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.