Monday, December 22, 2014

Battle of the Five Armies Review

 The Desolation of Smaug ended with Bilbo’s horrifying realization that he has just played a part in releasing an angry dragon on the town of Esgaroth: “what have we done?” he asks in horror before the screen turns black. The Battle of the Five Armies opens with the terrifying answer. Smaug’s attack on Lake-town is a visually superb experience: we get some beautiful shots of Smaug flying in the night sky paired with images of the terrible carnage and chaos he inflicts on the town. After watching the cat and mouse game between Smaug and the dwarves in the previous film, it was a treat to actually see Smaug as a formidable and frightening creature. This is the Smaug that attacked Erebor all those years ago. This is Smaug, the last of the great dragons of Middle-earth. His desolation of the town was paced well with the exploits of the master, Tauriel and the dwarves, and Bard. The ensuing conversation between Smaug and Bard begins to pull us out of this experience, yet those who have read The Silmarillion are reminded that this too, is how Tolkien’s dragons fight. They manipulate humans with words, feeding of their weakness and fear. Here, Smaug mistakes love for weakness and tries to instill fear and cowardice in Bard by taunting him with his son’s demise. But this moment only drives home what will be one of the main themes of film: that love, family, and home should be valued above the anger and greed that comes with gold. Bard shows just how powerful family is in defeating Smaug when he figuratively and literally uses his son as a weapon against the dragon.

  Given how much of Smaug we saw in the previous movie, I thought a proportionate amount of screen time was given to his death. When the titles appear after Smaug’s death, we are reminded that this film is not about the dragon's desolation; it’s about what happen's next.

  Unfortunately, after a strong opening, the film continues as a confusing and unbalanced mess. Too much time is spent on Lake-town characters no one cares about (I’m looking at you, Alfrid), on the forced romance between Tauriel and Kili, and on battle scenes that are not only difficult to follow visually, but also full of absurd, over the top, CGI stunts.

   The scenes of the Lake-town residents could have been great. But much—too much—time in Lake-town, or what was left of Lake-town, was devoted to either putting Bard’s children in danger only to have them be saved or to showing Alfrid desperately trying to leave town again and again with a few coins in his hand. It’s true that Bard’s family and Alfrid play an important role in the film. Putting Bard’s family in danger heightened our sense of urgency, made us sympathize with the people of Esgaroth, and deepened Bard’s character. The only real problem with them was that they were put in harms way—and then quickly saved from it—one too many times during the film. The point of Alfrid, and I think it's a very good one, is to show the evil of greed on a smaller scale. We saw the destruction greed and love of gold did on the larger scale when Smaug destroyed Lake-town. We begin to see it on perhaps an even grander scale when Thorin becomes infected with dragon sickness. But Alfrid (and the Master, though he dies early on in the film) shows the repercussions of greed on the ordinary, every day level. Alfrid’s continuous mission to try and flee the town with a handful full of treasure contrasts Bard’s mission to save his family and provide the town with what it needs to rebuild. But this important contrast becomes trite when we see it unfold twice, thrice, what felt like ten times over. When he cartoonishly puts on a dress and stuffs gold into his bodice to run away, it becomes just embarrassing. Time and time again he was used as the comic relief only to fail terribly. His humor (if you can call it that) felt forced and desperate. One, maybe two scenes with Alfrid after his initial screen time with the Master could have been enough for audiences to grasp his point in the film. In the end, there was too much time spent trying, and failing, to use this character to make us laugh. And certainly too much time building up a character who wasn’t all that significant or interesting. Time that could have been spent including something as important and touching as, oh I don't know, Thorin's funeral scene.

Of Thorin in The Battle of the Five Armies, one cannot ignore the incredible acting of Richard Armitage. Though the “dragon sickness” throughout the film was definitely a bit too heavy handed, Armitage played it well. And while there are a few scenes I could have done without, the deepening dragon sickness ultimately showcased Thorin’s strength when he eventually overcame it. Thorin’s scene with Bilbo after he discovers his acorn was particularly well acted and touching. This moment sharpened their friendship and made Thorin’s death scene all the more powerful. It was a shining moment for both Armitage and Freeman. And if the producers of The Hobbit trilogy did one thing right in these films, it was casting these two actors. One of the things I liked most in The Battle of the Five Armies was the fact that this film finally gave Freeman the opportunity to play the Bilbo Tolkien would have wanted: the Bilbo that brings not weapons into a fight, but humanity, heart, and steadfast courage to do the right thing. However, even this version of Bilbo is unsurprisingly and frustratingly inconsistent with the films’ previous portrayal of the character. From the start, the films have been hypocritical in their depiction of Bilbo, setting him up as an ordinary person with the capability to be a hero by just being who he is. But he is celebrated (and indeed, only accepted by Thorin) for his heroism and courage most when he jumps into battle. So much time is spent showcasing Bilbo as a warrior, as someone who out-fights more than he out-wits, so that in BotFA, when we hear Bilbo proclaim to Gandalf, “I am not a warrior,” we are once again getting conflicting messages. Are we meant to forget that not too long ago Bilbo jumped out of a tree and killed an orc right in front of Azog himself? This film's Bilbo, the Bilbo that uses his mind instead of his sword, is the one I would have like to be watching all along. And while I’m glad of his portrayal in the Battle of the Five Armies, it is not wholly consistent within the trilogy’s own characterization of Bilbo.

  Thorin’s death scene with Bilbo was—I’m going to go ahead and say it—perfect. His delivery of the line everyone was waiting for (a slightly altered, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song…”) was more than satisfactory, it was poignant, essential, and heartbreaking. Bilbo’s repetition of “but the eagles…the eagles…” was a brilliant touch. The eagles play a pivotal eucatastrophic role but their arrival does not undo or fix the damage that is already done. By Tolkien’s definition, even eucatastrophic endings cannot exist without loss, sorrow, or grief. In fact, eucatastrophe relies on it:
“ [Eucatastrophe] does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” – On Fairy Stories.
Bilbo’s desperate plea “…but the eagles…” shows the heartbreaking, but essential dyscatastrophe of eucatastrophe and is one of the (if not the) most important, emotional, and finest scenes in the whole trilogy.

  One of the worst faults of The Battle of the Five Armies was unsurprisingly, the look and feel of it. The location shooting and film sets of Lord of the Rings films were an essential part of what made the original trilogy so successful. Orlando Bloom’s performance in those films allows us to feel the magic of the elves physical agility in small, precious moments. When Legolas was the only one walking atop the snow on Caradhras, when he saw far ahead and reported back things we as the audience couldn’t even see, his extraordinary skill with a bow; all those subtle moments made Legolas an elf contributed to his otherworldliness. And all of that magic is missing from the Hobbit films. The action shots with Legolas in The Battle of the Five Armies make us long for the days when we rolled our eyes at his shield surfing abilities in The Two Towers. It’s not good to have too much of anything, and when that something detracts from the experience, when it takes us out of the moment rather than pulling us in, it only does the film damage.

The same can be said of the CGI throughout this film. There was so much of it, that it consistently pulled me out of the film.Is it possible that
George LucasPeter Jackson and company have never heard of the uncanny valley? Or is it that they just don’t care? Do they not expect viewers of the movie to be jolted out of the experience when we go from looking at Richard Armitage in Thorin costume to Dain Ironfoot, completely CGI? If I wanted to see my favorite scenes played out like a video game, I’d be playing LotRO. It goes without saying that the Battle scenes were likewise so computer animated that, at best, they were hard to follow. And, even taking CGI out of the equation, the orc army seemed so massive and unending that the other armies, even pulled together, seemed completely outnumbered by the orcs. If these were the same, dumb witted, barely armed orcs we saw in The Lord of the Rings, it would be one thing. But the orcs in BotFA were dressed head to toe in thick armor and weaponry, were taller and more muscular than any of the (CGI) dwarves, men, and elves and seemed to have a modicum of intelligence (not to mention, their own battle strategies). On top of that, many things about the battle scenes just didn’t make sense. Massive trolls were brought in only to be taken down oddly quickly. The orc army could persuade an army of
sandwormswere-worms to help them, but didn't dig straight under Erebor? And if the were-worms are another agent of evil we need to reckon with, where are they in LotR? The inclusion of these were-worms was clearly, unapologetically meant for ten seconds of “wow” factor and offer nothing else.

 The hard work of the CGI team, and surely, the whole team behind the Hobbit films, does not go unrecognized or unappreciated. But surely there could have been less animation, less over the top CGI action stunts, and more real actors, real costumes, and real make-up to create an authentic experience. An experience we know Peter Jackson and company are extremely capable of. When so many shortcuts are done in place of quality and authenticity, it's hard not to believe these movies are, in fact, a blatant cash grab. And it's even harder to believe that Jackson and company truly believe in the whole message that they send out in The Battle of the Five Armies. Ultimately, what this last Hobbit film (and indeed, this entire franchise) proves is something nearly everyone learns at a young age: “More” does not always mean “better.”

Here are a few moments that I really liked:
  •  The “almost death” of Azog. I think it would have been a death that Tolkien would have liked as well. In Tolkien’s work evil destroys itself and I think he would have approved of a death in which Azog is killed by the (literal and metaphorical) weight of his own weapon. It reminded me of the “almost death” of Smaug in DoS, where it seemed like Smaug was drowning in his own melted gold.
  • Seeing Saruman fight was a real treat. Knowing how much power he has in a fight makes his duel with Gandalf in Fellowship all the better. All of the White Council battle was impressive and interesting. I have no real problems with it except for an extreme personal dislike for the strange, green, deep-voiced and ghostlike version of Galadriel's power as we saw it in Fellowship. I know it makes Galadriel visually and appropriately otherworldly and powerful, but I wish this were done differently.
  •  The one thing I think most moviegoers can agree upon is that the acting throughout the Hobbit films has been phenomenal. Richard Armitage has a powerful presence on screen and he delivers is his strongest performance of Thorin yet in Battle of the Five Armies. Likewise, Martin Freeman is one of the most interesting actors to watch on screen and his Bilbo is played with affection, strength, and wisdom. Luke Evans rose up to the challenge of a more complex Bard, playing Tolkien’s “grim-voiced and grim-faced” man as a concerned and loving father figure.
  • The arrival of the eagles was nicely done and, as mentioned above, strengthened by Bilbo's effort to save Thorin. Beorn’s prescence, brief as it was, was precisely what we needed. I didn’t need any more Radagast in these films and so a brief moment with him and Beorn is enough to show us that other races of the world will help fight against evil.
  • I was glad to not see Frodo at the end of the film. This film set up The Lord of the Rings films plenty and bled into Fellowship nearly perfectly so I am happy enough with the last Hobbit film ending with the titular hobbit.
  • The scene with Bilbo and Gandalf sitting down after the battle was another highlight. This moment is certainly meant to reflect one of the beginning scenes in Fellowship, where Bilbo and Gandalf sit down and smoke before the party. The mirroring of the pair sitting over a battle's end in BotFA and sitting over a party's beginning in Fellowship was a very nice touch.
  [A couple of notes: I know there are many who believe we cannot yet judge this film because the Extended Edition are the “real” movies Jackson and company wanted to show, but couldn't. I can't understand that sentiment. The team had three movies to tell this story and made the editorial decision of what was essential enough to be in the theatrical release and that is the movie I am currently reviewing. As a student on Tolkien and long time fan, it’s admittedly difficult to look at these films with an entirely unbiased view. I want to be able to judge these movies as movies in their own right (which is giving a lot considering that they are an adaption of a novel). But whether or not I view the films as a reinterpretation of Tolkien’s Hobbit, they don’t stand up as quality films. Let me know what you think and if you disagree with any of my points, I ask that you do so amicably.]


  1. Good review Kelly. A solid end to a trilogy which has, for the most part, been fine.

  2. Been reading through several of your posts over the past few days. Ring structure and literary alchemy and all that goodness. Never heard of them, loved learning it in the context of fantasy. So thanks for the small introductions to those :)

    As for the Hobbit movies, I've learned to go into the last two with low expectations, and I sort of enjoy it... but my biased brain can't help getting in the way. I've pondered writing a blog or two about it, and then I remember my tiny audience of friends and family don't care as much as me, or at all. Absurd! So it's nice to find some common ground with someone who knows what's what :)

    One of the other major disappointments for me in the Hobbit movies has been the score. With the exception of the Dwarf song in the first movie, the entire score has felt generic and lifeless, and also aids in removing me from the experience. The LOTR score was mind blowingly good, adding the right emotions at the right moments, and totally sucking me in. I think another issue was just the "adaptation" process, which you touched on. LOTR definitely changed some things that a lot of people had problems with, but most(not all) of them seemed to have been made to convey important ideas, themes, and events in a way that would have been more difficult to manage if they were copied straight from the book to script. The Hobbit films just seemed frivolous and wrong to me haha. But they(specifically the last one) DID leave me inspired to dive into Tolkien's world more, and to share some of these stories in my own, hopefully less ridiculous way.

    Anyways, I'll be done ranting or whatever. Excited to keep exploring your blog over the next few days, and to read newer posts. Hope you are well!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for the kind words, Gabriel! It's always exciting to be able to introduce someone to things like literary alchemy and ring structure. They sort of blew my mind when I found out about them (I can't believe I never heard of them while I was earning my undergrad in literature!), so it's really cool to find people who want to explore it as well.
      And I have really similar sentiments concerning the Hobbit movies! The general consensus seems to be that this last one wasn't as bad as the previous two, but I feel like a lot of that has to do with people's expectations changing and being really low after seeing the first ones. As far as the score goes, THANK YOU for saying that! I thought I was the only one who was disappointed in it. When I was watching the first movie I kept feeling embarrassed for the filmmakers because it was so obvious that they were recycling through the LotR soundtrack and literally playing the same Dwarvish theme over and over and over again. It's a great theme and all, but do we really need to hear it every *single* time the dwarves spring into action (which, in these films, seems like every five minutes?)
      The one thing I can't complain about is, as you said, the fact that these movies are bringing in a new generation of Tolkien fans who want to explore the books and Middle-earth. That's always a good thing, and I'm definitely appreciative of that :)

      Thanks again for reading! It means a lot to me that there are people who take the time to read what I write :)

  3. Been meaning to comment for ages, but YES!! YOU NAILED IT.


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