One Last Round: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema
Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema

I loved the book, enjoyed the first movie, and grit my teeth through the second installment. It’s time to finish off the 3-part film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit with The Battle of the Five Armies.

Judging by the title, this is exactly what you get. A giant portion of the film is devoted to the battles at the slopes of Erebor between the men of Lake-Town, the elves of Mirkwood, the dwarves of Erebor and the Iron Hills, and the Orcs of Moria. We see the downfall of Smaug, the struggles of Thorin Oakenshield as he attempts to reclaim his father’s throne as King under the Mountain, and Bilbo’s haggard attempts to survive the calamity and make it home in one piece.

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema
Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema

So what did the third film of the Hobbit trilogy bring to the silver screen?

  • Brilliant acting. I didn’t have the best expectations for this film going in, save only for the epic battles at Erebor and Dol Guldur, as well as the performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo. And just as expected, this is a great story for Bilbo. He’s the brave but out-of-place hobbit that this epic tale needs, just as The Return of the King needed Merry, Pippin, and Sam. I also have to give Richard Armitage credit for his performance as Thorin, showing the full range of emotions and trauma that the dwarf king has to endure before the film’s end. And I’d be doing the film a disservice if I didn’t mention the brilliance of Billy Connolly as the dwarf Dain Ironfoot.
  • Massive, extended battles. In the book, the epically-named Battle of the Five Armies is entirely offscreen. Bilbo gets knocked out once the eagles show up, and we get very little detail about the Orcs being routed from Erebor. Here, we get well over an hour or so of constant back-and-forth battles between Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs, using everything from acrobatic swordfights to charging war pigs to a very short cameo of Beorn the skin-changer. Of course big battles are what New Line Cinema do very well in these Tolkien adaptations, but I felt like these battles went on just half an hour too long to keep me engaged.
  • Continuing the love triangle. One of the subplots that stretches out so much of the film is the whole romance between Kili, Tauriel, and Legolas. I’m sure it’s a good way to demonstrate the tensions between Dwarves and Elves, but I never once felt that invested in seeing Kili and Tauriel become an item. Which is too bad because Tauriel could have been a great elf character if not for only existing as a love interest.
  • A lot of Laketown. Callous as it might seem, I really kept rolling my eyes at every cutaway to Bard and the people of Laketown. Like in the book, they play an important role, but I felt like they only existed here to build up pathos in an already amped-up war tale. Not to mention that the character of Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the Master’s cowardly deputy, is an utter waste of space who only served to get shat upon every time he appeared. Some might call him comic relief; I call him pointless.
  • Ending fatigue and mood whiplash. Like I said before, the Battle of Five Armies feels a lot longer despite being shorter than the usual 3-hour length of these movies. Especially near the end, there were so many “twists” and surprise maneuvers that I was conscious of myself sitting in the theater, glancing around, and going “Get on with it already” for every prolonged duel with Azog or Bolg.
  • A touch of hobbit ways through and through. One of the few redeeming graces of the film was every mention of hobbit culture and the Shire, which meant just about every time Bilbo was onscreen. I savored the quiet moment he had with Thorin where he discussed planting an acorn in his garden back home and I was happy to see Bilbo’s return to the Shire as an unreconizable hero played true to the spirit of the book.

In the end, I’m glad I saw this film so that I could see this adaptation of The Hobbit played out in full, but if given the choice, I’d rather go with the book for another reread. I also have to give the movie experience some credit for showing me the trailer for another film that I need to go see—Kingsman: The Secret Service, which looks hilarious and a hundred times better.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is available through Warner Bros. and playing in theaters now.

Bibliography: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Directed by Peter Jackson. Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. Based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Perf. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, and Orlando Bloom. New Line Cinema; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; WingNut Films. Warner Bros. Pictures. US release date: December 17, 2014.

A Barrel of Laughs and a Mountain of Plot: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.
Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Adapting the first third of Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit is quite the challenge, but Peter Jackson and Co. did a fairly good job of it, getting into the spirit of adventure while bringing iconic scenes like the introduction of the dwarves and Gollum’s riddle-game to life onscreen. But the real challenges lie in expanding the story into two more films, both with a running time of about three hours long.

On that mark, The Desolation of Smaug does alright. Not fantastic, not super-amazing—just alright.

Following their escape from the Misty Mountains, Bilbo and the dwarves have to press onward toward Erebor despite the pack of Orcs now on their tail. While Gandalf is forced to leave in order to scout out the dark plans of the Necromancer and the army he’s amassing, the Company’s journey takes them through the twisted forest of Mirkwood, faced with ravenous spiders and unsympathetic Elves. But their path draws toward Lake-town and the Lonely Mountain, where a showdown with Smaug is to be expected.

Compared to the first film, Desolation of Smaug is much more action-oriented. Right from the beginning, we’ve got outrunning the Orcs, fighting Mirkwood spiders, outrunning the Woodland Elves in a very creative chase sequence involving barrels and whitewater rafting, and the final sequence with Smaug the dragon (whose dialogue with Bilbo is almost as delightful as it is in the book, especially with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the two roles). On the other hand, this also means that there’s less time to reflect on things. The story just presses onward, with new characters and developments thrown in all the time.

Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.
Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

One such development is an addition by the filmmakers: a romantic subplot, namely between the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and the Elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). I can appreciate why it’s included, as Tauriel does provide a sympathetic portrayal of Elves beyond the raw acrobatic feats of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), as well as a kind of Romeo and Juliet storyline about bridging together rival factions (namely, Elves and Dwarves). But for me, every time the film focused on Tauriel, I was always conscious of the romantic subplot. I don’t mind her character being in the film, but I wish that a female character with heroic qualities could just once have a storyline that didn’t automatically involve romance or a love triangle.

On that same note, I felt like this story needed to focus more on Bilbo, whose characterization as an unexpected hero is becoming a lot stronger as the adventure continues. I would have also liked to see more of Gandalf gathering his allies for the never-before-seen siege on Dol Guldur, lair of the Necromancer (both of which are suitably creepy in the film).

Other performances work out just fine. Stephen Fry provides a colorful interpretation of the Master of Lake-Town while Benedict Cumberbatch is very menacing as the voice of Smaug. The CG animation that went into Smaug is nothing short of impressive. You get a sense of just how massive and powerful this dragon is, and I love the animation for his fire-breathing attacks, too.

If you’re looking for some good action sequences, then the second Hobbit movie has it in spades. But it still feels like a very heavy middle-of-the-trilogy film, throwing in a lot of subplots and last-minute surprises before ending on a very abrupt cliffhanger. It’s decent enough in the context of the overall story, but it doesn’t have quite the same effect as The Two Towers did in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is available through Warner Bros. and playing in theaters at the time of this writing.

Bibliography: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Directed by Peter Jackson. Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. Based on the novel of J.R.R. Tolkien. Perf. Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans. New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wingnut Films (studio). Warner Bros. Pictures. US release date: December 13, 2013.

A Surprise Straight Out Of Bag End: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit (poster)
Copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

I have been a fan of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien ever since my dad read the book to me as a bedtime story.  I love Bilbo Baggins and the company of dwarves and their colorful journey through danger and fortune in Middle-earth.

So when I heard that The Hobbit was being adapted to film, I was excited.  When I heard about it being released in 3-D at a rate of 48 frames per second, and divided up into an entire trilogy, I was less optimistic.  Reading a few early reviews only worsened my outlook.

I can now say how glad I am to have been so wrong.

Bilbo Baggins and Company
Bilbo (Martin Freeman) at the start of his journey.  Copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3-D at 48 fps.  While the frame rate is at first unsettling, it wasn’t hard to get into it.  In fact, I felt more involved with the film because of it.  Yes, sometimes it doesn’t integrate well with more elaborate CGI, but I like how fluid the actors and scenery becomes.  I felt far more immersed that way than with the 3-D effects.  They’re still distracting to say the least, and I really wish Hollywood would stop trying to release films in 3-D.  It’s possible to make box office profits without that kind of gimmick.

Martin Freeman is brilliant as Bilbo Baggins; he’s every bit as respectable, flustered, and crafty as the character from the book, and no more need be said.  The thirteen dwarves are all fairly standard, though Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is reimagined as a warrior like Aragorn, only grimmer and more vengeful.  Ian McKellen is still wonderful as Gandalf, though it’s nice to see him being outdone as an eccentric by Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), even if Radagast’s scenes come a little out of left field with little impact on the plot.  Andy Serkis deserves credit for being a treat as Gollum, particularly since we get to see the famous riddle-game brought to life with Martin Freeman’s help. For me, that scene was the highlight of the entire film.

Going into this movie, I knew that it wasn’t going to be a strict adaptation of The Hobbit as I remember it from my childhood.  It wasn’t, and yet there was a spirit of the original story that showed itself in the film.  Yes, most of the epic action scenes and character interpretations would better fit The Lord of the Rings than The Hobbit, but Bilbo has been brought to life on the silver screen and that’s really what counts.  For every new Orc-battle and cutaway to the Necromancer subplot (referenced in the Lord of the Rings Appendices), it’s still a grand adventure and it’s hard not to cheer for Bilbo and the dwarves as they get through every hardship.  To see a young hobbit on this journey and hear the dwarves sing “Far over the misty mountains cold,” it gives me faith in Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s work, and hope for the next installment.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is available through Warner Bros. Pictures.

Bibliography: The Hobbit (2012 film).  Directed by Peter Jackson.  Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, and Peter Jackson.  Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo Del Toro.  Based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Perf. Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis.  New Line Cinema; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; WingNut Films.  Warner Bros. Pictures.  US release date: December 14, 2012.

Middle-Earth Melodies: “House of Heroes” and “Third Immortal” by Battlelore

Battlelore is a Finnish metal band that has three things going for it: an awesome name, a deep passion for the works of Tolkien, and a pretty sweet sound.

Now, a lot of the group’s early material is centered on Lord of the Rings, but for this review, I wanted to go with something more recent that, while not directly tied to Tolkien, carries the same spirit of his work.  So here are the first tracks and top singles from their last two albums, “House of Heroes” and “Third Immortal.”

“House Of Heroes” (Evernight, 2007)

Album cover for Evernight. Copyright © 2007 by Napalm Records.

Both the song and the music video have great beginning, as haunting notes rise up from a guitar while visually we get the montage of a hooded man with a rod of Asclepius, easily defeating his enemies in a snow-covered battlefield.  Forty seconds later, the song stops and launches right into the heavy-pounding style that all metal fans will instantly click into.

There’s also a fantastic contrast between female vocal Kaisa Jouhki (apparently of Indonesian descent despite being in a Finnish band) and male vocal Tomi Mykkänen.  Kaisa provides a deep soaring voice to Tomi’s bestial growling.  In this case, having just Kaisa sing would make this song more pop than metal while listening to just Tomi would be nothing more than noise.  Together, they come off as a strong counterbalance of harmony and chaos that fits the theme of the song.

“Third Immortal” (The Last Alliance, 2008)

Album cover for The Last Alliance. Copyright © 2008 by Napalm Records.

“Am I immortal?  Must I obey?”

This question echoes throughout the chorus of this high-note, heavy percussion song.  Again, we get a similar image from “House of Heroes”–that of a lone man wandering the woods with his weapon in hand.  Only here he’s less of a wizard and more of a Ranger, which makes me think that this song might in fact be a kind of tribute to Aragorn or at least one of the Dúnedain.  The idea of long-lived men choosing not to cower but to go out and fight with their mighty gifts is one that certainly runs throughout Tolkien’s works, which seems appropriate considering he himself took his work from Norse epics and heroic poems.

And like in “House of Heroes,” we get that same gothic metal duet between Kaisa and Tomi, especially at 2:25 as their voices play off each other.  But suddenly at 3:56, we get a welcome surprise as Tomi stops his incessant growls of “Third Immortal!” and actually sings clearly in a true duet with Kaisa.  This marks a major shift in both the song’s melody and the music video, showing us the Third Immortal as he chooses to take up arms and go to war.

Final Verdict: Growls, Grace, And Grandeur

My first impression of Battlelore was that it was a lot like Within Temptation (at least as far as “Mother Earth” went).  However, just as there’s a clear difference between the Finnish and the Dutch, so also is there a difference between these two groups.  Battlelore is passionate and powerful, touching on both the light and the dark in epic sagas with its high and low melodies twisting together to form a single dramatic punch to the air.

Bibliography: Battlelore.  “House of Heroes.”  Evernight.  CD.  Napalm Records, 2007.

Battlelore.  “Third Immortal.”  The Last Alliance.  CD.  Napalm Records, 2009.