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I remember the joy I felt when the first “Lord of the Rings” trailer appeared. While George Lucas eroded the “Star Wars” franchise with ill-fated prequels and “The Matrix” lost steam after its initial premiere, “Lord of the Rings” kept the magic alive for three films (all three deserved Best Picture wins, not just the third). And then, “The Hobbit”. Perhaps the skeptics were right: it should have been one film. But I remain ill convinced.
The first two installments had their flaws, but they captured the Middle-earth spirit quite well. From catchy folk songs and dwarfish antics to intense sorcery and ominous foes, this was still enjoyable, even if less so than the originals. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (a far better title choice than “There and Back Again”), however, suffers from something new: obnoxious characters.
In “The Desolation of Smaug”, Stephen Fry’s mayor of Lake-town was an embarrassing caricature more suited for “Hercules: The Legendary Adventures”. “Five Armies” rightly avoids him but includes former mayor crony Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the most “what were the filmmakers thinking” character from the Shire to Gondor. He dons women’s clothing to avoid fighting, brown noses anyone who can help and screeches out most of his lines. He has no purpose, save perhaps to evoke a chuckle from more juvenile moviegoers.
But Alfrid isn’t the only problem. The first 20 minutes features some superbly terrible acting by a slew of extras. And then, following the great battle, the film seems to abandon so many of the good characters in whom it spent too long investing. “Return of the King” spent almost 45 minutes wrapping things up. “Five Armies” enjoys a more modest conclusion, but the effect is little satisfying. Much of it feels like fan service, nodding to audience members about what happens next.
In many ways, “Five Armies” reminds me of Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels: surfing the popularity of a memorable property, abandoning more mature themes for childish high jinks and overpopulating scenes with Easter eggs that don’t ultimately advance the driving plotline.
The entire origin of Sauron and his Nazgûl concludes quickly, taking with it very early and final appearances of Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). Sure, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) provides some loose tie in (apparently the Orcs want the great dwarf kingdom for its strategic value in the coming war decades to come), but it just feels like a cheep excuse to draw material from outside J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, like “The Silmarillion”. I’m not against any of this, but it never comes together.
The best part of this prequel trilogy is Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), but he’s hardly around for the third installment. And elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), created specially for the film to provide one of the only female characters in this man cave of a film, is a wonderful addition, but she disappears, leaving me wondering, “Is that it?”
If you crave a good battle, then “Five Armies” features an epic showdown. Orcs, humans, elves, dwarves and beasts just don’t know how to get along, but they do wage memorable war. On a completely visual basis, it’s a site to indulge. Peter Jackson knows his epic “epicness”, and this is eye candy both excessive and shamelessly awesome.
Perhaps what is most disappointing is this is it. No more “Lord of the Rings” –– and on such a bland note. How could the film with the grand battle be the worst chapter of the bunch? I remained on Jackson’s side until this week. “The Hobbit” as three films –– why not? But it focuses on all the wrong things, often replacing the Shakespearean dramatics of the award-winning trilogy with clichéd speech. All the parts are there — the actors, the production value, the complex world — but too many poor decisions slip through the narrative cracks.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” should have been so much better. It’s hardly terrible (past those first 20 minutes), but it will try your patience. If you’re a diehard fan of a film series, you might justify a mediocre sequel by saying the whole will determine how good this one is. Sadly, this one writes a check with its mouth that its rump can’t cash. I just wonder if anyone edited these screenplays. They’re promising, but what dominates the screen for 144 minutes is a rough draft in need of revisions.
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