Muddle of the five armies
(Warning! Plot and various narrative surprises discussed in detail. If you're the type who cares (which for the record I don't)--watch the movie first!)
Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is big, bloated, and bombastic to the point of boring; yet I prefer this (and its two preceding chapters) to all of Lord of the Rings, mostly thanks to Martin Freeman's performance as the eponymous creature.
Freeman's Bilbo Baggins, with his perennially startled expression and occasional glances of sidelong cunning (he's a burglar after all), helps keep the whole epic folly honest, human-sized; against a background of endless battles and all-around heroics, he represents the more quotidian goal of sustained breath, of (if at all possible) getting along with disparate parties who disagree, violently.
Only other interesting character is Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield, whose avarice is at times compellingly realized; unfortunately his is also (I suspect) a forty-minute role stretched to ninety or so minutes. For long periods Thorin functions much like a screen saver: glowering expression floating about onscreen for no particularly good reason.
The movie ends the way Jackson should've ended his LOTR series, with the Scouring of the Shire: as with many classic fantasies, the hero begins in the normalcy of his own home, moves out into the wide world; he eventually comes back, only it isn't exactly home--things have changed, of course.
While events in The Hobbit are conceived on a more modest scale, the sack of Bag's End does feel similar to the Scouring, with a similar takeaway lesson (you can't go home again). Bilbo is forced to prove his identity, and waves the contract he signed with the dwarfs. "Who's this Thorin Oakenshield?" the auctioneer asks. "A friend," Bilbo replies, and his expression speaks pages. Beneath the surprise and sidelong cunning there's a bedrock of decency in Bilbo that keeps drawing your eye, never mind if a dragon flies past or a troll lurch forward with a catapult mounted on his back; Freeman's performance makes the ordeal of watching the entire eight-hour behemoth (and its two-and-a-half-hour final chapter) seem worthwhile.
Freeman feels like an even bigger blessing when you realize what follows: Tolkien's even bigger book, with Bilbo reduced to eccentric sidelined uncle, and the duller Frodo Baggins steps (or rather stumbles) up to bat. As Elijah Wood plays him, Frodo's all noble suffering and not much else: a pair of huge puppy-dog eyes just welling with tears. Sean Astin's Sam Gamgee has to take up the burden of playing the comic relief, and while he has his moments it really does feel like a burden; everything does. Tolkien wanted a darker more adult narrative to follow his for-children adventure tale; Jackson indulges Tolkien's wishes for nine-plus hours, to the tune of an estimated three hundred million dollars.
Tolkien feels even more obsolete when you remember that next year the fifth season of Game of Thrones, the cable TV adaptation of George R.R. Martin's massive fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire will premiere on HBO. Where Tolkien's epic followed maybe three to five narrative strands through the war over the One Ring, Martin's follows thirty or so characters--a more supple way of telling a story, with brief chapters that veer in tone from low comedy to slow sensuality to outright horror, covering every topic from court intrigue to troubled marriages to long-drawn-out wars.
Certainly Martin benefits from Tolkien's example; the former has expressed his great admiration for the latter. Unlike Tolkien Martin doesn't shy away from human sexuality, the driving force behind much of human civilization, not to mention fantasy literature. Unlike Tolkien there's little that's divine or noble in Martin's characters; most of the time they're just recognizably flawed human beings (as opposed to ethereally graceful elves), muddling along the best they can.
Jackson's directing has improved--gone are the incoherent hand-to-hand combat, the shaky-cam footage stitched together ADHD style; instead we have wuxia-flavored swordfights executed with reasonable coherence, the elaborate fight choreography shot in continuous long take (one such moment--Legolas (Orlando Bloom) leaping from stone to stone on a collapsing bridge--looks suspiciously like a Super Mario Brothers video game). Some of the picture's grandest images has Jackson keeping his distance and tracing the movements of men (and dwarves, and elves, and Orcs) as if they were so many ant farms, such that one can't help but feel impressed--
--not to mention (eventually, finally, ultimately) exhausted. For the past fourteen years we've sat through nine hours of epic Tolkien, put up with another eight-plus of Tolkien for kids, artificially pumped up to epic scale. Haven't we had enough? Hasn't Jackson had enough? Isn't it time for us--for him especially--to move on, perhaps do a movie without a fantastical creature in it? Curious (winded, weary, wasted) minds would like to know.