The Hollywood director Howard Hawks was once asked what he believed made a good film, and his no-nonsense reply is the title of this post: “Three good scenes, and no bad ones.” And while I’m by no means an aficionado of Mr Hawk’s filmography (which is pretty stellar), I’m using his criteria to back me up when I Reckon that Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” (henceforth BotFA) is not a good film.
I am a massive fan of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s epic world-building like nothing else, with a superlative attention to detail, vision, social and cultural history, language, and design. JRR Tolkein gave him a lot to work with, but Jackson and the teams from Weta Workshop delivered a masterpiece trilogy, up there with the best cinema of recent times. I’ve devoured the massive library of DVD Extras, marvelled over the differences between Elvish and Dwarf armour, and I love revisiting the films with (or without) my daughters.
I was a bit sceptical of The Hobbit trilogy as soon as I heard about it. I won’t retread all the arguments made by so many about the length etc; suffice to say my elder daughter can read the novel quicker than she can watch the three films. During the first two films in the series I just about managed to suspend my disbelief, and, like Dorothy in Oz, kept thinking “This is not a film of the book of The Hobbit” (repeat until nearly convinced).
Wes Anderson’s brilliant Fantastic Mr Fox brings grown-up existential angst to a cartoonish children’s hero. Peter Jackson has added hundreds of years of Tolkein’s lore that hardly anyone has ever read to the slight but charming tale of a Hobbit-creature and created a sprawling mess that is often fabulous to look at, but is ultimately diminishing returns writ very large, and very, very long. I don’t like to reference the two Star Wars trilogies, because (whispers) I’m not such a massive fan of the first three; let’s face it, they’re more than a bit clunky, there’s barely any story and the script is appalling. Empire Strikes Back is great, though… But I have to fight hard not to think The Hobbit diminishes and tarnishes the Middle Earth cinema for which Jackson has been so widely and rightly lauded.
Too many characters, not enough time…
Some of Jackson’s problems do come from the text. There are thirteen dwarves on this quest to recover their homeland, or steal treasure, or whatever. And as is the preference of their proud race, their names are often very similar. And while the film-makers went to extraordinary lengths to create specific hairstyles and elaborate beards, most of the time I couldn’t recall who was who, or why. Thorin and Kili aside, they have a collective story-arc rather than anything personal to their character, which meant I simply couldn’t care about them as individuals. Except for James Nesbitt, I love him.
At the same time, so many of the other characters they meet are poorly drawn or don’t get enough screentime for me to care about them either. The Goblin King in the first film is a grotesque creation who actually has some terrific lines, but he’s gone, slaughtered almost as soon as we start to appreciate him. Despite virtually 9 hours of story-telling, there are hardly any characters I care about, and most of them are also in the LoTR films, meaning I brought my baggage with me.
It’s not about the book…
It’s often a fatal flaw of film reviews to compare the cinematic version, but I’m going to take that risk. I don’t object per se to Jackson’s expansion of the tale of Bilbo and the Dwarves’ quest to The Lonely Mountain with legend and lore from previous centuries of Middle Earth, and looking forward to the LotR stories and the return of Sauron.
BUT (and you knew this was coming) in order to shoe-horn in the antagonists of Azog and Bolg, he had to radically rework aspects of Tolkien’s history to meet the needs of the film. I’ve complained about this before, and it still riles me. Leave bits out, be biased in highlighting themes or characters, but don’t just make sh*t up because it suits you. If you want to make stuff up, write an original screenplay.
Azog is a Tolkien creation, but he was killed in battle hundreds of years earlier. Tauriel the elf is an entirely new creation simply to bring an actual female character into the story (or else, you know, women and girls wouldn’t buy tickets). And of course, if there’s a gorgeous female character, she surely has to be the love-interest for one of the men (why couldn’t she just be heroic and strong on her own terms?), which means creating a whole new story arc for Kili (or was it Fili?). And so eventually poor old Kili (I think) gets killed by a created enemy defending a created love-interest in a (very impressive) sequence that lasts at least 15 minutes.
And given that the entire quest for the gold beneath The Lonely Mountain is about Thorin Oakenshield reclaiming his ancestral home and kingdom, it beggars belief that Jackson, such a passionate devotee to the spirit of Tolkien and Middle Earth, would omit the chance to dramatise Thorin’s ceremonial burial that could bring a close to the whole quest, instead glossing over it in a thrown-away line.
Spectacle over Substance
The LotR trilogy was made over a decade ago, yet its effects look just as good as those in The Hobbit. Increasingly as the trilogy goes on, it felt like Jackson was simply skipping from one tentpole effects sequence to the next, many of which felt like a video game.
In LotR, we saw how individuals were swept up in massive events. At Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith, we followed Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn, or Pippin, Merry and Gandalf as they were caught up in a war for the future of the world. Here we just get hordes of men / orcs / elves / dwarves swarming over a landscape fighting for a lot of gold (I think) but nothing much besides, and the individuals (if we can even remember their names) are completely lost. Billy Connolly rides in on the back of a giant boar, says a few things in broad Scottish (so Dwarves are basically Celts? Gimli was Welsh, if I recall), swings a big hammer, then vanishes from the plot.
And after hours of Jackson creating ‘authentic’ battle scenes and world-building, we get the deus ex machina to end them all, the bloody eagles, who having allowed the slaughter of thousands, turn up at the end to apparently end the battle in a matter of minutes. 25 eagles defeat whole armies. Whatever.
Let me be clear, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies has at least three good scenes. Every moment with Martin Freeman, the whole sequence of Smaug destroying Laketown, and the sequence at Dol Guldur are all terrific.
But there are lots of bad scenes, huge plot holes, terrible script decisions, and a real loss of character humanity that was never a problem in Lord of the Rings. I’m sure this was Peter Jackson’s dream to fully realise Middle Earth, but I Reckon he should have been more careful what he wished for. This is often spectacular to behold, but ultimately to almost no effect.