The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (film, 2015)
Last April I wrote a review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Do the thing and click the words to read it. Yesterday, I went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. This is the only one of the three that I saw at the cinema. I kind of wish I hadn’t. Partly for parenting reasons; having watched the first two and found them adventurous romps more or less suitable for six-year-old Benny (as with many other 12 certificate films featuring fantasy fights), we took him with us. He loved it, but my wife was quite shocked at how much more violent than the other two it was, and that made me a bit uneasy. There is a shift in tone between films two and three. That’s a failure of judgment on my part, though. It says 12 on the packet for a reason, kids.
Despite my shocking parenting, Benny will be okay. He’s only ever been frightened of Spooky Spoon from the Numberjacks, and not even that any more. I pointed out to Emma that much of our formative viewing experiences were super-violent Westerns, where although the many men that died fell bloodlessly and easily, they still died. Furthermore, such films and shows culturally sanctioned racist violence by celebrating the genocide of the original Americans. No one in fifty years, I think, will pen a post-post-modern retrospective on the unjust portrayal of the orc as Savage Other.
Instead they’ll bemoan the awful CGI said orcs were presented in, but more of that later.
Having reread my thoughts from nine months ago (as always they could have been written by anyone. I curse again the feeble nature of human recollection), I’ll direct you back there. What I said about film one and film two stand for film three, only more so. Jackson’s need to cram even more elephant into his circus gives us an overblown, over-long film packed out with pointless filler material that obliterates the story. Everything is huge! The orcs, described as man-sized and smaller by Tolkien, are massive. There are many trolls and other things at the climactic battle (it lasts for forty-five minutes. Too long of a climax of any kind), and these are GIGANTIC. This inflation in stature does nothing but diminish their threat, cutting the ropes that suspend disbelief with swooping swooshes of their town-sized swords. For how could anything like people persist in Middle-earth in the face of such foes? By that point these annoyances had become academic. I was already lost. Preceding the enormo-trolls are a trio of giant, rock-munching worms that take my prize for most unnecessary cinematic flourish ever.
I rewatched The Fellowship of the Ring last week with some trepidation. The Phantom Menace – shush, this is a worthy digression – destroyed a large part of my love for the original Star Wars movies. Mostly because the prequels were decried as puerile nonsense by people who had enjoyed the old movies as children. Scales fell from my eyes, and I realised the exact same criticism could be levelled at Star Wars itself and indeed had been, many, many times. Never mind Joseph Campbell. I came to enjoy the prequels in that light, even as they lessened my regard for the original three. It probably did me good, although I had a few years of pointing out that, in effect, Emperor Palpatine was wearing no clothes.
So, I feared the same effect for the LOTR movies (pardon my slovenly use of abbreviation, but I can’t be arsed to write out The Lord of The Rings over and over again). This did not occur. LOTR remains a careful, considered adaptation of material much loved and so difficult to get right. Hard choices were made about what to cut and what to embroider, and they were mostly the right decisions. Yadda, yadda. I’ve said all that before. This is extra: The human scale of those films is important to their success. The orcs are actual people with masks on. The trolls are big, but not gargantuan. The threat is great, but surmountable. There is a justifiable amount of CGI creating a number of thrilling action sequences that complement the more or less sensitive handling of Tolkien’s story and the very fine acting on show.
Fast forward to Hobbit 3, and we have a welter of Playstation cut scene nonsense. Everything is a giant and brash, from the orcs to the liberties taken with the source material. Somewhere, buried beneath it all, is a charming story being acted out very hard by excellent thespians. But we don’t care about that, do we? Right? Right? We want more computer generated giant orcs and some tragic elf-dwarf love action (WTF?!) because the original story is not emotionally impactful enough, is it? Here’s shorthand: Compare Aragorn’s duel with Lurtz in Fellowship (and Boromir’s subsequent death) with Thorin’s fight in Hobbit 3.
And there are no warsheep or battlemooses in LOTR.
There are a lot of individual, nitpicky criticisms I could make of The Hobbit. I have neither the time nor the inclination. The films show the curse of the modern auteur. I do not know for sure, but I venture that the huge success of LOTR freed Jackson to do what he likes, and that he has far fewer people telling him what he can and cannot do now than 15 years ago. King Kong showed worrying signs. The Hobbit is far worse. I firmly believe that effective creativity needs boundaries, like kingship. A bad man can be a good king with the right advisors. No matter their personal merits, people who have no one to tell them when they are going wrong make awful kings and worse playwrights.
Penury, syphilis, alcoholism, madness, public school… These were the preferred artistic trammels of yesteryear. I’d not inflict those on modern artists. But sometimes we professional creatives need someone to creep up to us when we’re arm-deep in our sandpit of golddust playing happily, shouting, “Way! Whoosh! Take that Sauron! Here comes an enormo-troll, whatcha gonna do now Thorin?” and whisper “This is all a load of balls, you know that, right?”
Because, and despite glinting gems buried therein, that is what The Hobbit trilogy turned out to be.