Review: The Hobbit #3 (2014): Battle of Five Armies

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For many of us, reading our first copy of The Hobbit, (published 1937) was seminal. It is still one of the most favourite children’s books of all time. CS Lewis comforted his recently bereaved adopted son with a copy inShadowlands (1993) while discussing The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (Tolkien led Lewis to the Christian faith. Both classics were written within the fraternity ofThe Inklings pub group) And for many of us, the magic never really left. (50-year-old men like me still mention this). I went last night to a closed premier with a group of male and female friends in their fifties. It was a great ride and a fitting climax to the trilogy prefacing the LoTR trilogy.  It was nice to see Bilbo back in the story, center stage where he belongs as the hobbit in The Hobbit.  He was a bit awol in Hobbit 2.

Thorin Oakenshield’s ‘dragon madness’ is also center stage, like “Achilles’ wrath, the direful spring of woes unnumbered” from the Iliad. Sir Peter Jackson has captured the personality and forces of this mania in Homer-esque fashion in-keeping with that epic meter.  Thorin’s driven lust for gold, home, and his ultimate redemption through killing Azog the Destroyer are central weaves to this tapestry.

Our premier was prefaced by a short intro from the actors and crew, opening with aTVOne News piece of the first production announcement. (Those nineties hairstyles and Richard Long’s moustache!).  They all thank New Zealand for hosting this long three-film production, reflect on their connections here, how much they all loved New Zealand (except Cate Blanchett who has a cheeky Aussie riposte.  Stephen Fry says, “Just like Australia, but without the boasting”). Not too cheesy and cringe-worthy.

For me, Peter Jackson’s greatest achievement is forever marrying LotR and Hobbit to New Zealand.  And this is his film, not the Tolkien Trust’s.  I was saddened to learn chief trustee Christopher Tolkien, who finished some of his father’s work, such as The Silmarillion, has declined to ever meet Sir Peter.

Jackson Divergences and Women Added.

So, we have some Jackson divergences in this movie:

1) the creation of Turiel and a female elf love triangle between Legolas Greenleaf and cross-cultural dwarf interest Fili.  I think this works.  Tolkien was an Oxford don and his appreciation of women was somewhat distant and worshipful. Jackson (well, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens I guess) provide an updated version with Turiel written in to the script.  I like her; she works, and modernises the gender appreciations we have now that were not present between 1937-49 when LoTR and Hobbit were written (no dwarf women-folk; and few heroic female characters). Without the update, a Jackson-Tolkien literal would already be outdated. It had to be modernised and I agree with Jackson on this (also deleting Tom Bombadil altogether).

2) Jackson also gives us Dune-esque “were worms,” who chew through the mountain and allow Azog’s army to ambush the squabbling Elvish, Dwarfish, and Man armies.  This was brilliant and I liked them immediately, huge Dune worms with triple-lipped mouths like the diamond head of a tunneling mine drill.

3) He also gives us more of Radagast the Brown and his Disney bunny sleigh.  Didn’t like that in Hobbit 2, but he works here, and I really liked his link to bringing the eagles to the Battle of Five Armies (the fifth army: elves, dwarves, men, orcs, eagles).”The Eagles are coming!”  They always save the day, so heroic and clean amid all that orcish/troll scum filth. Radagast’s link here is an addition that fits with the spirit of Tolkien.

4) Dain Ironfoot II and his Iron Hills dwarf army of the north (near the Lonely Mountain, arrives on a kune kune pig and there are some mountain goats with large horns.  But I accepted this; it makes sense, and when Thorin and his hand-picked team of four hurtle toward the orcs, the horned rams make excellent mobile…well…batteringRAMS. They then pronk up the mountain side towards Azog’s command post. As a Jackson interpretation of Tolkien, I think that works very well. Dwarves delve in and love rock, mountain goats also, so that’s a symmetry that makes sense in Middle-Earth despite being absent in Tolkien. Movies are about interpretation and new layering.

5) In Jackson Legolas kills Bolg, but it was Beorn in the book.

But there the departures end. The rest is very faithful, even down to the book’s “Bolgers” at the Bag End auction, a nice hat tip to our former prime minister Jim Bolger. Jackson again cements this epic to New Zealand.

Empowering Women

This is not The Hunger Games, but there are lots of empowered women in this film (like Jackson/Walsh did with Rohan’s Lady Eowyn in LoTR). There’s Galadriel, Turiel, and a peasant woman in Laketown played by Sarah Peirse who was the murdered Honora Parker-Rieper in the famous true Christchurch murder Parker/Hume crime (see here: Parker & Hulme Pt 5 (Review: Peter Graham’s 2011 Book). That story was immortalised in Heavenly Creatures (1994) Jackson’s first ‘proper’ movie (the film that ‘found’ Kate Winslet) and really launched Jackson as a serious film maker.

Beorn ‘Bearly’ There

Battle of the Five Armies, Michael Hague’s the Hobbit watercolour illustration.

Beorn was central to the big battle in The Hobbit, and I enjoyed him in Hobbit 2, but he is a bit undercooked in this movie.  A large man is dropped from an eagle, turns in to the giant rampaging anti-orc bear, and that’s about it.  I would have liked more of Beorn, perhaps a skull-crushing duel with a few olog-hai.  The baddies have all the lumbering big stuff; Beorn is our big chance.  So, I missed him a bit in Hob 3.

Trolls

Which brings me to the BIG GUYS.  Jackson does trolls so well. There are hill trolls in this, with beer pots and tree trunk clubs, clambering over the walls and smashing people with their clubs and bad British teeth.  Massive mountain trolls with catapults lashed to their backs and goblins hurling rocks (nice touch) from their backs. But I especially loved the olog-hai, see:War & Warrior Wednesday #21 (Olog-hai).  Some of these mutated hill trolls have massive prehistoric rhino-like skull helmets and look really formidable as they hemmed in the Iron Hills dwarves against the Lonely Mountain.  Another olog-hai comes rushing in with a huge rock wedge helmet and breaches the wall, then dies of the head concussion.  Trolls smash and wade their way through humanity and orc, alike. Everything you like about Middle-Earth and it’s even better here than in Lord of the Rings.

Dragon

And then there’s Smaug, who dominates the first third of Hobbit 3. He is sinister, sadistic and completely overwhelming.  Jackson portrays the utter devastation of a dragon on the loose, “never wake a dragon!”  Laketown burns, but Smaug makes it personal napalm-ing Laketown street by street and then picking out Bard the Bowman’s son for special attention.  I won’t spoil your movie by discussing Bard’s duel with Smaug, but there is a lovely William Tell twist and we all know Bard becomes “Dragon Slayer.”  Smaug’s death is excellent, but Laketown still burns. The unnecessary buffoonery and avarice of Laketown mayor Stephen Fry is here, and he meets a welcome end. Personally I didn’t like Fry in this, he just didn’t work for me.

Cultural accoutrement

Sir Richard Taylor took senior control of costume design and other aspects in this and it shows.  The dwarf livery is fantastic: square, rectilinear and racially distinct from the free-flowing lithe forms of the elves.  The orcish culture is also further developed and we hear lots of their Black Speech with subtitles. It even sounds evil. You get much more of a sense of the validity of an orc culture in this movie.  We also appreciate the differences between goblins (small orcs), orcs, hobgoblins, and uruks (man orcs) in the action sweeps, something that was often confusing between The Hobbit and LoTR.

Andy Serkis and Billy Boyd

Andy Serkis has also stepped up, so ‘Gollum’ is not completely absent. He was director of the Second Unit, and Billy Boyd (Pippin) sings the end track (quite well, actually).

Bilbo Hobbiting

Bilbo’s burglary skills come back too, which is a central premise of The Hobbit and his whole reason for being on the adventure in the first place. His ‘theft’ of the prized Arkenstone is a big underline in Hob 3.  He sees it as his fair 14th share of the treasure, but parlays it with Thranduil to prevent war with the dwarves, while holding on to his acorn from Beorn’s garden.  Thorin eventually gets this and as he lays dying says, “go home friend, plant your trees and watch them grow” (the biblical proverb, “each man to his own fig tree”).  That’s real treasure. Bilbo acts as a suitably emphasised anti epic hero.  It’s the small things (like hobbits) that count (something Gandalf instinctively understood); true treasure is home and hearth.  Tolkien also wrote “Tree & Leaf” after all.

Bilbo gets about, hobbiting down ropes, scampering between armies, running through orc scraps hidden by the ring, as a hobbit burglar would.  There’s a lovely scene with Gandalf and Bilbo at the edges of the Shire when they depart. Gandalf reveals he knows Bilbo had a magic ring all along and where he found it, and has been watching him carefully ever since. Bilbo says he lost it (liar).  They depart, but Gandalf’s face changes and we get this lovely segue into LoTR.  He is aware of this ‘ring’ that helped Bilbo so much, “be careful of magical rings Bilbo Baggins!” but he is perplexed.  Sir Ian McKellarn’s face does that nuanced shift thing only a great actor can do. Gandalf does not yet know this is THE Ring…”One ring to Rule them All and in the darkness bind them.” Dun dun dun duun. We get an earlier parallel, when Bilbo tells Gandalf “I won’t be seen!” (Gandalf perplexes… creepy music intones underneath) and then it passes.  Great dramatic tension.

LoTR Segues

There are other linkages too. A fantastic encounter between Sauron and Galadriel who sends him back into the darkness “with no name…you have no place here!” a big Ring Rap-off.  Elrond and Saruman are also there to assist and there is an amazing duel between the high elves, Saruman, the Nazgul, and Sauron up on Dol Guldor pinnacle. This is epic LoTR stuff patched in to the Hobbit back story.  Gandalf is also present, so 3 wizards, 3 high elves, the 9 Nazgul and Sauron wrestling for Middle-Earth.  Galadriel is awe-inspiring and powerful and we see that enlarged green witch again that flared up in front of Frodo in LoTR when faced with The Ring of Power.  Elrond does a wonderful Errol Flynn routine with the Nazgul as does Saruman who, at the end of the encounter says, “(to Elrond) take the Lady Galadriel to Lorien…leave Sauron to me!”  Big mistake. Really liked seeing these Old World characters from the time of Morgoth (Sauron is one of his servants) express their superior power for once.

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Elves220px-Thranduil_Sword

Speaking of high elves, I really like the development of Thranduil who rides a huge moose. He comes to reclaim his family heirlooms from the Lonely Mountain and his beautiful army lines up in front of the doughty dwarves. Elves are nothing if not stylish. Lee Pace plays Thrandruil (also Ronan the Accuser in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy; and the lead role in The Fall, both of which I recommend).  He is cold and beautiful, and austere, and stately.  I really liked him , with those beautiful unmoving cold eyes.  Woodelf Turiel confronts him, “you have no love in your heart!”

Also, a nice conversation with Legolas as he goes off in to exile.  “You should go north, Legolas. There is a man you should meet, they call him Strider, son of Arathorn, but his real name you should learn for yourself.” Another linkage to the three following films. Thranduil obviously knows the mysterious Ranger is Isildur’s heir, but hidden (like Christ as the Jewish messiah, more of which later).

Screen shot 2014-12-15 at 11.34.32 PM

Billy Connolly

Another highlight: Billy Connolly arrives as the uncouth disrespectful devil-may-care Dain Ironfoot II riding on his war Cpt Cooker kune kune pig (another nice hat tip to New Zealand). He’s all beard and plaited red hair,  gloriously armoured over-the-top Sutton Hoo style, and spewing confidence and disdain. Connolly is actually a very good actor, and he is a standout performance in this.

Conceptual of Dain Ironfoot II of the Iron ills.

A pre-movie cycle 25mm model of Dain Ironfoot from the fanatsy wargamming tradition.

Let’s give these orcs a good hammering!”  He abuses the stately elves (‘I’ll come over there and split your pretty wee head open between your pretty wee eyes’ sort of stuff). Fearless.  Swinging his two-headed square war hammer, he headbutts goblins left right and center like a true epic dwarf hero. He meets Thorin mid-melee, “I hope you’ve got a plan laddie, there are too many of the buggars…” He is just awesome. Don’t like Connolly much as a comedian (too much swearing and those interminable shaggy dog stories) but he’s an excellent actor with boar tucks woven in his beard.

Jackson is a keen wargammer/modeller/ collector as I am, and some of this Hobbit visualisation is borrowed from the world of modelling (ie dwarfs riding boars) as is some of the imaging of the different creatures in his movies. Ditto Spielberg.

Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) plays a good surrogate to Aragorn in Hobbit 3 for all those pining female viewers missing Viggo Mortensen (“find shelter,” “save the women and children,” “Any man who would do his last, follow me!”). He also has his own Grima Wormtongue character to juxtapose with. He’s the classic humble ‘any man’ knight, killing dragons.

Brickbats

1) Again, Jackson does that annoying Legolas gymnastics thing. Legolas does his physics-defying yogic-flying. I know Jackson loves this stuff (up the trunk and side of the oliphant; mounting a horse; skipping along the rolling barrels in the river) and it’s done here in spades. I find it too cartoonish, too Disney, and I wish he’d anchor Legolas more.  It makes him too Spiderman-ish. It actually diminishes Legolas, he’s just a wood elf.

2) Also, Bard does a Tintin-in-the-cart thing (also directed by Jackson) hurling down an alleyway, to take out a troll. It’s just farcical and ruined Bard for me. The ally is strewn with rocks. How can a cart hurl down there like that?  It can in a Tintin cartoon, but not here please, Pete! Ah well, there are goblins and dwarfs on pigs, so why be so picky?  But Tolkien is “real” and the plausibility is the magic of this epic.

3) I also got a bit annoyed with how easily the olog-hai were taken down.  Huge shambling houses in plate armour, a simple dwarf javelin to the chest, and they fall over.  Wimps!

4) The Iron Hills dwarves are also a bit hard to tell from the orcs in some of the battle scenes. But I suppose that kind of chaos is expected in melee. I would have liked something to distinguish the Iron Hills dwarves a bit more, though. A minor point. But on several occasions I mistook the Iron Hills dwarves for orcs, like when they did their Roman tortoise manoeuvre. “Orcs can’t do that?  Oh..it’s the dwarves.” Bit confusing.

Racial Divergences

Race is a theme here: dwarf vs elf, orc vs everyone, “never trust wizards,” a romance between Turiel and Fili, men vs dwarves, a hobbit in-between, hill troll, mountain troll, olog-hai; we get the difference between High Elf and Woodelf, etc with great wardrobing, colour and distinctive design.

From the very beginning, when Jackson began, I wrote suggesting he give each race a different accent: elves, French; dwarves Scottish; men, English etc and in part, we have that here. Dain is a Scot, and there is a strong celtic spirit: he’s Braveheart and tribe mooning the English elves. After the elf – dwarf standoff at the wall, and the Iron Hills army make a Roman legionnaire tortoise, suddenly High Elves come leaping over their backs, using them as spring boards, to attack the orcs.  I loved that symbiosis: elf and dwarf working together at last. (UN group hug). It was a nice Jackson touch after the rancour.

Jackson’s orcs are better developed, and I liked the fleshing out of their culture as well as that of the dwarves.

Wizard Radagast the Brown is restrained in this movie, he plays his role, and we see the sleigh bunnies, but fortunately he’s not over the top and is a believable adjunct (as a wizard of tree and leaf) alongside Saruman the White and Gandalf the Grey.

Battle Scenes

The battle scenes are incredible, none of the cliched judo flipping, elbow punching and tossing against walls. It’s dwarf war hammer on orc armour, lots of bashing and slashing, swords going through flesh, rocks braining goblins. Loved it!

A protracted and very creative climax duel between Azog the Destroyer and Thorin Oakenshield.  Here I think Jackson’s genius is in full play.  It is multiple (three separate engagements), sustained, and at one point Jackson puts them on ice, so they slip and slide. Legolas is atop a pinnacle sniping out supportive orcs attacking Thorin (Azog will never play fair) but runs out of arrows. Azog has a huge block of rock on a chain, so that cracks the ice as he hurls it over and over at Thorin, who has to duck and weave.  How Thorin defeats Azog is just brilliant, but like all epic duels, there is a second coming, and Azog has a round three. Black orc blood seeps along the ice and down the side of a glacial waterfall, as Thorin stumbles over to the edge mortally wounded. But enough said.

Legolas has a similar duel with Azog’s son, Bolg, again sustained. We switch between the actions, which makes the movie just thrilling. Wars and dramatic duels are going on everywhere.  Bolg comes to an excellent end, no spoiler, but let’s just say it involves a big rock and orc flesh.

Biblical Allusions Speaking of second-comings, I’ve said elsewhere, that I believe the 12 dwarves are metaphors for the Diaspora Twelve Tribes of Israel (see here Are The Hobbit Dwarves Jewish? and here (3) The Hobbit’s 13 Dwarves). It has long been argued back and forth about the allegorical nature of LoTR. As evidence for this claim there is: a massive shofar blown at the end and the dwarves ride rams, so its all Passover and the festival of the Scapegoat. Lust for gold, seeking a new home, a small people but loyal and hardy, fighting a “Red Dragon”…it’s all here (see The Real Red Smaug. Christmas Genocide in Iraq. I Attend an Arabic Service).  There is also (the coincidence?) that Hobbit 3 is released during Hanukkah season.

You have to remember that Tolkien wrote Hobbit about a decade before the Jews of the Holocaust reclaimed a homeland (modern Israel) but during the political period of the Balfour Declaration and Churchill’s advocacy for Jews. I think Tolkien was conscious of this when crafting Thorin’s quest for his “little people.”

Script & Character

This movie held my attention all the way. The characters are all rich and different and I cared about them all (Bilbo, the dwarves, Thranduil, Galadriel, Saruman, Legolas, Turiel, it’s a rich panoply but no confusion between them occurs. That shows masterful script writing and character narrative.

Cinematography

Wide sweeping gorgeous cinematography, mountains, trees and fields (loved the homely warmth of the Shire at the end, always a contrast to the craggy wastelands of The Wild where all adventures take place) like the out-of-place dwarfish brooch that pins a large cape around tiny Bilbo stumbling back in to the Shire with foreign treasure and sword hilts.

Overall It is awesome this six-part epic is now complete and is forever married to New Zealand. We can now watch the whole cycle in order (somewhat more chronologically than the disparate and confusing episodes of Star Wars). They will become classics. People can watch them over and over and critique the details and nuances. I think they will endure, because we are playing in an epic genre that is already timeless. Personally I’ll be watching all these films several times. They are so watchable.

What more can I say (heaps) it is an endlessly recyclable film epic, and everyone will have their observations. Go see it. We did, and all the women enjoyed it as much as the cheering blokes.  It’s epic Tolkien/Jackson; the visualisation of a rich epic fantasy gold hoard in the catacombs of our literary tradition. Preciousssss.  8/10.

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