Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Hobbit 3: The Battle of the Tone Deaf

I am certain J.R.R. Tolkien would hate "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies".  Tolkien filled his works with his interests and pursuits.  He loved poetry, so his books are filled with mini epic poems and fanciful songs.   He loved languages so he wrote several imaginary tongues from scratch.  He loved mythology so he built an entire universe all to himself, based upon Germanic legend.  But above else he loved the rural simplicity of the English middle class.  The most idyllic place in the weird fantasy world of Middle Earth is the one closest to his beloved Britain:  the Shire.  Not a great kingdom, but just a collection of small peaceful grubby farmers, that's the land of Tolkien's brightest dreams.

If there is any one thesis to Tolkien's work, it is the rejection of the ubermench.  Classical heroes before "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were all figures that fit into the mold of Aragorn:  handsome, righteous, invincible warriors, and chosen to great destinies.  A little peasant like Bilbo Baggins would have no place in the old epic hero tales such as "The Song of the Nibelungs".  Those tales were populated by dragon slayers, not short crafty fellows who just want to go home to have tea.  When war comes in "The Hobbit", Bilbo rejects the entire business as childish ridiculousness.  The great battles of "The Lord of the Rings" were nothing but distractions for little Frodo and his friend Sam's lonely journey towards Mt. Doom.  Heroism could come in any size.

"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" could not miss this point more badly.  Its title character has long been marginalized in these now clearly ill-conceived Hobbit movies.  In "The Hobbit 3", Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) might as well not exist.  He is entirely irrelevant, stepping aside to allow the things Tolkien rejected take over.  No Hobbit can perform acrobatics or defeat giant monsters or slaughter indiscriminately.  Thus they are useless for a huge indulgent special effects spectacle.  Director Peter Jackson, a filmmaker who has apparently lost every vestige of restraint, creates a final film in his Hobbit trilogy which is nothing but supermen battling for nearly two hours.  J.R.R. wanted to appreciate the small beauty of the mundane world.  It seems Peter Jackson did not get the memo.  There is nothing small here, and very little that is beautiful.

One of the only reasons I can give for not listing "The Hobbit 3" amongst the very worst films of 2014 is Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins.  The entire whole of the new Hobbit trilogy does not stack up very well.  Frankly, it is all a giant unnecessary mess.  However, if one were to seriously try to make an adaptation of "The Hobbit", you could not do better for a lead than Martin Freeman.  His Bilbo is a wonderful everyman, with just enough of a whimsical edge to make him lovable.  I love that broad facial twitch he does - that wiggle of his nose - when he knows no better way to react to the weirdness of the world around him.  Freeman manages to pull together a very subtle performance in a very unsubtle trilogy of movies.

Ironically Bilbo is the one character I would prefer not to be invisible.
The other reason I can give for not murdering this film with a wooden stake is one that is going to sound very contradictory considering my first few paragraphs:  Peter Jackson is not bad at this.  As ridiculous of a rodeo as this Hobbit trilogy has become, there is something to be said about Jackson's ability to manage the lunacy of it all.  Clearly he has regressed far from the elegance he brought to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.  However that sends him back to the madcap gonzo world of his 1990s gore comedies, most notably "Dead Alive".  The design department of "The Hobbit 3" fills the endless battle scene with a preposterous zoo of wacky monsters including baby-faced freaks, amputee trolls, slapstick siege machines and sandworms*.  It can even be weirdly entertaining during the first half hour... but it becomes utter pain by the third.

It all makes me wonder, of course, why Peter Jackson could not use those quirky instincts of his to make his own fantasy trilogy.  The freakshow might be wonderful in a story built specifically for them rather than being invasive species in Tolkien's fragile ecosystem.

Unfortunately though "Hobbit 3" has flashes of effective storytelling, the fact is this movie has some serious issues.  The pacing is bad, most characters do not work, and the story is nothing but an excuse for constant meaningless fantasy warfare for warfare's own sake.  It begins with the opening, which features the giant dragon, Smaug's, attack on Rivertown following the end of "The Hobbit 2".  (For those newbies searching for greater context on the story:  you are hopelessly out of the loop, sorry.)  Smaug was the central villain of the previous film.   That movie ended abruptly during the climax on a cliffhanger.  "The Hobbit 3" picks up immediately mid-climax, having the dragon attack, with no build-up or setting of the stage.  Jackson and company simply cut out the final ten minutes of the last movie and stitched it here, for no apparent reason.

Thankfully this dragon war is not an hour-long first act as I feared, but short.  "The Hobbit 3" begins properly afterwards, leaving one complicated action sequence behind and then leading us right into another.  First the situation with Sauron in his fortress has to be busily dealt with in an ugly toneless battle - featuring the 92-year-old Christopher Lee performing kung-fu as the wizard Saruman.  The Nazgul show up for no reason other than fanservice.  Inexplicably the high elf queen, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett)'s uses her evil dark form once again.  Then we lead ourselves to the actual meat of this movie:  the Battle of the Five Armies**.  You should guess with the title of this moving changing from the poetic "There and Back Again" to something blunt like "The Battle of the Five Armies", just what kind of content you're going to be served.

No, I have no idea why these movies are shipping Galadriel and Gandalf. This goes nowhere, by the way.
With the dwarf company having retaken their old home of the Lonely Mountain, a wild collection of unwanted visitors come to their door.  First there are the humans led by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) whose lake home is a little too burnt by dragon breath to be used.  Then come the elves led by the foppish prick Thranduil (Lee Pace) who are looking for their share.  Thus follows about a half hour of complicated Middle Earth geopolitics with the dwarves, men, and elves all bickering in entirely uninteresting fashion, while Biblo mostly sits back and watches.  His main concern is with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the now-dwarf king who is going mad with gold lust.  Gandalf's arrival solves nothing, neither does any appeal to common sense.

Luckily common sense is not really needed, because a huge army of orcs show up.  That pretty much settles things for the good guys, who settle their differences quickly when there is a bigger asshole in the neighborhood.

"The Hobbit 1" featured an overly-long and highly improbable chase scene through an underground Goblin Town.  "The Hobbit 2" managed to out-do that in terms of excess with an hour long Rube Goldberg-esque illogical battle against Smaug.  Not to be outdone, "The Hobbit 3" stages an exhausting hour and a half long nightmare of fantasy creatures, badly-animated CG dwarf kings, and badly-animated CG orc warriors fighting over a stretch of what looks like very lovely New Zealand countryside.

Simply put:  I have no idea what tone this movie is supposed to have.  Peter Jackson is so all over the place with his production that I am not sure if this movie is supposed to be a dark desperate struggle like the Battle of Helm's Deep, or some kind of surreal experimental comedy.  Are Legolas's improbable gymnastics and defiance of several laws of physics supposed to be funny?  Or was I losing my mind after the fatigue of ninety minutes of Hollywood bloodshed began to hit my cerebellum hard?  Why else does Jackson give as much screentime to a loathsomely one-note comic relief character, Alfrid (Ryan Gage) as he does to Biblo?  Why else is there a bizarre love story angle between a dwarf, Kili (Aiden Turner) and an elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) without chemistry or purpose?

These graphics suggest a cheap fantasy video game, which is, I guess, what the Lord of the Rings has been reduced to.
Perhaps strangest of all, after Peter Jackson has worked overtime with unnecessary nonsense to entertain us, "The Hobbit 3" simply peters out.  "Return of the King" might be maligned for its multiplicity of "endings" - scenes that feel like they could be the last moment before the credits.  But there was a grandeur in that film taking its time to close out.  It let all of its characters find their places after what was truly a long epic adventure.  "The Hobbit" trilogy has ultimately added up to very little, and it concludes exactly with that very same insubstantial mood.  Bilbo goes home, very few characters are given an ending, some extremely forced lines are given to set up the Lord of the Rings movies, and the credits roll.  "The Hobbit 3" ends meekly, like it found itself in our apartment the morning after a one-night-stand.  It attempts some polite conversation, offers to buy us breakfast, finds its underwear, and goes home.

The Hobbit journey has not been all terrible.  There have been a few highs.  We should not forget the return of Gollum in "An Unexpected Journey" (which saved that entire movie as far as I'm concerned), nor should we forget the barrel river rapids ride in "The Desolation of Smaug".  But as far as I can see, "The Hobbit" has all been one overly complex creation.  It was not content to simply adapt the book, it was not content to shove in all sorts of Lord of the Rings extra-textual tie ins, it was not even content create its own rather mediocre plotlines of its own, it also was a huge bloated Peter Jackson circus.  The old characters are great to see again, a few of the new characters are welcome additions (Bilbo and Smaug), but the majority of the newbies are underwritten unnecessary additions.  Even the art style and the combat are too silly to really fit with the relative restraint of the previous trilogy, or even with individual scenes within these Hobbit films.  Nothing about all of these competing tones and flavors adds up to a proper cycle of movies.

I am sure some day an intrepid amateur editor will take the nearly ten hours of Hobbit material that Peter Jackson has created and condense it down into just four hours of solid movie that actually works together as a single unit.  However, that is not the movie that was made.  It is depressing beyond words to sit here realizing that this may be the last we see of Tolkien on the big screen:   a trainwreck that could not miss the point worse.  However, there is some comfort there.  This Hobbit experiment has been enough of a failure that in comparison, Tolkien's works shine in their their ability to inspire wonder in audiences of all ages.  If Peter Jackson's goal was to make the world appreciate J.R.R. Tolkien once again, I suppose, in that at least, he has succeeded.

* Yes, sandworms.  With a movie this dense and maddening, I can only be 70% sure I didn't hallucinate them.

** By the way, I only counted four armies:  the elves, the humans, the dwarves, and the orcs.  In the book there was also an army of monster wolves that joined with the goblins to fight all the other humanoids.  There are no Wargs this time.  The orcs did divide their forces in two, I guess.

PS:  New Line Cinema, keep your fucking hands off the Silmarillion.

1 comment:

  1. The Eagles are the fifth army. If you were curious still.