27 December 2014

First Impressions: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

It's becoming harder and harder for me to form proper opinions on these movies. On the one hand they're clearly no more than cash-grab shells of the cinematic achievement that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was that has never felt as important, epic, or as culturally significant as the superior trilogy. Then again, the lighter touch of The Hobbit Trilogy makes the films a whole lot more fun and much less pretentious. They always feel entertaining, and seem to be widely seen, yet no one really seems to give a shit. SPOILERS from here on out in this discussion of the film's merits and potential.
This image could have been from any Hobbit movie, actually.

Going in to this thing, I really couldn't remember a single scene from An Unexpected Party (2012). Quick, I actually wrote that title from memory - was I right? Is it Journey?! Fuck, it is! Did anyone out there really doubt me hard on Party. I remember The Desolation of Smaug (2013) a bit better because the Bilbo scenes with Smaug himself are legitimately awesome, but there's hardly anything else that stands out, even a few years down the line. It reminds me of Super 8 (2011) or something - a competently made, impressive, and entertaining film that no one remembers or cares about today.

So, how does The Battle of Five Armies (2014) stack up? It's probably the best of The Hobbit Trilogy, so that's saying something. It's still disjointed and forgettable, though, even though it has some cool innovations, some genuinely powerful character deaths, and some badass fight scenes to rival anything else done this year. For what it's worth it's also the shortest of any of Pete Jackson's Tolkien adaptations and probably the one with the least amount of shit happening. For all these reasons it's at once the most streamlined but probably also the most hollow of these films.

The first ten or fifteen minutes of the film involves Smaug's destruction of Lake-town, and his demise at the hands of Bard (and his son, used as a bow of sorts), which really feels like it should have been added to The Desolation of Smaug. I mean, the end of Smaug was actually really cool - "I AM FIRE! I AM DEATH!" it's such a cool way to gear you up for the final installment...but all that badass shit is undermined from Smaug's near-instant dispatched here. We then get into The Hobbit's villain problem - there's just way too many dire threats to keep track of: Smaug / Necromancer / Azog are all significant big bads who only sort of work together. Desolation of Smaug was all about the big dragon, and that film probably should have ended with his death, which could have still have caused a hook-worthy cliffhanger of every army in Middle-Earth looking to the riches now dragon-free mountain.

The Necromancer was also built up fairly significantly, but is also dispatched by Galadriel's Ring Girl powers, I guess. It was nice to see Elrond and Saruman kick some ass against the Ringwraiths...but what is happening here? Does Elrond have a magical ghost sword? Christopher Lee is still alive? God bless him. This scene isn't really necessary besides a chance to showcase a lot of old favorites kicking ass and a bit of the process of the White Council foreshadowing Saruman's eventual betrayal. Is this part needed in this movie in any satisfying narrative sense? Not really.

So that just leave us with Azog. And Bolg, his son, I guess. Bolg is kind of a cool Cyborg-Orc who is somehow really really hard to kill while the rest of the orcs literally die from rocks thrown at their heads. I think he really ended up with way too much screentime, battling Kili, Tauriel, and Legolas all significantly before Legolas uts him down. And why did Legolas get to kill him? He's avenging the death of the guy who wanted to bang the chick he was into. That just seems weird to me. I mean, Legolas is a noble dude and all, but wouldn't Tauriel be a more fitting and equally capable character to avenge Kili's death? Like the rest of this film, it seemed like more a showcase for old favorites to do cool shit than an attempt at any kind of narrative solvency.

Now, I'm shitting all over this film, but it does some nice character work with Bilbo and Thorin especially, and the ups, downs, backslides, loyalty, betrayal (perceived or otherwise) of their relationship keeps this film going. Thorin is unfortunately insufferable for about the first two-thirds which just makes the proceedings really irritating, especially when Bard is really likable and reasonable. Thranduil is still a dick, but at least he's rational. Dragon sickness my ass, Thorin sucks.

But when he finally comes around, he's noble and awesome and the movie can finally get going. I feel like if this was sped up the film could have probably clocked in at an hour and a half or so, which, with some Necromancer trimming, wouldn't have made an entirely awful second film to be done with it. Thorin's duel with Azog is also a highlight, and one where the person who should have his vengeance, gets his vengeance. The ice river battle is pretty unique, especially after the Lord of the Rings Trilogy mostly spent time in the South of Middle-Earth. It's a good play on the temperature of the region they're in.

I would have been okay actually if they had left it with Azog drowning in the icy water. It's a nice twist for Thorin the obstinate dwarf to use his smarts and surroundings to beat an opponent who is physically more than his match. The mutual annihilation play was actually disappointing. Thorin never got to enjoy all that work he did to regain his home, although I suppose he wouldn't have been any good with that, considering he went crazy with greed anyway. There wasn't really an effective denouement, to be honest, where all the gold was divvied up and everyone was happy. We could have actually used a Return of the King (2003) ending to wrap up everything needed.

I'm not sure I have all that more to say about this film. I'm not sure we'll remember the cool Thorin / Azog fight this time next year like we remember the Smaug / Bilbo riddle battle. There's something to be said for using your intellect against pitch-perfect voiceover and CGI dragon work rather than just a cool ice battle. The Azog CGI was actually really good, I actually tended to lose myself a little bit, thinking it was a dude in a suit at times. And maybe they pulled some Jurassic Park shit and interloped the two, I'm not sure.

By the way, what were the Five Armies? I've actually always been curious about this since reading the book. Was it Dwarves, Elves, Men, Orcs, and Eagles? Or could you consider it Dwarves, Elves, Men, Azog's Army, and Bolg's Army? Or Dain, The Company, Elves, Men, and Orcs? Where do the Bats fit in? Is Beorn  his own Army? Oh shit, by the way, why the hell didn't we get more Bear-Beorn destroying hundreds of orcs action? I'd watch ten minutes of that shit over ten minutes of Legolas trying kill Bolg when Tauriel should have kicked his ass instantly! Yes, I clearly would have done this movie completely differently. Here's to the Extended Edition.

The last thing I'll say is that this film was full of interesting mounts, which were really cool. Of course the King of the Elves rides a huge moose thing with antlers than line orcs up well for smooth decapitating. And of course Dain of the Iron Hills rides a big fat piggie. And where did Thorin and company get those rams? They were actually incredibly useful for assaulting a snowy mountain!
Quick! Name more than...two of these.

Okay, I did like this movie, but I didn't feel much watching it. Maybe that was because I literally forgot almost everything going into it, and there was virtually no recap at all (I like to imagine this was done to streamline marathon viewings in the future...). I had no idea, for instance, why Bard was in jail or who half of the Lake-town characters were. The characters haven't been as endearing as the equally impressive and expansive cast of the Lord of the Rings. Perhaps that's because we actually got to know these people instead of half of the Dwarves, who I could swear I saw for the first time in the goodbye scene. Maybe it's because there's more moments of intimate character instead of just sequences of barrel racing and battling. For whatever reason, this just always feels like surface-level entertaining stuff instead of anything meaningful.

So, here's to The Silmarillion Parts 1-24 (2023). I would actually still legitimately watch a Silmarillion movie.

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