When it was first announced that Peter Jackson would be expanding J.R.R. Tolkien's shortest novel into three whole films, most responded with incredulity. Why? Why would it take so long for them to be completed? Why did Guillermo del Toro pull out halfway through pre-production? Certainly a large motivator is the lesson in revenue generation that Hollywood learned from the Harry Potter franchise, one that has since been applied to nearly every major fantasy series (Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc.)—namely, when an audience is hooked, they'll pay twice for the same product. But somehow, Jackson's assiduous adaptation of The Lord of the Rings—done with all the nerdy care that the subject deserved—convinced us that he was above that type of economic motivation. That respect for his Tolkien fandom, paired with Jackson's stated intent to expand beyond the scope of The Hobbit's limited setting, pulling in aspects from The Silmarillion and other Tolkien apocrypha, assuaged some fears and anxieties. Even after the first two disappointing films in the series, there was hope that this third episode would tie the whole grand story of Middle Earth together.
Director: Peter Jackson
Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: Jabez Olssen
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace
Country: New Zealand/USA
US Theatrical Release: December 17, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
The ending of Desolation of Smaug even seemed to be setting us up for some kind of transcendence. For those who don't remember (or dropped off after the first atrocious film) Jackson's penultimate Tolkien adaptation ends with an enraged Smaug flying off toward Lake Town with a vengeful glint in his eye and the meek, guileless Bilbo (Martin Freeman) whispering into the distant sky "What have we done?" A poignant closer for the end of a ludicrous movie, but one that promised something better yet to come. It was poised for an expansion on The Hobbit's cute tale of a little riddling Halfling, a magic ring, and a dragon. Yet, antithetically, this film actually falls short of Tolkien's originally modest scale, all while demonstrating that it has learned nothing from the first two Hobbit films or from the Lord of the Rings films that came before. This is CGI-bloated crap with Jackson's narrative "expansion" mostly centered on tacky romance storylines and misguided fan service—we probably see more of Legolas (Orlando Bloom in about 40 pounds of makeup) than we do of Bilbo or Gandalf.
Even the eponymous "battle of five armies" does little to bring excitement or connection to the story, and the gratuitous use of CGI makes the combat seem more like a live-stream of World of Warcraft than the suspenseful and terrifying combat that made The Lord of the Rings movies so strong. Thorin (Richard Armitage) has a cousin leading a brigade of dwarves back to their newly reclaimed homeland, but for some reason he appears to be completely computer generated; a red-bearded dwarf riding a huge pig might make a cool piece for your Warhammer set, but inserting the otherworldly glimmer of computer generation into Jackson's carefully maintained naturalist warfare makes everything around him look just as phony.
And the villains are just as bad, with most of them toting huge prosthetic weaponry or armor—like the huge stone helmets worn by the two-ton trolls who bash down castle walls or the steel claw arm of the central villain, Azog the Defiler. It's like Jackson took his concept sketches to a team of 8-year-olds who told him that he could make his bad guy scarier if they gave him a metal arm. Nearly every Orc or Goblin outside of the rank and file has some identifying prosthetic. In Jackson's original Tolkien trilogy the Orcs and (even more so) the Uruk-hai were terrifying and imposing because of their physicality. They were big men wearing a lot of makeup, and their sneer as they gutted one of the good guys was enhanced by the physical heft of the actor wrestling another one in a costume. Here in The Hobbit, Jackson has erased all of that physicality in favor of unnecessary CGI prosthetics. The result is that instead of imposing, these villains are cartoony—even when compared to their antecedents in Lord of the Rings.
The combat between the "five armies" (it's never fully clear what those armies are or why they matter) is also lacking. While there are exciting charges and heroic feats, the whole thing feels like it's over in a flash, and there's no sense of drama or urgency, or even strategy—it's just a huge rush of bodies trying to kill each other. Even the much-maligned animated The Hobbit (1977) did a better job of making the battle seem important. In that version, Bilbo, often wearing his magic ring, wandered through the combat scared and forlorn, watching the carnage slowly unfold around him. Its portrayal of war seemed closer to the truth—it was brutal, harsh, and overall boring, not a series of heroic charges but instead a ponderous march toward probable death while the enemy engages in the same. Particularly when fighting with swords and spears this seems more realist, since what can a swordsman do to someone further than five feet from them? The vast majority of these armies would just be slowly marching while the front line hacked away at each other. But in The Battle of Five Armies, the combat is all flash and bang. If your favorite scene in Jackson's original trilogy was Legolas skateboarding down the steps of helm's deep, shooting arrows all the way, (awesome dude!) then this film may satisfy you; there are a half dozen stunts of similar ilk—the strangest of which is Legolas leaping his way up the falling stones of a collapsing bridge in slow motion—but if you preferred instead such trivialities as drama, character, or perspective, or even if you delighted in the whimsy of the children's story on which this film was based, then you will be disappointed. Maybe Jonathan L. Fischer (of Slate) put it best when he wrote that Jackson had turned "a little story about a little dude who goes on a big quest into a huge story about a little dude who goes on an Awesome Chase." Just like Tolkien's 1960s attempt to rewrite The Hobbit (to incorporate more of the scope and background he put into The Lord of the Rings) this adaptation loses the light-heartedness and quick pace of the original material.
And the amount of Lord of the Rings fan service is just insulting, with cameos from Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Orlando Bloom. This film is begging us to love it, just like we used to love The Lord of the Rings. Billy Boyd (Pippin) even sings the song that plays over the film's credits. But no amount of nostalgia can make this film anywhere near as impactful as the first three were 10 years ago, and its desperate desire to draw those associations feels like Jackson is grasping at straws.
Part of the failure is self-imposed. When the first Lord of the Rings films were released, they set the bar for a new kind of fantasy movie—one that not only touched on all of those favorite Dungeons & Dragons tropes but was also beautiful, enveloping, and complete. And that bar has been raised even higher by works inspired by it, like the darkly cinematic Game of Thrones. Jackson, with all the same tricks he had up his sleeve the first time around, just can't keep up.