Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies (2014) Review:
Prequels have enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years. While the more cynical movie viewer will see the movement as a bid to forever milk a franchise dry and then milk it some more, others will see it as a chance to return to the worlds that once captivated them. Regardless of your impressions going in, however, what matters is how well the job is done.
Prequels are notoriously hard to do. Just imagine trying to develop tension for characters that the audience knows are going to survive, or having a world-ending plot in a world that we know remains unended. Not to mention the added pressure of having to connect your film to the original one. As difficult as it may be, it’s not impossible to do it, and do it quite well.
Recent forays into the prequel territory are films such as X-Men: First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both were critical and commercial successes that garnered sequels that came out this very year. These films seemed to have, in a sense, cracked the prequel code. They embrace the fact that audiences are more than familiar with their franchises, even going so far as placing the ultimate destination in the very title. The emphasis of these films rests with the characters and their development, which in a certain sense, is the obvious place to go. The difficulty of building a world for the audience to understand is non-existent as they’re already well versed in it.
We already know where mutants came from, what we don’t know is how the X-Men became the X-men and how these characters came to be the larger than life characters we’ve come to enjoy. The apes were always going to seize the planet, the story comes from how such a feat is accomplished. All of this, however, is moot without a character to develop these stories through. The Apes film would not have been so enjoyable without the melancholy abrupt maturity of Caesar nor would First Class be worth a damn if not for the rise and fall of Erik and Charles’ bromance.
Which leads us to the third and final film in the Hobbit franchise, prequel to the block busting, academy award winning Lord of the Rings franchise. Cinema cynics will, of course, take um-bridge with the films very existence, though it’s not hard to see why. Aside from being a prequel, the book on which it’s based on is merely 300 pages and was decided to be split into 3 films while production was being done on the 2nd. Add that to the fact that a portion of the story in the films was garnered from the appendices of a different book entirely. Certain characters that exist in the films were not even mentioned in the source material, so it doesn’t take a degree in film studies to say that there might have been a slight advantage to the commercial over the creative in the production of this film.
Of course, all of this is speculation, conjecture and largely irrelevant when judging the film as it stands.
Starting off where the last film ended, the movie begins with…an ending. As the Desolation of Smaug ended with the terrible dragon headed to destroy the people of Lake Town, Battle of the Five Armies shows such destruction. As someone who thinks you can never have enough dragons in cinema, I personally thought this scene was perfect. Smaug remains a technical marvel and while his lines are few, Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance still resonates as frightening. The issue with this scene is it feels like the ending to the last film, out of place with the larger story of Battle of the Five Armies. Everything after the opener feels a bit like an epilogue. In a sense, the whole movie feels that way. The journey which Bilbo was set upon from the outset, was to recover the Lonely Mountain from the terrible dragon for the Dwarves. After the dragon falls, they’ve pretty much already done that. At least it doesn’t have 9 different endings a la ‘Return of the King’.
After recovering the mountain, however, the story here is how valuable the mountain is and how much everyone else wants it. The Dwarves want the mountain cause it was theirs to start with, the humans want some of the gold in the mountain because they just had their hometown burned to a crisp by a dragon that was kind of the Dwarves’ fault, the elves want these special diamonds that are in the mountain, and the Orcs want the mountain for the resurgent dark lord as it has some special strategic position that is never fully explained. Most of this could be sorted out with a sit down over a nice cup of mead but this isn’t called the negotiation of the five figureheads. The battle that commences is mostly due to the fact that Thorin Oakenshield’s mind has become corrupted by dragon’s disease or the Arkenstone or gold or power, it’s never really explained, but whatever it is, it’s made him question the loyalty of his company and threaten his oldest friends.
The best way to put it is this. At the beginning of every fantasy movie, there’s a segment that’s heavy on narration and tells of a battle that happened years ago, smoothly glossing over all the minutiae that led up to such a battle. Sometimes there’s a cowardly king or some other element that creates more conflict than there needed to be and the world had to suffer the consequences of that decision. It happened in Lord of The Rings, Thor and this very franchise, the Hobbit. Have you ever kinda wanted to see the movie that showed what that narrator was talking about? That’s the Battle of the Five Armies. On that level, it works.
The Battle of the Five Armies is trying to be a movie all about a huge war, with all the pieces moving together at an inevitable rate. While it doesn’t do this as excitingly or as well as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, once the battle is underway, it’s engaging and fun to see it escalate. Characters actually feel to be in danger and there are genuine moments I left the theatre remembering. There are a few scenes outside of the main battle that serve as connective tissue to the Lord of the Rings films but they’re so forgettable that I can’t really comment on them. Thankfully they don’t stay long enough to be unwanted, like that one relative last Christmas.
The movie does at times feel to be nothing but spectacle. This is not inherently a bad thing, as there are many films that can pull this off. The trick is to have enough weight in your characters to make the spectacle matter. It’s why ‘The Avengers’ is a better film than ‘Transformers’. The film is more in line with the latter, though not entirely thanks to a few bright spots. Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman both deliver their best performances in the series thus far and the movie is at its core about the strength of their friendship. The relationship drama between Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, and Aidan Turner might be too soap opera-y for most but I found it fit with the over-dramatic nature of the film. Top that off with the reluctant rise to leadership of Luke Evans and there is enough character drama to keep the action from feeling empty and thankless like a mindless Autobot fighting a faceless Decepticon.
With all this, it might seem like the movie has too much going on for any of it to really resonate. This isn’t true for the most part, but there are elements of the film that simply feel unnecessary. The scenes involving Ryan Gage’s Alfrid are bordering on painful and a good example. His character serves no purpose other than a few visual gags that fall flat. In one scene he’s pretending to be a woman to avoid conscription and in another, he immediately switches allegiances as a new opportunity favours his selfish desires.
I say that I don’t understand the point of these scenes but that’s a lie. The bellows of laughter from most every child in the audience is the point. They may not be for me, and they may not even be for the movie they’re in but those cheap laughs have a purpose. And that’s true for many of the scenes that don’t seem to work well with the rest of the film, like the ones where characters sound like they are reading from the history of Middle Earth Vol. IX. It’s simple exposition that serves to connect the better scenes of the film.
The Battle of the Five Armies is by no means a bad film, but it’s not a great one either. It’s best moments are cheapened by it’s worst ones which can sometimes run consecutively. Massive amounts of impressive action are negated by an overuse of CGI, and strong characters are measured against Alfrid. All of these things may prove to be too much for most audiences. Personally, I didn’t find those knocks against the film to be all that strong. The good outweighed the bad and on the whole, the film was worth the price of admission. Of course, I admit to some form of bias. I shed a tear for two reasons. One, for a particularly sad scene, that the movie had earned, and two, for the idea that this would be the last cinematic venture into the land of middle earth. With that in mind, if you’re not a fan of this type of film you’re not going to enjoy this picture. That’s just science. For what it is, the Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, is a solid film that doesn’t amaze but still entertains.
Rating: Half Price