Directed by: Peter Jackson
Produced by: Carolynne Cunningham
Screenplay by: Fran Walsh
Guillermo del Toro
Based on: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman
Music by: Howard Shore
Cinematography by: Andrew Lesnie
Editing by: Jabez Olssen
Studio(s): New Line Cinema
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date(s): December 12, 2014 (United Kingdom)
December 17, 2014 (United States)
Running time: 144 minutes
Country(s): New Zealand
Production budget: $250 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $866, 846, 308
I may be tired, cranky, irritable, in short, all things to all people right now (don't worry, I smile all the while), but the show must go on, and I'm getting on with these reviews. Films in the proverbial line of fire include Exodus: Gods And Kings, The Wind Rises, Oculus, The Theory Of Everything, Whiplash and American Sniper, and also soon to be marched out and scrutinised by my piercing gaze Nymphomaniac, Stranger By The Lake, Boyhood, Calvary and The Basement. Hopefully I'll get through a few more as well (specifically, I'm wanting a look in at Inherent Vice and Life Itself), because what I've decided to do is to continue my reviews simultaneously as I work on my Best and Worst of 2014. I'll just ensure that I have my cutoff point and I stick to it (somewhat!). So, for all the latest and greatest as regards to the movies, keep your eyes posted!
Today's film up for review is The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, the final film in both Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy of films and (for now anyway) his last instalment of the six-film Middle-Earth saga adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. Being marketed with the tagline "The Defining Chapter" puts a lot of weight of expectation upon the shoulders of this film, especially with the quality of the work beforehand. It's no secret that The Hobbit films were less well-received than The Lord Of The Rings pictures, but An Unexpected Journey was still a very good flick and The Desolation Of Smaug was a great film, just shy of entering my top ten of last year. However, as evidenced by the box-office numbers, they are still profitable movies and people are clearly more than willing to pay to see them. Also, with the production history of this whole Middle-Earth saga, a twenty-year journey since Jackson and Fran Walsh pitched a trilogy of Middle-Earth films the first two based upon The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings back in 1995, an adventure certainly worth lengthy chronicling in it's own right, clearly they're looking to go out with a bang. One thing we should note before I start this, is that as regards production, we cannot forget that The Hobbit trilogy was originally meant to be a two-part film and that it was decided six months before the release of An Unexpected Journey that it was to split into three films. I have to admit that I opposed the decision, for if you read the book it is quite clear where exactly you would cut that into two parts. Obviously, Tolkien didn't write it that way, but it works well for adaptation. That being said, Jackson, Walsh and co are quite clearly passionate about this stuff, so I'll always give something the benefit of the doubt before I see it and make my decisions. So, plot synopsis goes that after his emergence from the Lonely Mountain, Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) is slain by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), but not before destroying Laketown in his wake. Becoming leader of Laketown, Bard forms an alliance with Thranduil (Lee Pace) the Elvenking, who has provided aid for Bard's people, to claim a share of the treasure in the Mountain, gold to aid the rebuilding of Laketown and an elven necklace of white gems, in the absence of Smaug. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) the grey wizard arrives to warm them of the impending arrival of a massive orc army who are looking to seize the treasure upon the death of Smaug. Meanwhile, they are informed by the intrepid Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) that Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has gotten "dragon sickness" and been driven mad by his obsessive pursuit of the Arkenstone, the royal jewel of the dwarf-kingdom of Erebor, ordering his band of dwarves to seal them into the Mountain. The key to their ability to negotiate, though, lies in the fact that Bilbo has stolen the Arkenstone himself, for Bard and Thranduil to bargain with and so that Thorin can see reason amidst his mania. Got that? Good!
To start off the good, as is perhaps to be expected but not taken lightly, the mise-en-scene is wonderfully realised. I mentioned in a review for Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem that Peter Jackson is one of the best filmmakers for seeing to the realisation of his film worlds. His Middle-Earth, as ever, is up to the standard we have come to expect from these films. Every aspect, from the costumes to the production design to the makeup and hair to the craftmanship of the weaponry is done on a massive scale and yet not without the finest attention to detail. You see this abundance of extras all fully kitted out and while I know that CGI plays a part in that, you still sometimes can't help but go "wow!" at just how big everything is. The sets also make this feel like a living, breathing world. Also, the large battle sequences, particularly the stunts and choreography involved the destruction of Laketown and Five Armies sequences, are of a consistently high standard of excellence. Now, that's the mise-en-scene, I've got to mention some of the technical qualities of the film, which tend towards the standards set by those involved in the mise-en-scene. Andrew Lesnie is a fine DP who has shot just about everything, from modest little pictures like Babe (one of my favourites) to all of these colossal Middle-Earth pictures with the same approach to quality control. People had been sniffy about the whole 48 FPS when the first film came out, and I said then that it wasn't a problem, and now it seems almost like a footnote. The first film looked good, so did the second and so does this one. Not only that, but in the midst of his doing a fine job of capturing all the action on hand, it has a look that is visually distinctive to that of The Lord Of The Rings films. Another of the regulars, Howard Shore, is of course on board and gives a very good score. It's his musical compositions that among the things people look forward to with these films, and he delivers with gravitas and gusto. Not only are there individual pieces of distinction (Guardians Of The Three), he also plays appropriately to the movie's tone and pace. The argument could made that these regular collaborators like Lesnie and Shore are phoning it in, simply doing what they always do, but the fact is is that they do it well and you certainly get the impression that they, like everyone else, legitimately care about the material. The final thing I'd like to praise about The Battle Of The Five Armies (which I shall now refer to as TBOTFA. I normally hate acronyms, but I'm not especially fond of overly mouthy titles) is the performance of Richard Armitage. Now, while you've also got the likes of Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen in there, it's Armitage work as Thorin, particularly during his descent into madness, which impresses most. I've always found him to be a believable and strong leader for the band of dwarves, but this is the first time we have really got to see him dig into a challenging role, and he passes with flying colours. His tones of speaking are at times frighteningly menacing, and even just watching him walk around this sea of gold, his facial expressions as he sits on a makeshift throne like Tony Montana sitting behind his mountain of cocaine, there's something distinctly Macbethian about his slouching about. It's a standout performance, and on the basis of this I can tell you I'm looking forward to seeing his interpretation of Francis Dollarhyde in the upcoming third season of Hannibal.
Now, as you can gather from all that, there's a good bit I liked and admired about TBOTFA. However, despite have these positive attributes, it is a deeply flawed film which, frankly, is a major disappointment in light of the work preceding it. The main reason for this is the film's script, a screenplay that I am shocked didn't come under the radar of those writing it. Four people (Jackson, Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) are credited as having wrote this and all of them gave it the okay. Not one of them noticed just how it is structurally all over the place and in fact rather messy. This is no spoiler alert, but the prologue of the film consists of the fifteen-minute Laketown destruction and slaying of Smaug, which is fine in and of itself, but it's place in the overall story is terribly misjudged. The Desolation Of Smaug finished on that cliffhanger note, and it disappoints on the promise that ending, and degrades the character of Smaug and his importance to the story by relegating him to a prologue before the fancy film title design comes up. Also, much of the film, which consists of a setup to the titular battle, feels like a ponderous, overlong prelude. One could perhaps justify it as the third-act of a trilogy, but as a three-act movie itself, it feels like the whole movie is a portentous third-act, dragging it's feet along and trying to get as mileage out of this as is possible. The flimsiness extends too to some of the subplots involved in the film. The romance between Tauriel (an original character not from the Tolkien book that I actually praised in my review for The Desolation Of Smaug) and Kili is botched, leaving poor Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner walking on thin ice that threatens to collapse around them, what with the ship-shoddy dialogue that they've been given. Furthermore, strangely quite the opposite to the criticisms (false criticisms, in my opinion) levelled at The Return Of The King taking too long to finish, TBOTFA is too hastily brought to a conclusion, leaving none of the resonance that we gained from many of the other films in the Middle-Earth films. What this concludes to me is that, while it was a financially lucrative prospect, this quite clearly should have been a two-part film. Cut back all the unnecessary Basil Over-Expository stuff, have the slaying of Smaug be the end of the second-act and TBOTFA itself be the third-act to a film. Have both films hit near the three-hour mark so you can both improve An Unexpected Journey and compress the last two films into one. Many have commented on the 144-minute running time as a lean and welcome surprise; instead, I think it's indicative that this story was running on fumes, trying to pad it out so that it'd be an 'epic' feature film with an equivalent running time. My final conclusion is that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh in their respective roles as director and producer should have realised this and that just because the movie is guaranteed to make at least $800 million it is not justifiable to deliver a sub-par film. I have to admit that for all it's faults, it's still a decent movie, but given the standards of excellence that have been set before, it is truly disappointing to conclude on this note.
TBOTFA is a movie whose production standards more than match that of it's predecessors. I've nothing but good things to say about the wonderfully realised mise-en-scene, whose production design, costumes, make-up/hair and general craftsmanship is superb. Technically, it's an astute film, with terrific CGI, shot with aesthetic care and quality control by Andrew Lesnie, and it features another solid score from Howard Shore. Also, Richard Armitage delivers an almost Macbethian performance as Thorin Oakenshield. However, while it has those things which doubtless worthy of merit, they do not all maketh a great movie, as is evidenced by the film's shoddy script. It truly is a mess of a work; structurally flimsy, full of throwaway subplots with weak dialogue and rather hastily put together, it in fact degrades Tolkien's work, particularly the character of Smaug, as oppose to enriching or enlightening it. Jackson, Walsh and co should have been aware of this, because for all the money it makes and however decent it may be, I'd rather see a truly great work than a disappointing, sub-par Middle-Earth film not up to the standards which have been set.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 5.1/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Alright (busy little bee, believe you me!)