Master of Laketown frantically trying to escape with all his gold. Old lady being burned alive – Master jokingly throwing assistant out of the boat because its too heavy. Smaug threatening to eat Bard’s son – Master comically being used as an anchor to break Bard out a jail cell. We’re jumping back and forth between two moments with entirely different emotional beats. It just doesn’t work and makes it so none of them land correctly.
The movie also falls under the classic prequel trap, constantly referencing the Lord of the Rings movies as some kind of knowing wink to the audience. We spend about 30 minutes on Thorin’s “Dragon Sickness”, which is some kind of greedy, asshole state brought about by…being near a dragon? I dunno, no one else seems to be effected. I suspect that Thorin is just an asshole and Dragon Sickness is a super convenient excuse. The point is, the way this stuff is shot, it’s pretty much doing everything it can to make sure you’re reminded of the corruption caused by the ring of power. I’m pretty sure at one point Thorin actually just winks at the camera.
As far as the CGI, it’s as bad as it was in The Desolation of Smaug. In the original trilogy, practical effects were used for all of the closeup shots with the orcs and it worked really great. They looked scary and unique and had character. For some reason, be it laziness or something else, it was decided that all orcs in the Hobbit films would be completely CGI, and it just doesn’t work for me at all. They look overly cartoony and ridiculous. Its especially confusing considering this is the same digital effects studio that made Gollum, who completely transformed what a CG character could be. What’s worse, this movie introduces a new dwarf character, played by Billy Connolly, but I’m almost positive the character is 100% CGI. Why, PJ!?
The titular Battle of the Five Armies itself isn’t terrible. No Middle Earth battle will ever hold up against The Two Tower’s Helm’s Deep, so any comparisons aren’t fair, but its exciting and serviceable. There are some great heroic moments in it, coupled with some weird cartoony kids movie beats, which is fine. The main problem with the battle is that the stakes aren’t really defined. Why are these armies fighting? In the book it was just a fight over the riches inside Erabor, but in an attempt to link the story to Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson tried to make it be some part of Sauron’s plan to control Middle Earth, but it feels like shoehorning a plot into a place that wasn’t meant for it.
It’s not all bad, though. As was true in the previous movies, the best part of the movie is Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. He lights up the screen in any scene he’s in and manages to perfectly capture the naivete, loyalty, and charm that make Hobbits so lovable. Unfortunately, the film has very little to do with Bilbo. Despite being called The Hobbit this film (and this series really) isn’t really Bilbo’s story. I can’t really blame the movie for this as it’s true in the book as well. In fact, the film tries to give Bilbo some more to do this time around. But at the end of the day he’s relegated to an overall passive role. This isn’t Bilbo’s story. It’s Thorin’s. And Bard’s. And Kate-from-Lost Elf’s. And Legolas’…for some reason. I think I would have liked Bilbo’s story better.
Regardless of what you think of this final Hobbit movie, at the end of the day I don’t think the trilogy will be remembered fondly. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away) there was another beloved trilogy that attempted a 3 movie prequel trilogy. Those didn’t really work out either. While the Hobbit films are not nearly as bad as the Star Wars prequels, I believe they suffer from the same problems. Peter Jackson created the Lord of the Rings because he loved the story and thought he could bring it to the big screen. You can see the love, passion, and care behind the project. I don’t think Jackson really wanted to make these films, especially not three of them. The result is a project that feels like it was just made to collect some pay checks. The love just isn’t there.
As The Return of the King was wrapping up, I was sad. I wasn’t ready to leave this amazing world filled with memorable characters. I wanted more. Eleven years later, walking out of The Battle of the Five Armies, all I feel is relief. I’m glad that it’s over. I hope we’re done with Middle Earth for a long time. Like Bilbo returning to the Shire after his long journey, going back is never quite the same as it was the first time around.