It’s that time of year again: a time for giving and sharing, for seeing family and loved ones, and for the release of yet another installment of Peter Jackson’s appallingly over-extended Hobbit franchise. (Alternative title: There and Back Again and Again and Again.) Two years ago, when the first film in the trilogy was released, I described it as a borderline remake of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films; last year, I called the second movie “bad fan-fiction.” Now that the third and final installment is upon us, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, I can finally say something more upbeat: It’s over.
Jackson’s tumid trilogy has its defenders, who argue that much of what the director has added is in keeping with Tolkien’s own timelines, and that more than once the author himself went back to make (minor) revisions to The Hobbit. Scroll down to the comments and you will no doubt find this case made in more persuasive detail.
For my part, I’ve found Jackson’s Hobbit movies to be not only wildly unfaithful to the slender children’s fable that inspired them, but unsatisfying even on their own terms: shapeless, tedious, and crammed with interminable scenes involving tertiary characters. Even the action sequences—of which Battle of the Five Armies, befitting its name, has plenty—suffer from a stultifying CGI sameness. And that’s leaving aside the crass commercialism and franchise fetishism that seem to have fattened this particular monster.
As the latest chapter begins, Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) has been roused from his avaricious slumber by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and is seeking payback on the helpless population of Laketown. The great wyrm’s incendiary devastation of the wooden hamlet makes for some striking visuals, though at times the sequence can’t help but feel like the theme-park ride it will one day presumably become. A great deal of time is wasted establishing the greed of the town’s Master (Stephen Fry, far too good for this material) and the endangerment of the children of noble Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Luckily, just as all hope appears lost, we discover that Smaug has a weakness for triumphal monologuing equal to that of any Bond villain ever to hit the screen. Arrow meets breast, and the dragon problem is solved.
Alas, a new problem quickly arises. The people of smoldering Laketown feel, reasonably enough, that they deserve some compensation from Smaug’s hoard, given that it was the dwarves’ poking that riled him up in the first place. But Thorin is not in a sharing mood. Balin—he’s the dwarf with the long white beard played by Ken Stott, for those who have an understandable difficulty keeping track—has diagnosed his leader as coming down with “dragon sickness,” an infirmity known to contemporary medicine as “acute Trumpism.” In any case, he is committed to keeping every coin or trinket in the Lonely Mountain, and particularly obsessed with finding a wondrous gem called the “Arkenstone.”
But as any lottery winner could tell you, the minute you luck into a vast fortune, friends and relations come out of the woodwork looking for a share. Following the men of Laketown, it’s the elves of Mirkwood, then dwarves from the Iron Hills, and finally multiple divisions of orcs who are gravitationally attracted to the dragon's trove. Before you know it, the stage is set for the titular “battle of the five armies.”
In Tolkien’s novel, the entire affair was resolved in four short pages. But Jackson’s ambitions for the material being rather grander—he would of course be remiss if he did not try to outdo last trilogy’s Battle of Pelennor Fields—the fighting rages on for about an hour, featuring more last-second rescues and escapes than I could count, several of them involving the interspecies love triangle of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Taurien (Evangeline Lilly), and Kili (Aidan Turner). The orc armies bring with them a variety of armored and amputeed trolls, some acting as battering rams and others as catapults, along with a flotilla of killer bats, a troop of goblin mercenaries, and some giant tunneling worms (the “Earth Eaters”) that seem to have been flown in special delivery from Dune. I would describe it all as too much of a good thing, but the latter part of the phrase is far too generous. One villain even gets a not-dead-yet moment more ridiculous than any since Glenn Close popped back out of the bathtub in Fatal Attraction. And did I mention that there’s a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) at the center of it all? If I forget, it’s only because the movie does the same for considerable stretches.
All of this, of course, is in addition to the heavy foreshadowing of The Lord of the Rings that has been Jackson’s most explicit deviation from Tolkien’s humble hobbit tale. We get to watch as Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) blows up orcs in Dol Guldur, where Sauron has imprisoned Gandalf (Ian McKellen). This is followed by the arrival of Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) just in time to do battle with the Nazgul. It all quickly adopts the air of an aging rock band’s ill-advised reunion tour. There’s even a reference to a mysterious young ranger named “Strider”—though thankfully no repeat appearance by Viggo Mortensen who, if my calculations are correct, would have had to play himself as a 10-year-old boy.
Indeed, what is perhaps most depressing about Jackson’s swollen Hobbit enterprise is the way it retrospectively diminishes his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The latter were genuinely good films—better, I think, than any Tolkien fan (and I count myself decidedly among them) had any reason to hope for. It seems a very long time ago now, but all three were nominated for Best Picture and the third film actually won.
With his Hobbit movies, Jackson has taken the epic style and themes of his Lord of the Rings pictures and placed them on the shoulders of a tale far too slight to support them. The echoes are constant, and not merely in the tacked-on backstory and returning cast. Thorin’s lust for the Arkenstone is almost indistinguishable from Frodo’s (and Boromir’s, Gollum’s, etc.) lust for the One Ring. Bard is presented as a kind of cut-rate Aragorn. In place of Wormtongue, we have a new cowardly sycophant named Alfrid Lickspittle (Ryan Gage). And rather than skiing oliphaunts, this installment finds Legolas (who did not, of course, appear in the Tolkien’s Hobbit at all) surfing giant bats. It’s as if Jackson took every element of the original tale and ran it through some kind of Rube Goldbergian Lord-of-the-Rings-ifier.
In my review of the second Hobbit installment, I suggested that Jackson had confirmed his standing as the new George Lucas. With this finale, he makes the comparison all the more depressingly concrete. It’s one thing for a director to produce movies worse than the ones he made earlier in his career. But it requires a rare gift—and thank goodness—to produce movies that actually make that earlier work itself look worse.