The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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  • Year: 2014
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

When you think about it, it’s strange how inconsistent the first two Hobbit films are. Don’t get me wrong, sequels are usually lousy, but this was a planned trilogy based on a single novel. The book itself never drags, but The Desolation of Smaug often felt dead in the water. There were brilliant scenes, sure, but they didn’t salvage the movie as a whole. Things weren’t looking good for the final installment of the trilogy, as Tolkien only wrote on the titular Battle of Five Armies for a few pages.

However, we have more than just the battle to deal with, as the last movie ended with Smaug escaping the mountain. This time, we start right where we left off. The opening scene of Smaug destroying Lake-town is breathtaking, and I could watch it over and over.

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The destruction is instantaneous, with Smaug wiping out basically the entire town in a matter of minutes. We got a sense of this in the cartoon, but it’s in full effect here. Knowing there’s not much time, Bard (Luke Evans) Macgyvers his way out of prison and goes to the tower to try to kill Smaug. Meanwhile, his son Bain (John Bell) leaves his boat to try and help. Bard didn’t seem to have a solid characterization in the second film, but I like him a lot more here. Luke Evans is a really good actor, and his emotional scenes with his children (who are also all very likable) work.

Smaug’s death is as fantastic as you could imagine, with Bard actually balancing and aiming his arrow on his son’s shoulders. Benedict Cumberbatch does amazing work with Smaug’s voice, unleashing threat after threat, being completely oblivious to the fact that Bard has found his weak spot.

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He falls down in the shadow of Lonely Mountain, and right onto the Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry), thankfully killing him and some servants. Sadly, Alfrid (Ryan Gage) is saved, meaning more pointless comedic antics are coming anyway.

One aspect of The Hobbit that really makes it transcend the “kids’ book” mold is that from Smaug’s death until the goblins enter the Battle of Five Armies, Thorin Oakenshield himself basically becomes the antagonist. Bard’s town has been demolished by Smaug, who the dwarves are responsible for letting out of the mountain, so his request for gold is totally justified. The Wood Elves join the fight due to their alliance with the Lake-men, so they are pretty much in the right as well. Thorin’s greed has gotten the best of him and he has unknowingly become the villain.

There is undoubtedly a darkness to Richard Armitage’s Thorin, so it seems like he should portray this transformation just fine… but the writers decided to do this stupid thing where they make gold fever a literal fever. (OK, they call it “dragon sickness,” but I’m calling it gold fever.). Apparently when a dragon sits on treasure for too long, it becomes enchanted and drives most anyone who tries to claim it mad. As usual, I’ve got just a few questions about it.

  1. If this insane form of greed only happens when a dragon sits on a treasure, what happened to Thorin’s grandfather Thror? It was clearly pointed out that his greed was what brought the dragon to begin with. Was there another dragon who sat on this gold before that no one was aware of?
  2. It’s mentioned in the first two films that Thorin may fall to the same sickness that destroyed Thror. If this isn’t the aforementioned gold fever, why do they bring up the gold fever at all? Maybe he just comes from a family of greedy jackasses.
  3. If the dragon sitting on the gold enchants it and sickens all who enter the mountain, why is there no other dwarf who shows signs of it? They all continue to act exactly as they have in the previous two films. Maybe Dori, Nori, and Ori became pickpockets off screen or something.
  4. Ultimately, doesn’t it lessen a character if you blame his shortcomings on something entirely beyond his control? The Thorin of the book is a very flawed character, but he eventually realizes he was wrong. There are movies that deal with greed realistically and poignantly. I’m reminded of one John Huston film in particular where a troupe of greedy travelers find gold in a mountain, but one member gets too greedy and dies for it…
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That’s the one.

I like that the movie tries to show that Thorin is becoming as greedy as Smaug was, but they aren’t very subtle about it. I would have been fine with them having him say the line about not parting with a single coin, but overdubbing Cumberbatch’s voice goes a bit far. It’s odd, because he says another line about Thranduil paying “a pretty price” for the elven gems in the mountain, which is a callback to a line from The Great Goblin in the first film, but they don’t do the stupid dubbing thing. Do you trust your audience or not? In spite of this, Armitage does a great job of showing just how far Thorin has fallen, and he has some truly chilling parts. It also leads to some great character moments with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), as Thorin has begun to lose trust in everyone except for the titular Hobbit.

What I love about the first hour or so of this film (at least in the extended cut) is that it doesn’t rush into the battle itself, but instead we see these characters preparing to fight and even to confront their own deaths. We sympathize greatly with Bard, a man whose town has lost everything, and we get to see a lot more of his kindness in this film. He really doesn’t think it will come to war at all, hoping the dwarves will realize they have no shot and give the men what they deserve. I love the little moment where Thranduil (Lee Pace) comes to town with supplies and says “I heard you needed aid.” Howard Shore gives us a heroic spin on his Lake-town theme as Bard and the people of Lake-town are genuinely grateful, but of course Thranduil has to ruin it with his melodramatic “Oh how I hate dwarves” business.

Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) gets freed from prison by Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). Elrond, Saruman, and Galadriel attempt to banish Sauron from the west by… fighting the ring-wraiths with swords? It looks cool, I guess, but these are just regular swords, right?

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The ring-wraiths are ghosts, so why are they being defeated with swords? Couldn’t we get a line saying “These are special ghost swords,” or something that sounds more magical and less dumb than that? Galadriel also uses her stupid dark voice to banish Sauron, and it just sounds like someone auditioning for a metal band (in which case it really should have been Christopher Lee). That said, we do get more Hugo Weaving as Elrond, which is always great, especially in a film filled with other elves I don’t care about (Tauriel aside).

 When Bilbo is escaping to bring the Arkenstone to the opposing armies, we get a lovely callback to the Bilbo/Bofur scene from Unexpected Journey. Bofur (James Nesbitt) has taken the first watch and thinks Bilbo is running away for good.

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He doesn’t try to stop him, saying no one would blame him for leaving, and gives an incredibly heartfelt goodbye. I love how Bofur is both the biggest clown of the group and has the biggest heart. It’s so much better than just saying “Here’s the nice one” and “Oh, watch out, this one’s a jokester.” He may not have as many scenes as other characters, but we feel like we know him as well as anyone.

Martin Freeman has a brilliant moment when Bilbo delivers the Arkenstone to Bard and Thranduil, with Gandalf standing by. Thranduil asks angrily if this is the hobbit who helped the dwarves escape his prison. Bilbo awkwardly responds with “Yesh…sorry about that.” While Thranduil is obviously still upset, Bard cracks a little smile and tries not to laugh. It’s priceless.

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Of course, Thorin gets mad that Bilbo stole the Arkenstone and wants to kill him, and opts to go to war with the men and elves. The dwarves from the Iron Hills arrive to fight, led by Thorin’s cousin Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly). When the film came out, the digital effects on this character were so bad that it took you out of the movie entirely. However, this seems to be very much corrected in the extended edition.

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Billy Connolly is a very funny man, and he really just plays himself here. Dain is basically just a plot device in the book, as he simply leads his army into battle and is crowned king when Thorin dies, so I have no problem with the casting here. It’s just an attempt to make him memorable, and it works fine.

The battle sequences go on for a long time, but with the title, that’s not surprising. I don’t believe any scenes were cut or shortened for the extended edition, but the meaningless battle scenes feel fewer and far between. Perhaps this has to do with more character scenes being added into the middle of it all. In the theater, I remember sitting there just waiting for it to be over, but there are not too many audible sigh moments when I watch the extended cut. Sure, there are stupid moments like Thranduil decapitating multiple orcs with his elk’s antlers…

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Seriously, this movie has a weird obsession with heads getting chopped off.

Or Legolas building a video game bridge…

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Ironically, in the video game you have to build relationships.

Or literally everything Alfrid gets into…

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But the extended cut makes up for this with scenes like Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur fighting together. It’s clear these three relatives are incredibly tight-knit, so it’s enjoyable seeing them together. Remember that running joke (that needed more attention to be truly great) about the axe stuck in Bifur’s head? Hey it comes out in the extended cut! Bombur runs back with it, and Bifur says, finally in English, “You know where you can stick that.” There’s a part of me that is upset this joke didn’t lead to more, and another part that applauds the filmmakers for going this far just for that one line. Ultimately, I lean towards the latter opinion.

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We get more comedic moments in the extended cut, like Balin’s Danny Glover-esque “too old for this” moment and Alfrid finally unmercifully biting it (to the cheering of every audience member), but we also get more blood. Heck, the extended edition is rated R! You know what? I like it. War is ugly in Tolkien’s work, and it’s good we get to see that here. I remember the theatrical cut just feeling like a painfully long final battle, but the extended cut feels like a war film in Middle-Earth.

The orcs continue to have little purpose except just being mooks, so I’m not sure why we keep cutting to them saying lines like “Kill them” over and over. If you want to actually give them character, great, but don’t do this halfway thing. It’s a minor complaint though, but these are fairly weak villains.

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The deaths of Kili and Fili are absolutely heartbreaking, perhaps even more so to readers of the book who know it’s coming. Even in spite of this, Fili’s death is incredibly swift and surprising, letting us know the end is near. After that, Tauriel watches Kili die, unable to do anything. I feel their love is perhaps taken too seriously as it never really goes above some flirtation, but I really do like the chemistry between the two. You believe they could fall for each other.

Thorin finally confronts his arch-enemy Azog the Defiler, and both mortally wound the other. Bilbo wakes up in time to have a final scene with Thorin which, as expected, is brilliant. Bilbo is in so much distress over Thorin dying that his breathing pattern becomes stilted, as if he was dying too. Martin Freeman does little things like this all throughout the trilogy that are easy to miss the first time around, leading to a complex and masterful performance.

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We don’t see a lot of the action on the main field of battle, which is fine as most important characters are involved in their own skirmishes, but when the eagles swoop in with Radagast and Beorn, it’s majestic. I do have to admit that Beorn landing on the battlefield as he turns into a bear is thoroughly entertaining.

Because apparently the Legolas character needs some closure, he and Thranduil have to participate in one of the stupidest scenes in the movie… or rather just one of the stupidest lines. Legolas tells him that he will not return home, and Thranduil is understanding, saying he should seek out a ranger in the wild. Thranduil says he’s known as Strider and is the son of Arathorn, but that Legolas must learn his true name for himself. HUH? I would understand him saying “The guy’s called Strider and you’ll learn his real name,” but you literally just told him his father’s name. How hard is it going to be to figure out what his real name is? Also, why don’t you just tell him his real name? What does Legolas benefit by not being told Aragorn’s real name?

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All I will tell you, son, is that it’s not Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger.

One of the most egregious aspects of the theatrical cut was the removal of the funeral of Kili, Fili, and Thorin and the crowning of Dain as King Under the Mountain. For all the criticism Return of the King got for taking too long to end, I was in shock how rushed the ending of the Hobbit trilogy was. Thankfully, we get those scenes here in all their solemnity.

When Bilbo returns home, his possessions are being auctioned off, just like in the book, showing there will now permanently be a divide between himself and the “respectable” hobbits. We cut back to old Bilbo at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, and the film ends with Billy Boyd’s gorgeous “The Last Goodbye.”

With the previous installments, I’ve recommended the extended cuts over the theatrical, but in the case of The Battle of the Five Armies, I can only recommend the extended cut. It honestly turns a mediocre movie into a good one. The character arcs feel complete, loose ends are tied up, and the ending is poignant. Let’s take a look at the final score.

Adaptation (39/50 Points)

It’s tough to judge, because it takes just a few chapters and makes a war film out of it, but it does a very good job. The character moments are brilliant, the war scenes are mostly effective, and it doesn’t clash with Tolkien’s views on war. It’s an epic war film in Middle-Earth, and it works. That said, the gold fever thing is kind of silly and should have been cut.

Cast (20/25 Points)

Martin Freeman brings it home with his emotional and funny performance, Richard Armitage ends Thorin’s arc in grand fashion, and I like Luke Evans’ Bard a lot more here. Bofur, Kili, Fili, and Tauriel are all great, and while the Council of the Wise scene may not be necessary, it’s nice to see all the actors return. Still, Legolas is overused and Thranduil is ridiculously melodramatic.

Experience (17/25 Points)

The CGI is often conspicuous and overused, especially in the battle scenes. However, the score continues to dazzle, and the destruction of Lake-town is a visual marvel. Billy Boyd’s “The Last Goodbye” is a perfect way to end.

FINAL SCORE: 76%

I can’t believe how much I actually enjoy this film now, considering my frustration the first time I saw it. The Hobbit trilogy still didn’t need to be three movies, but since it is, Peter Jackson did pretty well for himself. There are two solid, effective films in there, and part of another. I know the one I like the least is the one most people love, but hey, to each his own.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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  • Year: 2013
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

Although a three-film trilogy based on a 300-page novel sounds silly, An Unexpected Journey is good enough to make us think it could work. It’s a bit padded, sure, but it is ultimately a well-made and entertaining film. The combination of the first film’s success and the anticipation of finally seeing the dragon made me really look forward to seeing The Desolation of Smaug when it first came out.

Well, we actually start right where we left off…nah who am I kidding? We have to start with a prologue, in Bree before the quest began. Here Thorin meets Gandalf who tells him that the time to reclaim Erebor is now.

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Thorin insists that the other dwarf families will never unite without the Arkenstone. In the book, the nature of the Arkenstone isn’t expanded on too much; it’s basically just the most glorious gem in the mountain. Here it is what Thorin’s line believes gives them the right to rule, and if Bilbo can sneak in and burgle the Arkenstone, the other dwarves will come to their aid and help defeat Smaug. It’s a small change to the text that makes a lot of sense, as there isn’t all that much of a plan to actually defeat Smaug in the book.

When we cut back to where we left off, the company is still worried about the orcs catching up to them. Gandalf suggests that they take shelter at the house of Beorn, the skin-changer, a character who has been left out of every adaptation so far. While I love that we finally get to see this guy on screen, the buildup to his character is just idiotic. Gandalf even utters the incredibly contrived line, “He will help us… or he will kill us,” without telling them anything about Beorn. They run to the house chased by a bear, and once they bar the doors on him, Gandalf tells them that the bear is their host. Um, what?

  1. Gandalf knows Beorn can change from a man into a bear, so why did he not tell the dwarves this? Does he just get off to them being scared out of their wits?
  2. If Gandalf is so unsure about whether they will survive, what is the point of going to Beorn’s house at all? In the book, Gandalf knew Beorn was aloof, but the only fear of Beorn killing the company came from Bilbo’s childlike sensibilities.
  3. Why does Gandalf think it is socially acceptable to barge into a house with 14 guests?
  4. Does Beorn in bear-form not realize what Beorn in human form does? Surely he at least understands that the dwarves are running to his own house.
  5. If Beorn is so averse to company, why does he keep his doors unlocked? Is this a werewolf-type situation where he does destruction he’s not aware of? Well no, because Gandalf says, “He’s under no enchantment but his own.”

It is immensely clear that Peter Jackson only had the scene play out this way for the sake of forced tension, and it is painful. Don’t get me wrong, the bear-form looks fantastic, but surely they could have shown it off in another way.

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In the book, our introduction to Beorn is this fantastic little scene where Gandalf tells Beorn the story of the journey and introduces the dwarves gradually, knowing that Beorn would never take all 13 plus Bilbo at once, but he would get too caught up in the story a la One Thousand and One Nights that he’d end up letting them all stay anyway. It shows off Gandalf’s intelligence and is a genuinely funny scene.

Thankfully, we do get a version of that scene in the extended edition. Although they have already spent the night at Beorn’s home, none of the company has met Beorn the man (Mikeal Persbrandt) yet. Gandalf is scared of Beorn here and is not doing this out of cunning but out of fear, but that speaks more to my general issue with Gandalf’s characterization than it does the writing of this scene. I’m just glad it’s included. Plus, in a movie with a very gray and black color palette, the scenes outside Beorn’s home are very colorful indeed.

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This is not exactly how I picture Beorn when I read the books (I imagine more of an Ian McShane or maybe even a Kurt Russell-type), but it is still a really memorable performance, and there’s even an extra layer of tragedy in that he’s the last of his kind.

At the outskirts of Mirkwood Forest, Gandalf departs the company to investigate the Necromancer on his own. The Mirkwood scenes work just fine, especially in the extended cut where we get the enchanting stream, but we sadly never get the pitch black nights described in the book. The image of eyes constantly watching the company as they try to sleep is eerie in the book, and it shouldn’t have been that hard to include. Heck, the cartoon did just fine on this one. Here, Mirkwood feels more maddening than it does evil.

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As Bilbo is saving the dwarves from the spiders, the Wood Elves come in and kill the remaining spiders and take the dwarves captive. Here we get the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who for some reason was one of the most popular characters in the original trilogy. To be fair, I completely understand why Legolas is included in this film—his father Thranduil is the Elvenking who takes the dwarves prisoner, and Legolas would have been in the kingdom at the time. That said, he gets way too much screen time, and his action scenes just get more ridiculous as they go.

The dwarves get taken back to the Wood Elf kingdom, which looks fantastic.

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Say what you will about the overuse of CGI in these films, but the backgrounds look gorgeous and incredibly lifelike. I never once doubt that the dwarves are really in this wooden kingdom. Speaking of wooden…

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Alright let’s talk about very possibly the worst character in the whole trilogy.

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Hey, hey, I said “possibly.” We’ll get to you Alfrid…

Anyway, let’s talk about Thranduil, played by Lee Pace. This man delivers every single line as if it’s the dramatic crux of a community theater Shakespeare play. Dude, tone it down 2 or 150 notches. You’re not Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments; you’re an elf in a fantasy film.

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Eek back up, no interrogation is intimidating this close.

We’re also introduced to Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), a movie-only character who begins a flirtatious relationship with Fili…or Kili… the beardless one. (I know, it’s Kili.) There really weren’t any female characters in The Hobbit (not that Tolkien had trouble writing strong female characters, just look at Eowyn), so I completely understand adding her in, especially with it being a trilogy. Her love story with Kili comes pretty naturally, as both of them don’t feel completely at home among their own people. She’s also a strong warrior, and easily more interesting than Thranduil or Legolas. However, there is this really forced love triangle (everyone but the studio opposed it), as Legolas is apparently interested in Tauriel, even though he never shows enough emotion for us to be aware of this.

In my review of the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, I talked about how enjoyable the escape from the Wood Elf prison was, because it just let us soak up some atmosphere with the beautiful animation and catchy song “Rollin’ Down the Hole.” Needless to say, I was really looking forward to seeing how it would play out here…and I have to admit that this was the moment I realized Desolation of Smaug was going to be a disappointment. Instead of a heroic and lightly comical moment due to everyone being stuffed in barrels, we get a fight scene… a really long and ridiculously overblown fight scene between dwarves, orcs, and elves. This was it for me, the instant I knew atmosphere was being sacrificed for stupid sword fights. However, the person who edited the scene with the music from the cartoon is my personal hero.

It’s just another scene of forced drama mixed with inexplicably stupid comedy. At one point, Bombur (still in his dilapidated barrel) spins around at rapid speed and kills some orcs, jumps right back into another barrel, and continues to roll down the river.

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Soon after, Legolas kills some orcs while standing on two dwarves.

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The number of audible sighs I let out during this scene has to approach the world record.

Alright, before I get angrier at this scene, let’s see what Gandalf’s up to.

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Oh, he’s off investigating why this rock formation looks so much like Bombur.

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No, of course he’s investigating the greater evil in the world and discovering that the nine ring-wraiths have risen. He eventually meets up with Thrain (Anthony Sher), Thorin’s father, and helps him regain his sanity. Thrain owned one of the seven rings under the power of the one, and his ring-finger has been cut off. However, Thrain is killed by orcs before he can ever see his son again, and while most of his scenes are fine, his death is accompanied by the stock Wilhelm Scream, which just sounds stupid. Ultimately these Gandalf scenes are serviceable, but they just don’t amount to much. Everything plays out like we expect, which isn’t always bad, but there’s nothing in the way of character growth either. It’s just filler.

Meanwhile, the dwarves and Bilbo (who is still there apparently, minimal screen time notwithstanding) come ashore where they are almost immediately greeted by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans).

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Bard is built up to be the hero of Lake-town, the family man who will eventually take down Smaug himself. So what does our hero do in his opening scene? Fire an arrow at one of the dwarves without asking questions, of course. What a noble and intelligent character to root for.

Bard agrees to smuggle them into Lake-town for a price, and on the way over, Bilbo gets one of his funniest lines in the trilogy. Many of the dwarves are acting antagonistic towards Bard (Perhaps it was the shoot first, ask questions later approach) with Dwalin saying “I’ve had enough of this lippy lake man.” Bilbo, incredibly fed up with all of them says that his name is Bard, and he knows simply because “Uh, I asked him.” I just love the dry and slightly annoyed way Martin Freeman delivers the line, and it makes me wish there was more Bilbo in this movie called The Hobbit.

When we get to Lake-town, the movie stops absolutely dead in its tracks. The book features all of one chapter in Lake-town, but Peter Jackson needed to pad this movie out, so we spend a torturous amount of time with characters who take our story nowhere. The Master of Lake-town from the book finally makes an appearance, here played by Stephen Fry. His annoying and not-at-all-funny minion is the aforementioned Alfrid (Ryan Gage).

The Master in the novel was greedy and didn’t really want much to do with the dwarves, but I never got the impression he was someone as repulsive as Stephen Fry’s portrayal. The Master in the film is portrayed as a slovenly, overweight, egocentric tyrant with a horrendous orange comb-over who hates the poor and keeps a framed portrait of himself in his home…

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Alright, I know, I’ve played my Trump card a lot, but sometimes it’s just too easy. I promise, I will not make another Trump joke for the rest of this year series review.

They just play the gross factor up way too much. In a gag (and I do mean gag) right out of a Naked Gun movie, the Master is ranting about Bard being the only one who would ever challenge him, saying “No one else would have the…” when he is immediately interrupted by Alfrid saying “Bollocks,” then proceeding to serve him a literal plate of testicles.

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We spend far too long in Lake Town, and if that wasn’t enough, Fili, Kili, Oin, and Bofur stay behind in while the rest of the dwarves go to the mountain. Kili was shot with a morgul arrow during the flume ride earlier, and now the poison is acting up. It serves to give more time to his subplot with Tauriel, but they could have handled it differently. Also, you left three of the most interesting dwarves (and Oin) behind! These are the ones I want to see bask in the glory of their mountain home.

Why does their need to be a prophecy about the Mountain King returning? Every time I hear a character reciting it, I just think of The Omen, and it’s a terrible idea for a mediocre movie to remind me of a great one. Why do we need a scene where Bard (Again, A HERO) suggests someone’s wife is a whore? Why do we need Bard to be descended from the original man who failed to kill Smaug? Why does he need an inferiority complex over this? I know, the answer is “padding,” but note how none of these have anything to do with Bilbo. Why can’t we have more character scenes? Why weren’t the Mirkwood and Wood Elf scenes stretched out longer?

Finally, two hours into a three hour movie subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, we finally get the famous scene of Bilbo interacting with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). This was universally called the best part of the film by critics, and some said it made the whole movie worth it. Cumberbatch and Freeman are both fantastic, and the design of Smaug is breathtaking. It is some of the best special effects work I’ve ever seen.

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It’s nice to get a smooth and cunning dragon like the one in Tolkien’s novel. Bilbo doesn’t keep the ring on the whole time like in the book, but from a visual standpoint, I get it. The ring comes off on its own accord, showing its true power. At least it’s not like the scene in the cartoon where Bilbo removes it just to show off.

Bilbo barely survives and runs back to the dwarves, who then all proceed to enter the mountain in an attempt to kill the dragon. While some of the moments in this chase are visually interesting (mainly due to Smaug), it’s just excessive

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Eventually, it just feels like a video game puzzle, where your goal is complete task after task with the intention of doing something absolutely ridiculous like covering a dragon in molten gold…

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It’s an overblown cat-and-mouse game that leads to Smaug leaving the mountain to terrorize the Lake-men. Again, it’s far more entertaining to watch than Gandalf being locked in prison, Bard being locked in prison, or Legolas and Tauriel fighting more orcs, but you could play the Benny Hill theme over the chase scenes and not lose much. As silly as the whole covered in gold thing is, the moment where Smaug flies out of the mountain, gold falling down around him, and flies toward Lake-town is breathtaking.

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Bilbo looks up, says “What have we done?” and that’s the end of the movie. Just like that, the credits roll. That’s not an ending, it’s a network TV cliffhanger that I specifically praised the first film for not doing. There’s no character development and no resolution of a single plot thread. If sometime in the first act we had learn the dwarves cared about nothing more than getting the dragon out of the mountain dead or alive, this would be some growth, as they realize they’ve unleashed terror on the world. A short meeting scene somewhere in Mirkwood would have given the chance to give the other dwarves a few more lines and would have actually given this ending punch.

Or how about this—actually killing the dragon?! The title The Desolation of Smaug is a deliberate mislead to the audience, suggesting the desolation he has already brought rather than the nightmare he will bring to Lake-town. We’re all watching for the famous scene where he destroys Lake-town with fire and is ultimately brought down by Bard, but it’s saved until the next movie. This movie, which doesn’t really have a beginning or an end, should have perhaps been called The Hobbit: The Road Goes Ever On. It’s still a Tolkien-esque title and more accurately represents the middle installment of this trilogy. Look, I know this was intended to be two films instead of three and a lot of changes were made at the last minute, but I have to judge the finished product.

Over the credits, we get to hear Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire,” which admittedly is pretty great. I can actually enjoy it now instead of the first time I saw the film, where I was too busy being angry. Let’s get this over with…

Adaptation (20/50 Points)

The first hour is pretty enjoyable, especially in the extended edition. The additional Beorn and Mirkwood scenes feel very much in line with the book and add some nice character and atmosphere. Once the company gets captured by the Wood Elves, it goes to hell. The barrel scene is a disastrous cartoon and it takes way too long to leave Lake-town. The Bilbo and Smaug scene is brilliant, but then it goes back to being drawn out and pointless again. The Gandalf subplot isn’t awful, but if you just left in the Necromancer subplot from the first and third films, you wouldn’t lose a thing.

Cast (17/25 Points)

Martin Freeman is as charming, witty and delightful as ever as Bilbo, but he is ridiculously out of focus for the entire second act of this film, as well as parts of the third. Richard Armitage’s Thorin has actually grown, now smiling a lot more and acknowledging how important Bilbo is often. Orlando Bloom is back as Legolas, which made a lot of people happy I guess, but I couldn’t care less about his monotonous performance. Stephen Fry and Ryan Gage attempt in vain to bring some comedic relief, but the best humor comes from Lee Pace’s hilariously awful performance as Thranduil. Benedict Cumberbatch is sly and threatening as Smaug though, and I like Evangeline Lily as Tauriel enough.

Experience (20/25 Points)

This is a tough one to score, as it features the incredible design of Smaug and more brilliant scoring by Howard Shore (His Lake-town theme in particular stands out). However, some of the battle scenes are incredibly cartoony, and it’s a much grayer film than the first (Again, too long in Lake-town).

FINAL SCORE: 57%

There’s a solid hour of really good cinema here, and one or two unquestionably great moments like Bilbo confronting Smaug. The rest is just a bunch of bollocks (literally). If it’s a movie you’re going to check out, please watch the extended cut, as the good scenes only get better.

Next week, we find out if the Hobbit trilogy will end up being a good but imperfect product or if the first film was just a lucky break, with my review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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  • Year: 2012
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage

Well, after getting through a lazy cash grab, a tolerable cartoon, and a cheap Russian TV adaptation, here we are at Peter Jackson’s big budget cinematic version of The Hobbit… the first part of three. Let’s get this out of the way, because it seems tedious to constantly repeat the same criticisms everyone else has. Regardless of whose fault it was, a book under 300 pages does not need to be three lengthy movies. That said, it is three movies, so let’s take a look at what we’ve got.

AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

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We start with Ian Holm reprising his role as Old Bilbo from The Lord of the Rings, writing his story in full for Frodo on the day of his going away. He’s writing this whole story before the first movie? Does he just have nine hours to kill?

Bilbo tells the story of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, and the great wealth of King Thror.

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I love how lavish the dwarf kingdom looks. It’s excessive, sure, but that’s the whole point. Thror was gradually falling deeper and deeper into greed, so this serves as more than just scenery porn. (And even if it didn’t, it’s just such good scenery porn anyway.)

The dragon Smaug comes and destroys the kingdom and the surrounding town of Dale. Peter Jackson does a great job here of just showing us enough of the dragon without spoiling it. We know the reveal of Smaug will be grandiose when it comes, but we don’t want it yet.

Bilbo finally flashes back to his part in the story, and we’re rolling. Young Bilbo is played by Martin Freeman, and (here’s a phrase I don’t use much) Freeman is absolutely delightful in the role.

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Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is just so immensely likable. Every moment he’s on screen is a joy to watch, and his performance just oozes charm. He’s kind-hearted, subtly snarky, and always quick on his feet.

Alright, let’s get it out of the way. I know it’s one of the most acclaimed things about both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, but I have a lot of issues with the way Ian McKellen plays Gandalf.

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Tolkien’s Gandalf is a wizard who is incredibly kind and incredibly powerful. He can be your closest ally, but he can also scare you to death. John Huston did a perfect job at playing both sides in The Hobbit cartoon. While I totally buy McKellen’s Gandalf as the kindly old man, his powerful side rarely comes through as, well, powerful. He usually just sounds confused and flustered instead of confident. Take for example, one simple line of dialogue that is used in both the cartoon and the Jackson film—”I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.” It’s perhaps not a great line to begin with, but oh my does the cartoon make it memorable.

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We get thunder and lightning, a powerful line read from John Huston, and it kicks right into “Misty Mountains Cold.” It’s a boast and a show of power, but it also makes you want to join the journey that’s to come. There’s a darkness, but also an enormous sense of intrigue.

In the Jackson film, Gandalf delivers the line as if it confuses him, which is odd when he’s the one saying it.

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McKellen seems to play Gandalf as an old man who accidentally stumbled into wizardry, as opposed to a wizard who took the form of an old man. Again, it’s not all bad, but he seems to struggle playing the strong side.

Alright now for the hardest part of adapting The Hobbit into a feature film: Padding into three films, Getting all thirteen dwarves into the thing. In the book, only Thorin is really a well-rounded character—he’s long winded, pompous, and self-serving, but he’s not all bad, and he grows to see that Bilbo’s simple way of life is better by the end. As for the others, we know that Balin is old and kind, Bombur is… fat, (we’re reminded of this a lot), but also one of the only few against the battle at the end, and Dori is strong and tough but ultimately good-hearted. Well, with nine hours of film, we should have plenty of time to get to know the dwarves right? Let’s go through them and see.

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This is Thorin. No I’m not joking. Richard Armitage’s Thorin looks nothing like the aged and weary Thorin of the book, but they had their reasons for wanting a younger-looking Thorin. Although the oft-named Brians Cox and Blessed would have been great as a more traditional Thorin, I really like Armitage. He doesn’t look old, but there’s a depth in his voice that suggests a dwarf who has seen an endless string of tragedy. He’s not long-winded like the Thorin of the book, but much more serious and stoic, and yet it all works. Especially as the films go on, he lightens up considerably and shows a great range of emotion.

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Alright, here we have Balin (L-Ken Stott) and Dwalin (R-Graham McTavish), the brains and brawn of the team respectively. Balin is Thorin’s right hand man, both the oldest and wisest member of the company, and will often act as his voice of reason. Dwalin is a fierce warrior, but also undoubtedly loves his brother and cares about the mission.

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Fili (L-Dean O’ Gorman) and Kili (R-Aidan Turner) are Thorin’s nephews and two of the youngest members of the company. (In the book, they are specifically said to be the youngest, but Ori is the youngest here for some reason) Both are kind-hearted and almost immediately accept Bilbo into the inner-circle, as shown in the early scene with the trolls. Fili is very protective of his younger brother and Kili is a bit more reckless, but both unquestionably have good heads on their shoulders.

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Here are Bombur (L-Stephen Hunter), Bofur (M-James Nesbitt), and Bifur (R-William Kircher). Bofur gets a whole lot of screen time, and James Nesbitt makes the most of every moment. He plays Bofur as the biggest jokester of the group, but also one of Bilbo’s closest friends. One of the best scenes in Unexpected Journey is Bilbo and Bofur’s conversation as Bilbo is considering walking away, and Bofur tells him he’s one of them. Bofur realizes he doesn’t understand Bilbo’s desire for home and wishes him well. The Hobbit is a much smaller story than Lord of the Rings, so it’s only appropriate that these little moments stand out.

Bombur is fat. Yeah, that’s really about it. His beard looks like a string of sausages. That’s gross. Bifur has an axe stuck in his head and can only speak in ancient Dwarvish, which is actually a hilarious idea. I just wish they did more with it over the course of the three films (He may have a few lines here or there, but not much). It at least gets a payoff in the third film.

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These two are Oin (L-John Callen) and Gloin (R-Peter Hamleton). They don’t do much… at all. Gloin is Gimli’s father though, that’s cool. I suppose they’re both gruff.

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Rounding out the pack we have Nori (L-Jed Brophy), Ori (M-Adam Brown), and Dori (R-Mark Hadlow). These three are entirely pointless. I can’t think of one meaningful moment from any of these three over the course of the whole trilogy. They try to play Ori up as the baby of the group, but he’s just annoying. You know, it would help if they just gave these lesser dwarves one characteristic so we remember them. I’m just spit-balling here, but maybe one falls asleep a lot, maybe there’s another who’s just always in a rotten mood, maybe one just can’t get rid of his cold. I don’t know, maybe that’s a terrible idea.

The dwarves sing both the “Blunt the Knives” and “Misty Mountains Cold” songs at Bilbo’s hobbit hole, and they both really fit the mood. The former shows that they enjoy joking around but ultimately would never hurt Bilbo, as all of his dishes come out unharmed. The take on “Misty Mountains Cold” is absolutely haunting, and the melody also lends itself to Howard Shore’s score, which also works wonderfully. A lot of viewers complained that it took the company to long to leave The Shire, but I really enjoy these atmospheric moments. It sets up the dwarves’ story, Bilbo’s character, and the solemnity of their quest.

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Almost immediately after they leave, though, we’re treated to more backstory. See, Thorin hates orcs more than most. WHY DOES THIS MATTER? Why do we need orcs constantly following the company throughout the film and why on earth do we need to tease that Azog the Defiler may be alive?

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Look, we know any time a movie hints that a villain is still alive they are. I understand wanting to give the villains a motivation instead of just “They’re orcs and they’re evil” (Tolkien himself had personal issues with a whole race being depicted as evil), but all we get is that Azog wanted to wipe out all of Thorin’s line. Alright, that’s a goal, but what’s the reason for it? Imagine if in Psycho, it ended with “Well, you see, Norman Bates killed women.” Great, that’s what he did, but why did he do it? We just get “See this orc? He wants to wipe out Thorin’s line.”

Before we get to the trolls, though, we have to meet Radagast the Brown. He actually plays a part early on in The Fellowship of the Ring, but Jackson cut it out for his movie. He does not play a part in The Hobbit (He’s mentioned in passing), but Jackson made him a fairly important supporting character. While the Radagast of the books is definitely a bit of an eccentric, focused more on nature than the real dangers of the world, I never expected him to look this silly.

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Yes, those are bird-droppings in his hair. He also has a sleigh of rabbits which is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever had to type. If you watch the special features on the DVD or Blu-Ray, you can see everyone’s reactions when Peter Jackson pitches “sleigh of rabbits.” They all clearly think he’s joking. While it is unfair on the whole to compare these films to the Star Wars prequels, this is undoubtedly Jackson’s most George Lucas moment.

Radagast has come to warn Gandalf about the Necromancer rising in Dol Guldur who is totally Sauron. Oh sorry, did I spoil that for you? You know, personally, I never thought this was meant to be a surprise to us, but rather show how characters would deal with the resurrection of Sauron. I have no issue with seeing this story from Gandalf’s perspective as well and seeing what he was doing when he left the company. You know who else didn’t have a problem with it? J.R.R TOLKIEN! In Unfinished Tales, you can read Gandalf’s take on the story.

Now there was actually a theory circulating a while back that Azog was in fact dead but had been brought back by the Necromancer, which would be a really cool way to tie the two stories together. Maybe Thorin specifically remembered killing him and when Gandalf saw Azog alive, he knew something truly evil was afoot… but nope, Azog just hadn’t died the first time. How original.

That said, the Necromancer subplot does give us a scene featuring shameless fanservice The Council of the Wise in Rivendell, featuring Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. Christopher Lee didn’t even record his lines on the same set as the rest of them, instead being digitally added later… and you can’t tell. It’s seamless. As a horror fan, it’s just nice to see more Christopher Lee, especially knowing this was one of his last roles.

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Rivendell looks absolutely marvelous here, and in one of the best moments in the film, we get to see Bilbo looking around and taking it all in. We know that in Lord of the Rings, this is the place he will ultimately retire, so it’s great to see him falling in love with the place. There’s this great little conversation with Elrond where they both exchange snarky remarks, and Elrond tells Bilbo he is welcome to stay as long as he wants.

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While I always found Hugo Weaving a strange choice, at least on paper, for Elrond, I can’t deny he’s brilliant here. In just a few short scenes, we see his power, wisdom, and great kindness. In fact, he brings out the characteristics we should be seeing in Gandalf way better than Gandalf does. The little moments like this in An Unexpected Journey are thoroughly enjoyable and more than make up for the silly ones.

Once the company leaves Rivendell, we get some of Peter Jackson just doing whatever he wants, as the one throwaway line in the book about stone giants becomes a huge game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

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Alright, this does look kind of cool, and if it had stopped with this, I wouldn’t gripe much… but we then have to tease half of the company dying when they are split up on two moving rocks. You know, I would have liked if Jackson teased us by putting the useless dwarves (Ori, Dori, Nori, Oin, Bifur, and Bombur) on one of the rocks to make us wonder if they’d actually die. There may have actually been drama.

When the company gets taken to Goblintown, the Great Goblin sings this really bizarre song that doesn’t fit at all. It’s kind of like the goblin song from the book, but all the goblins join in as if this thing was rehearsed, and we never see where the instruments are coming from. Maybe it would work in other adaptations, but this film has not earned this kind of weird moment. In the cartoon, the song was a march style song which was dark and imposing, and it worked. Here, it’s awkward.

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The Great Goblin should be bigger than the rest, sure, but he’s a giant here, and what’s going on with his scrotum chin? He’s just such a goofy and overblown character in a movie that makes the other orcs threatening. It’s another George Lucas-esque decision that is just out of place. The escape from Goblintown is a pointless battle sequence with no stakes that can’t decide if it wants to be funny or serious. I’ll admit, I laughed when the Great Goblin’s corpse fell on the dwarves, but I wasn’t proud of it.

That said, the Bilbo and Gollum scene is brilliant. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, and even the film’s harshest detractors praised this scene.

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Serkis masterfully plays the menacing and sympathetic sides of Gollum, and Martin Freeman plays off him just as well. Across the board, the best scenes in this film are the ones with Bilbo and just one other character—Bilbo and Elrond in Rivendell, Bilbo and Bofur at the mountain pass, Bilbo and Gollum in the riddles competition. The scenes without the titular hobbit tend to suffer—the Goblintown scenes, most of the Azog subplot, random dwarf mischief. I make an exception for the Council of the Wise, because it still feels like something important is going on, and it gives the journey a greater scope, but it’s no surprise that The Hobbit is at its best when The Hobbit is on screen.

The big climax of the film comes when the orcs and wargs chase the company up trees, where they are ultimately saved by eagles. To show Thorin the error of his ways, we have Bilbo saving him from certain death before the eagles swoop down. I feel like Thorin was perhaps supposed to start appreciating Bilbo after the spider incident or perhaps the wood elf escape, but when two movies became three, it had to come earlier. It’s not necessary, but it’s an understandable change. I think the film ends at a nice point either way, and the eagles rescue just looks fantastic.

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You really feel like you’re flying through the air with the characters in this spectacular sequence. Thankfully Jackson doesn’t do something stupid like have one of the orcs jump on an eagle and fight. The eagles drop them off, Thorin accepts Bilbo as a true member of the company, and we follow a thrush all the way to Lonely Mountain where Smaug opens his enormous eye. THE END.

This is a fantastic way to end the movie, and really an example of a sequel hook done right. I really am not a fan of sequel hooks, because I want a movie to wrap up its own story and not just give a “See you next time,” but this movie wraps up one of its central plot conflicts (Running from orcs… they’re at least safe for a while), wraps up one of its central character conflicts (Thorin and Bilbo’s relationship) and still reminds us that there is a greater darkness ahead. Even the idea of following the thrush to the mountain is a little shout-out for book fans. I do kind of wish Azog had been killed here as a way to wrap up that conflict completely, but it’s not that big of a deal.

A lot of the issues that people have with The Hobbit trilogy as a whole do start to pop-up in An Unexpected Journey, but they are definitely downplayed. Bilbo is the main character of this film, but we still have a few too many scenes where he is out of focus. There are a few too many overblown battle scenes, but they aren’t too bad. There are a lot of subplots, but they still mostly all feel important. Let’s check out the final score.

Adaptation (41/50 Points)

It’s a bit overindulgent, and it occasionally focuses on things that don’t really matter, but for the most part, An Unexpected Journey clearly respects its source material (the first third of it at least). It works so well that it almost convinces you that three movies is doable. The added character scenes work, and some of the book’s shorter scenes get a chance to breathe, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Cast (21/25 Points)

In a movie with a lot of good aspects, Martin Freeman is by far the best. I love how he shows that Bilbo is important because he is different from the dwarves, and his snarking is always hilarious. Richard Armitage brings a lot to Thorin’s character, and a lot of the other dwarves make the most of their screen time as well (Bofur in particular.) I do have my issues with Ian McKellen as Gandalf and a few other minor characters, though.

Experience (22/25 Points)

Howard Shore’s score is rousing, and even though there are a lot of CGI backgrounds, they look fantastic. You always feel like you’re in this world, and the CGI works to the film’s advantage to create vast kingdoms and mountain lairs. A few of the action scenes look a bit silly, and some of the gross-out kiddie moments don’t work, but these are nitpicks.

FINAL SCORE: 84%

Yes, I brought up a lot of issues in the review because that’s fun to do, but there are a lot of really good things about An Unexpected Journey. It tries to be a bit too epic at times, but this is softened by the really nice little moments. The Hobbit is ultimately a small story, smaller than even one Lord of the Rings volume, and even though the movies are really long, the first one works for the most part.

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