The subtitle of the first in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films adapting JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit was An Unexpected Journey – a play on the opening chapter of the book. It wasn’t particularly unexpected that Jackson returned to Middle Earth, but it was, at least initially, surprising that we were to be given three films.
Like Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who in this film becomes maddened by greed, distributors Warner Bros simply couldn’t resist the temptation of another money-spinning three-film extravaganza. Predictably, that decision has hurt the artistic credentials of Jackson’s new epic adaptation. We are lucky, I suppose, that Jackson is comfortable enough in Tolkien’s world that the films have not failed entirely, though it is equally true that Jackson’s vision – essentially pumping up The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings proportions – has caused problems in itself. One wonders where we’d be if Guillermo del Toro had been kept on as director.
I went into The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies no longer expecting an adaptation of the book, so much as a continuation of the uneven, padded out, but generally still enjoyable trilogy which began a couple of years ago. In that respect I got precisely what I was expecting.
At two hours and 20 minutes, The Hobbit 3 is the shortest of the three by some distance, but it doesn’t begin particularly well. Smaug the dragon is reintroduced and dispatched within the opening 10 minutes, then there’s a good deal of set up for the titular battle, which involves a number of parties all interested in laying claim to the mountain, Erebor, which Thorin and Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) party have just recaptured. While Thorin’s sense of honour dwindles in the face of his mounting greed and selfishness, armies gather outside, and there’s a bit of politicking while the various parties decide who they’d most like to violently slaughter. This stuff is fairly enjoyable, as the key players – including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), leader of the Elves Thranduil (Lee Pace) and Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) – sort out their allegiances. Meanwhile Bilbo (Martin Freeman), increasingly a supporting character in the trilogy named after him, acts as a sort of go-between until the action kicks off.
When the battle begins, we’re reminded on occasion that Jackson can do big set pieces, and do them well, but actually the fighting is rather anodyne, perhaps because the various parties aren’t hugely well established. The battle begins to drag a little, but thankfully Jackson refocuses his film in the final half an hour to focus on individual battles, and individual outcomes. This is a gratifying and ultimately rewarding decision. Most of the best stuff in The Hobbit 3 comes at the end, which leaves a pleasant taste as the trilogy grinds to a halt with a touching nod to the Lord of the Rings films. I was reminded in these final scenes of how good Jackson can be at working character moments into action films, and pleasingly a decent amount of characters get enjoyable goodbyes.
Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo has probably been the element of Jackson’s films which most closely adheres to the book, and it’s still fun to watch him in the role, even though the films abandoned telling things from his perspective some time ago. The trilogy has simply become too big for its diminutive hero.
Generally speaking, Jackson and his two co-scriptwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, do a decent job with the script (the three of them, plus occasional others, have scripted all six of Jackson’s Middle Earth epics), but there are a few moments of pretty risible dialogue in here. The scripts of this trilogy have never been as sharp or as powerful as those of the previous one, nor have the technical aspects ever risen to quite the same levels. The CGI here, while impressive in places, still lacks the beauty Jackson captured previously, and the soundtrack, while again strong, doesn’t ever reach the same heights.
So it’s pretty much more of the same, but to expect otherwise would’ve been wishful thinking. Thankfully, Jackson bows out of Middle Earth on a relative high, and fleetingly reminds us how great he once was in this world. Three stars would’ve been four if the first hour and a half could’ve matched that rousing final act.