Easter is for chocolate and whack-off-their-heads-with-a-sword screen time; on Sunday we watched the third installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Here are my thoughts. Admittedly, there was beer…
I’m a fan of Lord of the Rings, book and film. Neither is perfect, but each, in its own way, is a magisterial achievement*. I’m not a fan, though, of The Hobbit, book or film. As a child, the book didn’t work because I didn’t understand the existential panic of a staid homeowner faced with the choice of adventure or safety, and as an adult I find it thin and unsatisfying. The book, at least, is coherent. The films are not.
The first two installments are by turns turgid and silly—with some set pieces designed, I’m sure, purely for the theme park rides that will follow. They bored me a little; I was a bit bored by the book, too, so that was no surprise. I was content with the good acting, the fabulous set design, and the comfortingly predictable story. But Five Armies is not pleasant in any way. The third part of the film story has irritated me to a degree that comes close to disgust and with it Jackson has come dangerously close to dismantling the entire franchise and his own achievement.
The main problem with Five Armies is easy to identify: it has no centre of gravity, no sun around which it turns. Bilbo shone steadily at the heart of the book. This third film feels more like a vast but empty corner of the cosmos streaked with oddly-shaped bodies. Some do come around again, and some burn briefly and fiercely—Thorin, Bilbo, Bard, Kili, Azog, Smaug—but their orbits are eccentric and unpredictable. Even poor old Legolas whizzes by a couple of times, careening crazily off random objects. The entirely invented character, Tauriel, also floats through but her composition is mystifying. She is a babe. Kick-ass babe, love-struck babe, babe in peril—but always a babe, following no trajectory but the writers’ convenience.
Tauriel is also the only character whose danger is overtly sexualised. I’ll come back to that.
I forget what the orc who licked his lips at Tauriel looked like, but I have a very clear picture of the monsters in the top echelon: pale, bald, clean-shaven and male. This phenotype has become a noticeable tic of Jackson’s—even more so when we fold in the spear-carrying monsters, who are also overweight and close to naked. One reason I can’t watch Guillermo del Toro movies is that the monsters spun from his psyche are so clearly personal and particular, with the same physical characteristics in each film, that it feels intrusive to watch. Or perhaps he’s just lazy: he’s found a type, and sticks with it. I see that del Toro is one of the writers on these films. It’s not my place to speculate on whether these monsters are laziness or obsession on anyone’s part, but I will say that the typing strikes me as simplistic. Take the Good Guys’ (and they are all, except Tauriel, guys) transport animals. There’ll all food animals: rabbits, moose, pigs, goats (more on which momentarily). These useful (mostly herbivorous) mammals are balanced against traditionally pestilential and/or verminous (most carnivorous) beasts used as tools of the Bad Guys (ditto): bats, worms (beamed in from Dune), and wolves. In a class of their own, are the eagles. Who save the day. Again. (It’s becoming harder to ignore the little voice that asks, Why don’t the eagles save everyone the trouble by carrying the heroes to their destination in the first place?)
While we’re on the subject of flying things, let’s talk about the dragon. Smaug was fab—and Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice carries me past the most egregious idiocies—until the end. At which point he became a Chatty Cathy, a boastful Bond villain, bloviating while making a beeline for Bard, a nice, undeviating arc, making a perfect target. Most convenient. Though not as convenient as the empty war goats that gallop up to Thorin and co when they need to scramble up a mountain. Nothing can redeem the ridiculousness of manly war goats. Nothing. I burst out laughing and couldn’t stop for five minutes. (This was the only really funny part of the film; I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be.) Those war goats were even sillier than Legolas paragliding from a giant bat and using a dagger through its brain as a stop-rope. That casual killing didn’t make me laugh, though, because by this time I was thoroughly sick of the mean-spirited and offhand slaughter of animals, dumb and otherwise.
What brought me closest to anger—at this point I cared so little it was hard to work up any steam—was the muddled gender politics.
Tauriel I’ve already mentioned. I could say a lot more but why belabour the point? Then there was Alfrid. Alfrid is, essentially, a mix of cut-rate Wormtongue and pantomime dame. There are no nuances. Alfrid is purely bad. And we know this because he dresses up as a woman. Badly. This easy equation of cross-dressing to evil, and, more specifically, the incompetent cross-dressing as female signifying evil, is lazy. It’s unnecessary. It’s harmful. Like the sexualisation of Tauriel’s peril, it serves to reinforce current prejudices. This kind of crap has no place in a 21st century film. And I haven’t even talked about Galadriel’s cameo, the power-turns-me-aubergine-and-then-I-faint moment because I haven’t the heart.
The whole film felt wrongly focused and badly paced. I felt for good actors thrown under the bad-story bus. Thranduil/Lee Pace was just right as the icy elf king but much less believable when suddenly caught in a thaw. Thorin/Richard Armitage had to be Macbeth one minute, Othello the next, Hamlet in between, and Errol Flynn the rest of the time. The old stalwarts did a steady, professional job throughout; I admire the work, but they did not seem to be having fun and I suspect they earned every penny. I particularly felt for Legolas/Orlando Bloom—forced to be frantically, impossibly ever-more nimble on the always-imploding bridges—and who, Merlin-like, obviously ages backwards, getting younger, slimmer, and less grim as time passes.
Some of the set pieces are pretty good—the fall of Smaug from the sky, Thorin’s fight on the ice—but in the end, they felt perfunctory. That moment when the elves leap over the dwarf shieldwall? In another film, Jackson would have set that up well enough to trigger a heart-stopping rush, a shout of delight. Here, I just thought, Eh. I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. And the bit with Legolas at the end, what should have helped set up the springboard ending flinging us into the magnificent Lord of the Rings, is, instead, a weak retcon that threatens to cheapen the entire franchise.
I won’t be watching these Hobbit films again. This review is my way of rinsing the whole experience from my brain, trying to forget it so I can, one day, bear to see Lord of the Rings again. The book, thankfully, remains untouched.
* Brief review of both: A chapter in the history of a world that never was but should have been. As we travel with hobbits and dwarves we taste elven bread and good honest beer, smell the fumes of Orodruin and the existential rot of the marshes of Mordor. The book is stuffed with satisfactions: hobbit delight in a good snug hole in a sandy bank, dwarfish appreciation of a beautiful cavern, the soul-stirring gallop of the perfect horse. The film adaptation was enormous fun—at times even moving—but it lacked understanding of the Anglo-Saxon burdens of noblesse oblige and elegy which lie at the book’s heart. (I will be forever grateful, though, that it left out Tom Bombadil. I just wish it had cut some of those endless ents.) Journeying with Tolkien in print is stunning; when we get to the end and come back, home looks different.
8 thoughts on “Manly war goats”
Right on the nail re the lack of narrative arc, and Tauriel’s utter pointlessness. I was too embarrassingly caught up with the Hot Dwarves gobsmackery to snap out of it in time to laugh at the war goats. I was VERY irritated at the disability politics, though. Alfrid has one shoulder higher than the other, to signify that he’s a bad guy. Trolls have their legs cut off to give them prostheses to make them even thwackeringly better war weapons? The really, really bad guy has a prosthetic arm, like a medieval Terminator? I gave up caring when Billy Conolly arrives, that was one PJ joke too many for me, I’d really had enough by then, and I know the LOTR films by heart Grrr.
Huh. I noticed Azog’s arm but not Alfrid’s shoulder or the other stuff. But it was difficult to notice anything, really, after those goats…
Thank you! I never liked Hobbit as a book- but I worshiped LOTR. I puzzled over Elvish and Dwarvish runes, dug into the appendices, wanted more back story, more to understand. ( This was 1965 and on). Then life absorbed me, and until the movies I pretty much didn’t re-attach. I did like the movies. A lot. Suddenly Strider was REAL. There were bits missing- and I suddenly realized that Tolkien really couldn’t really write a female character. But- awesome sauce, as the young ones say. Hobbit- Meh.
It didn’t, as you say, hang together. And that battle was so bad- just, well, in terms of common sense ( and shot so quickly there was no knowing what was going on ) – I shut my eyes and shuddered in repulsion. ( By quickly, I mean camera work, not movement).
I don’t remember noticing the war goats much- by then the whole thing was silly. Like a bad game or some such.
By the way, I rather liked the Ents in LOTR- though they are better in the book. And I always wanted to know about the Entwives….
You sum up the reasons why I didn’t watch the Hobbit movies past the first one. I balked at the first trailer featuring Tauriel. The pointlessness of it all!
I also liked the TLotR films, and I think the difference was that they were a labour of love first and foremost. Hobbit was just after cold, hard cash – and it shows.
Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the goats of war.
Doesn’t really work, does it?
I loved The Hobbit (the book), probably because I read it at just the right age. I even kind of, sort of liked the movies, even seeing through their flaws. And I think the problem is that they were movies, and had to fit into the Hollywood Big Budget Blockbuster format, whose constraints get tighter every summer.
The Lord of the Rings films worked because the story really was a good fit for a set of three big blockbuster movies. The fate of the world really is at stake. The characters really do, for the most part, fit into movie archetypes, and their big moments (e.g. Boromir’s death) work on screen. There were some disappointments imposed by the format (mostly missing out on small, quiet character moments), and more resulting from bad writing (the nonsensical turnabouts of both Faramir and the ents), but they were all minor. The Lord of the Rings is a huge, driven, glorious symphony of a story, and the movies made the most of it.
The Hobbit, though, is an entirely different thing. It’s a wandering, silly bedtime story for children. There are a few moments of real depth, but they’re the exceptions. The fate of the world really is never at stake, and there are no Big Heroes. Very few of Bilbo’s adventures can support a fifteen minute action-movie set piece. The Hobbit cannot and should not fit into the movie format, no matter who films it. It’s like trying to play a set of simple dance tunes for fiddle and piano with a symphony orchestra, and then throwing in a few electric guitars for good measure. The Hobbit might have worked as an eight to twelve episode miniseries, with a smaller effects budget and larger sense of fun, but that’s not what they did.
And then Tauriel. Ugh. I wanted to like her, I really did, but ugh. The elf/dwarf forbidden love thing was clumsy, and nothing much else about her was interesting, despite the screen time she got. Though to be fair, few of the male characters fared much better.
The worst, though, was her reaction to Killi’s death. Instead of showing any of her well-demonstrated bad-assery and avenging the death of her love, she turns to a weepy puddle. A man can do terrible, heroic things in response to tragedy, but a woman can only be paralyzed by grief.
Hi Nicola. You have , in an erudite and elegant way, summed up my own feelings about the Hobbit trilogy. I watched the first part with anticipation…the second under sufferance…and refused point blank to engage with the tosh of the third. All you say rings true…your insight is compelling and thrusts a knife to the core of the inherent misogyny in Jackson’s ‘work’.
Mel, I think “misogyny” is taking it too far, but I do see unthinking acceptance of old tropes. Deep down we all own these monsters, it’s just that often we’re lucky enough to have the time to think things through and not act from them. These films weren’t sufficiently thought through. When time gets crunched—and on a project this size, it would get crunched most of the time—they fell back on old tropes. Sigh.
Eric, yes, The Hobbit might have made a nice limited-season TV series; it was always too slight for a tentpole.
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