The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

So this should be, in theory, the final instalment of Peter Jackson’s middle earth double trilogy extravaganza. In some ways I’m relieved. Instead of The Battle of the Five Armies maybe this should have been called Elves v Orcs: The Final Smackdown, although as events happen before The Lord of the Rings it’s not really a final anything.

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The title gives away all you need to know. Following events of the last film where Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves – led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) – managed to wind up the dragon Smaug, who then took off to torch the nearby Laketown, home to the manly Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), we pick things up mid action where the dragon is wreaking havoc.

Bard does his thing with a bow, some elves pile in to help and the dwarves, realising the dragon (spoiler!) is dead, retreat into the mountain to claim the gold for themselves. We then end up in a sort of Middle Earth Mexican standoff, with elves and laketown men outside the mountain demanding the dwarves give up some of the booty. At the same time Sauron is on the rise (initially as a necromancer hellbent on keeping Gandalf locked in some sort of birdcage) and so he sends orcs and trolls and other beasties to claim the mountain for its strategic value.

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With this (hopefully) being the final outing of Middle Earth, you can see Peter Jackson and the gang have put a lot of love into the making of this film and they really don’t want to let this world go. Yet go it must. And with the final film being basically an epic battle, the challenge was to ensure the audience can find a way in – if it’s just elves and dwarves smashing into orcs then we’ll have moved too much into Michael Bay territory, which no one wants to do.

The key to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was that, at every step of the way, you really cared about each and every one of the characters. They got lots of screen time to develop, so that when they got into battle situations you wanted them to make it. I am not sure the same can be said as much for The Hobbit trilogy, particularly this final film. As ever, Bilbo is our way in and the story is (mostly) told from his point of view. With so much going on in terms of dragons, battles and so on, he gets a little lost, in the same way he did in the preceding film, The Desolation of Smaug.

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Granted, he gets a few good moments, but it almost seems (despite the film being the third in a bloated trilogy) that he doesn’t get the time on screen we’d like him to have. Also, Jackson doesn’t tug on our heart strings in anywhere near the same way he did for the Rings films. Perhaps it’s just the nature of this type of story. It’s a journey to a mountain, a face off with a dragon, then a big battle. And that is that.

In order to inject a bit more emotion for the audience Jackson introduced a female elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) in the last film. She got a bit of a love story with the best-looking dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), and that was further developed this time round. Book purists will probably sneer at this, but I honestly didn’t mind it. She was a good addition as a character and helped give the audience an emotional outlet – as Tauriel’s chemistry with Kili felt genuine, unforced and refreshing in an otherwise testosterone laden environment.

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Throughout the five armies battle (dwarves, elves, men, orcs and, er, bats and eagles possibly?), the most interesting battles were the one on one contests, as we can relate to them. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) gets his fair share, as do a few of the dwarves and elves, leaving the best one to Thorin, facing off against what can only be described as a giant orc with anger management issues.

Originally this story was written as a children’s book, an adventurous romp with perhaps a few scary bits, but overall something that was designed to entertain. I think perhaps, in order for Jackson to tie up the two trilogies, he’s moved the tone quite quickly from adventure to something altogether darker and more brooding. There’s a few moments where the playful exuberance you’d have hoped he would bring to it comes out (the barrels down the river sequence in the second film springs to mind), yet these are occur less and less as the trilogy wears on.

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There’s basically no fun to be had in this final film at all. You could say it’s a big battle so that’s to be expected, but just the odd line or two to lighten to mood wouldn’t have gone amiss. Jackson managed this perfectly well in the Rings trilogy, why not here too?

Ultimately, there’s some inventive moments to this film (Thorin’s descent into madness is quite well handled for example), yet it half collapses under its own seriousness. And you get the sense that the filmmakers are so sad that they’ll no longer be making these movies anymore, their sadness seeped through into the film’s overall tone – which made for a slightly depressing ending in a way.

The desolation of Peter Jackson?

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaugAs titles go, it’s divisive I know. Now I’m not trying to start an argument but… has Peter Jackson been given too much creative freedom on The Hobbit trilogy? Is he wandering the wastelands of creativity, choking on his own noxious gases of invention?

Having just seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug I cringe a little inside when I ask these questions because: he’s a phenomenal director and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy are among my favourite films of all time; I highly rate Jackson as a director in general and think studios should allow creative people to do what they do best; and finally, I like the story and characters J.R.R. Tolkien created – to spend more time in Middle Earth is a privilege.

Yet… yet, something is not quite right with this trilogy. Judging something that’s part of a series is never advisable, but a film is still in a film in its own right, even if it’s part of a trilogy. I suppose one of the main problems I have – which was a problem from the get-go – is that, not only is each film too long, but also that we have three in the first place. Now Jackson has said having three is great because there’s so much material to draw from, not just the main book but The Silmarillion and other supporting material Tolkien dreamt up. Ok, if that’s the case, why invent characters?

Go see the film and you’ll notice a certain she-elf in a fairly prominent role as part of a love triangle. She was never included in Tolkien’s tales. Granted she’s a nice addition as a character and balances out the male-heavy lineup, but she wasn’t needed. taurielthehobbitShe’s filler to pad out the story so Jackson can have three, excessively lengthy films. And that’s just one example, there are more from The Desolation of Smaug and An Unexpected Journey, but we’ll be here all day if we go through them.

However… Now that we’ve got the bad stuff out the way, let’s look at the good. Ranting and raving like an angry dwarf aside, there’s a lot to love about this second instalment of Bilbo’s tale. More action, more adventure, with some great set pieces – in particular the way the company escape the elves of Mirkwood in barrels down the river, this is Jackson at his finest.

Also, despite him not featuring much in this part of the books (filler again), it’s nice to see Legolas back. Indeed he gets some great set pieces, including a face off with a brutish orc, reminiscent of one of Aragorn’s fights from the original trilogy.

And let’s not forget the showpiece of this particular tale, the slumbering yet deadly beast… Smaug. He needs to look big, fearsome and genuinely scary, and he does. Hats off to Jackson for brilliantly bringing him to life. Voiced (almost unrecognisably) by Benedict Cumberbatch, the final third of the film almost becomes the Smaug show, with hobbit and dwarves trying to stay a step ahead of his wrath and deadly fire.

There’s other nice touches too. Laketown is well realised; a damp and dismal fishing village that has seen better days. It also gives us an introduction to Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who fits effortlessly into Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth. bardandlegolasHe gets some key scenes and will no doubt have more to do in the final film too.

From the final instalment it would be great to see more character development, as this seemed to take a bit of a back seat this time round in favour of the action and moving the story along, but that’s a small point.

All in all, my misgivings aside, it’s a very good second film with much more of a swing in its step than the first. Tonally, it’s darker, and therefore closer to Rings – something which will no doubt continue to develop in the final chapter. So, in answer to my initial question, Jackson’s desolation really depends on your point of view. Keep the focus on Bilbo and the characters and he embraces the goodness of the Shire, indulge in long, lingering shots of countryside and needless exposition and he goes the way of Mordor.

Cate Blanchett – modern day screen goddess

blanchett galadrielA few days after seeing the latest in the Middle Earth saga, The Hobbit, I realised a particular scene involving Blanchett had burrowed its way firmly into my subconscious.

Taking place in Rivendell, it focused on a tender moment between Gandalf and Galadriel, as they discussed the rise of a potential necromancer.

As it had been quite a few years since the LOTR trilogy I’d half forgotten how ethereal and captivating Blanchett had made Galadriel. Few actresses could have portrayed the elven queen the way she did.

This got me thinking of other characters she’s played that have had a similar impact on my subconscious, albeit for various different reasons. Galadriel aside, here’s my list:

Katharine Hepburn – The Aviator (2004)

Playing such an iconic individual was never going to be easy. Blanchett, though, made it look effortless, with a captivating and compelling performance. She clearly revelled in the part too, adding layers to Hepburn that delighted and surprised in every scene. So much so, that the results deservedly won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

life aquatic cate blanchettJane Winslett-RichardsonThe Life Aquatic (2004)

Securing a part originally written for Kate Winslet, hence the character’s name, she played a reporter who draws both the affections of Owen Wilson’s Ned and Bill Murray’s Zissou.
Her character’s relationship with Ned was wonderfully sweet and affecting and gave the film a lot of heart.

Irina SpalkoIndiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Granted her character is a one-size-fits-all, clichéd Russian baddie, but this type of adventure action movie is a guilty pleasure, so surely that’s the point? That said, in a role that could’ve been one-dimensional, Blanchett gave Spalko depth and intensity. Her climactic ‘I vant to know’ scene cemented a place on this list.

marissa weigler cate blanchett hannaMarissa WeiglerHanna (2011)

Directed by Joe Wright, this dark, intelligent, fairy tale-esque action film played like a Brothers Grimm version of a Bourne film. Or a thinking person’s Kick-Ass. Here, Blanchett played an immoral and ruthless CIA agent, bent on chasing down Saoirse Ronan’s teen assassin Hanna. Another over-the-top villain? Possibly, but still a great performance.

Daisy FullerThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

To say this film divided people is an understatement. From two reviews I read earlier – both well-respected critics – one gave it one star and one gave it five. Love or hate the story, it’s difficult to fault Blanchett’s beautifully nuanced performance, as the love interest to Brad Pitt’s increasingly youthful Benjamin Button.

The Hobbit – Freeman and Jackson’s adventure!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyWatched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with my family recently. Once the credits rolled my dad turned to me and said, ‘Is that it? What about the rest of the story?’ Upon hearing the film was going to be a trilogy and we’d have to wait to 2014 to see the lot, he wasn’t too pleased.

One film to rule them all
To the casual cinema goer, splitting Lord of the Rings into a trilogy made sense. It was three, distinct books. The Hobbit, however, is merely one slim book. So why three films? Well it was always going to be two, till Jackson realised how much material they had – it made sense to become three. Remember, it’s not just the one book, they’ve drawn from Tolkien’s other work, such as The Silmarillion.

Let’s assume that you’re familiar with the LOTR story. Think of The Hobbit as an origin tale. Bilbo passed the ring to Frodo in Rings – this is Bilbo’s tale of how he got his taste for adventure and originally acquired the ring. There’s more than enough going on for it to be three films without feeling padded out. Indeed, this first film moves along at a good pace.

gandalfIf it loses, we eats it whole
In terms of actors and performances, this is first and foremost Martin Freeman’s film. In various interviews he’s remarked how it was strange to be congratulated for a film that people had yet to see. I think, perhaps, because everyone knew he’d be perfect.

Richard Armitage was well cast as Thorin Oakenshield, fulfilling the Aragorn-esque role as the strong, silent leader. The rest of the dwarves all fought for screen time, some better than others. Ken Stott as Balin, the white-bearded wise dwarf of the group, stood out. As for the others, no doubt they’ll get time to shine in the next two films. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) was suitably unhinged and comical as the woodland wizard who plays a key role in the darker part of the story.

We also get most of the LOTR alumni reprising their roles: Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, Saruman, Bilbo senior, Frodo – and of course, Gollum. With two wizards and a hobbit, you’ve got three knights of the realm there. Talk about keeping the British end up!

Dark action Jackson
Considering Tolkien wrote The Hobbit primarily aimed at children, the film is pretty dark in places. Whilst you get rabbit-drawn sleds and cute, little hedgehogs, you also get fairly gory battles, bloodshed and tense moments. But then, where’s the danger and drama otherwise?

To his credit, Jackson has created a film that’s going to appeal to fans, but also those new to the Rings’ world, young and old. He’s also ensured the film fits into the LOTR universe seamlessly. Something Lucas didn’t manage too well with the modern Star Wars trilogy.

Gollum in the film of The HobbitWhat is Bagginses?
There are some great scenes too, the introduction of the dwarves to Bilbo’s house is classic Jackson, right down to the song about the washing up. The company’s encounter with the trolls is well managed. The cave troll the fellowship fight in Rings just has to growl, here three trolls converse convincingly. The group’s encounter with the goblin king should appeal to younger cinema goers, although the goblin king doesn’t quite work for me and feels a little out of place, a little childish, even for kids.

Stand-out for the fans will undoubtedly be the ‘riddles in the dark’ sequence with Gollum. Subtle improvements have been made to Gollum in the ten years since Rings, all worth it. Andy Serkis, again, showing why he’s king of motion capture with a fantastic performance, bouncing off Freeman’s Bilbo. Each locked in a mental battle. Freeman brilliantly demonstrating his mettle as the perfect Bilbo – an unnatural hero, afraid but also courageous, quirky and comical.

Ultimately, it’s a great opener to this latest Middle Earth trilogy. The cast has bonded well,  Jackson’s worked his magic again and – in Freeman – he’s found a brilliant Bilbo.

There and back again – Martin Freeman’s tale

the hobbitI recently heard – well, a few weeks ago – that The Hobbit would not be a single film, but a trilogy. Apparently the prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy will be drip-fed to us Middle Earth fans in three instalments. The first, An Unexpected Journey, is out this year. Secondly, The Desolation of Smaug, is out in 2013. Finally, the third instalment, There and Back Again, is out 2014. That should keep fans busy at least.

In some ways this decision – presumably by Warner Bros – is both good and bad. There’s more than enough material in Tolkien’s world for a trilogy to happen. The cause for concern is that it was announced after filming. At least that’s how I understand it. So it’s essentially getting turned into three films in post production.

Some say this is a bad thing, an afterthought, a chance to cash in. Perhaps it is, however there is no need to fret little Tolkinites and Tolkinistas, it’s Peter Jackson. He knows what he’s doing. In case we need reminding, let’s just watch the trailer for the upcoming film below.

Something that’s had nearly 20 million hits and over 100,000 likes suggests that, whilst expectation is huge, this film will be truly epic. I’m quite excited at the thought of another trip back to Jackson’s Middle Earth – whether that’s as a single film, a double whammy, or a trilogy.

Anyway, this post so far has literally been my ramblings as usual. What I wanted to discuss was Mr Martin Freeman aka Bilbo Baggins – that tricksy hobbit!

Peter Jackson aside, a massive reason for my excitement about this film is his casting. I’m SO glad they chose him. It’s been discussed before by others the reasons he got this part – his comic timing, everyman qualities, the awkward, hesitant nature he instils into characters. Don’t believe me? I’ve compiled some of his best moments for your enjoyment.

  1. Tim kisses Dawn – The Office
    I’m not talking about their proper kiss where he finally wins her over. No, in this instance – in relation to why he’s going to be a great Bilbo – I mean the moment where he first kisses Dawn. Awkward, tender and sweet.
  2. Arthur’s factory trip – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
    The sense of wild-eyed and innocent wonderment he shows here suggests he’ll be a great Bilbo, in terms of giving the character that sense of adventure.
  3. Dr Watson – Sherlock
    In case you were concerned he doesn’t have the emotional depth to play Bilbo, watch this scene in BBC’s Sherlock.  He won a BAFTA last year for his portrayal of this character.
  4. John gets his kiss – Love Actually
    Putting Martin Freeman and Joanna Page (Stacey from Gavin &  Stacey) together for this film was pure casting genius. Both totally sweet and adorable. You end up pulling a big, stupid grin when they kiss for the first time.
  5. Tim gets rejected – The Office
    I probably shouldn’t just make this a list of his top moments from The Office, but I had to include one more. The moment where Dawn rejects him is hard to watch. You wish you could save him the embarrassment.

We’ll just have to hang on until the first Hobbit instalment is out this December. I feel I should leave you with some sort of fantastic sign off. So, in the words of Looney Tunes, that’s all folks!