Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Two years ago the first Hobbit movie turned out to be a crushing disappointment. No one expected Peter Jackson to deliver something so lukewarm and bloated, and it was clear that cramming in three movies was never going to be the best solution for quality control. The second movie was a minor improvement, because it cut down the running time and Smaug was truly a visual and aural spectacle. It still wasn’t overall a very good movie though. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the best of the three prequels, but that’s not saying much. And it probably feels like a better film mostly because the expectations from this movie were very low.

Five Armies picks up immediately where the previous movie left off – Smaug (once again voiced by Cumberbatch’s most excellent vocal cords), pissed off by the presence of Bilbo and the dwarves sets off to destroy Lake Town. Back in the Lonely Mountain Thorin, the leader of the group is seduced by the gigantic reserves of gold and the Arkenstone in Erebor.

It seems like the perfect setup for a huge finale – the problem is, it’s all very anti climactic. Smaug gets killed too fast. It’s quite frustrating, because we’ve been teased with Smaug’s buildup for two whole movies and he’s put down in a matter of ten minutes in this movie. The focus jarringly shifts to the Elves and the humans joining hands to attack Erebor, because Thorin refuses to give them their share of the gold. Thorin in retaliation calls a cousin and his whole army of dwarves to fight against the Elves and the men. Meanwhile Azog rounds up a huge army of his Orcs to attack everyone, making Erebor seem like a mixer grinder. It’s all supposed to be epic, and many of the ‘attack’ moments are quite rousing, but they all end in cringe inducingly limp ways. A few new creatures are briefly shown, and suddenly disappear. The Orcs organize an army of bats in various buildup scenes, and they’re taken care of off screen. It’s strange and it feels like Jackson had a lot of will power at the beginning and suddenly lost all interest in making the film.

The problems from the previous two films carry over to an even higher extent in the third film. None of those seven (or was it eight or nine) dwarves have any distinct personality, it’s impossible to distinguish who’s who, and when something bad happens to them you just can’t care. Combine that with a horrible love story between one of the dwarves and the Elf Tauriel and you have a melodramatic disaster on your hands. The trilogy’s core problem has always been the underwritten dwarves, and Jackson’s choice to constantly bring in characters, settings and the nostalgia from the previous trilogy than to make a new world here. LOTR worked because of its unforgettable characters, and it’s the opposite here. We knew in The Fellowship of the Ring itself that the dwarves ended up dead in the mines of Moria. Imagine how terrific this trilogy would have been had Jackson focused on the story of these dwarves rather than use them as placeholders to showcase the same people from the previous movies.

It’s also unclear as to whose eyes the Hobbit films are being told from. The film is called The Hobbit but it’s not about him. On one hand there’s Bilbo who is supposed to anchor the films but he’s shoved aside to bring in an LOTR element just when he gets interesting. The POV of the dwarves is nonexistent because they hardly matter. Plus there’s Gandalf doing his own thing, and the Elves too, and the humans as well, none of which is explored well enough to have any significant impact. They all just go through the motions in their green screen boxes, participating in the same narrative they did twelve years ago.

The only thing more frustrating than Jackson’s choice of telling a similar story again, is by telling it with a ton of fake looking CGI. It’s hands down, the biggest, most annoying element of these films. It’s been twelve years since the last LOTR movie and the visuals in those films look more real, more immersive than any of these films that have a threefold budget. What does work in this movie is the wonderful Martin Freeman, only because he’s the only one in the movie who seems to be in it for the story, not for the cash grab.

Gaffes aside, The Battle of the Five Armies is a harmless action movie. It’s fun in a few places and does a lot of fan service for those who’ve read the books. It’s just forgettable, but certainly unavoidable for those who’ve seen the previous five movies. Jackson treats this property as his precious, let’s just hope someone takes away the ring from him and he gets back in form with Tintin 2.    

(First published in Mid Day)

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