Given that I can recite almost all of the three Lord of the Rings films by heart, including much of the Elvish dialogue (Aragorn, nad no ennas! Don’t judge me), it’s a terrible sign that I’ve been unable to recall most details in either of its prequels, the first two Hobbit films. In fact, the book which was read aloud to me by my father when I was about seven has left more of an indelible print on my imagination than the hours and hours of films thus far.
Not that I didn’t enjoy them, exactly. I did. They were fan service, full of callbacks to the LOTR canon meant to please diehards like me in particular, with some spectacular and funny scenes interspersed with a bit too much walking.
But to say they were good… that would honestly be a stretch, and I’d have to reluctantly agree with Jason Bailey’s assessment that they failed mightily to live up to their predecessors. I wanted to go back to Peter Jackson after the first installment, in particular, and say, “A wizard should know better! A wizard should know better!” (That’s a little joke for the Ent-watchers in the audience.)
Yet in a happy turn of events, I’m delighted to report that the third Hobbit film (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) is a major improvement over the first two, with scenes that will please both a broad swath of folks who enjoy sweeping action sequences set amongst dazzling scenery, as well as the more avid fans of the Tolkien universe in particular.
So, how did Peter Jackson accomplish this at last?
To begin with, the film is mercifully short, clocking it at just over two hours. And furthermore, most of the two hours are occupied with extremely well-choreographed fighting. There’s a climactic man-vs.-dragon fight that opens the film, full of flames and arrows flying, and a lot of gorgeous destruction by dragon fire. Then, fairly soon thereafter, there’s the stirrings of a man-vs.-elf-vs.-stubborn-dwarf battle that soon awkwardly turns into a man-and-elf-and-dwarf-vs.-orc-and-troll battle and takes up a good hour-plus of the film’s running time. We are treated to Jackson’s usual tricks and effects. Legolas swings from some winged creatures while kicking orc ass. Heroes ride on carts down the steep streets of the ruined city, Dale, managing to trample only foes and no friends in their path.
And (spoiler!) Thorin Oakenshield, who has spent much of the film locked in the dragon cave turning into a Dwarven version of Scrooge McDuck (“gooold!”) with a voice growing suspiciously like the dragon whose stolen stuff composes this shimmering nest, finally shakes himself out of the greedy stupor he’s been in and emerges as a fierce fighter, hewing Orc limbs off their bodies left and right.
In the meantime, there’s a scene from the Tolkien appendices that some of us have been waiting for a long time to see. I’m talking about the White Council expelling the Necromancer from Dol Goldur, and if you have no idea what that means, just know this: there are brief but awesome cameos from Saruman, Elrond and Galadriel, and… the Nine. The nine? Yes, the nine.
You know of what I speak.
Another reason to enjoy the third Hobbit is that there are actual consequences to its action. If you read Tolkien’s children’s book, you might know that the body count at the end is a bit like the final Harry Potter installment in the way it casually offs a bunch of folks without much compunction or explanation. Peter Jackson remains true to the plot while fleshing out the final action scenes. It’s guaranteed to be a little bit of a heartbreaker.
Now, let me not mislead you. A lot of moments in The Battle of the Five Armies were plain silly, almost campy (particularly Thorin’s gold obsession). This film doesn’t come close to the sense of danger and moral complexity of the LOTR films at their finest. If the ultimate corruption of Boromir and relationship between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in the original three films and their source material are like Shakespeare, the moral dilemmas that occur in the Hobbit read like a fun remake of Shakespeare… set in a high school.
Still, this installment has a worthy message, as Thorin tells Bilbo during a pivotal scene: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” I mean, hear hear. In that spirit, I guarantee that if you enjoy this sort of film to begin with, you’ll be satisfyingly entertained when you walk out.