There and Back Again: Reviewing The Hobbit (The Battle of the Five Armies)

Yesterday I had a rare and unexpected privilege. I was able to watch all three films of Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit trilogy, back-to-back-to-back. I say rare because cinemas do not offer this kind of experience nearly enough, and unexpected because: they’re good, really good together. Certain films, even great ones like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, gain very little from the trilogy viewing experience. They were created as separate entities and each tell their own story. In the case of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, however, the experience is much like The Lord of the Rings. All three films feel like they are parts to the same giant epic. The Unexpected Journey introduces audiences back to Middle Earth; The Desolation of Smaug escalates the conflict while building to the climax; and then there is The Battle of the Five Armies – what an ending it is.

In a film that echoes the overall strengths and weaknesses of the trilogy it concludes, The Battle of the Five Armies is over-the-top spectacle fueled by the simple heart of the story it is telling. Those out there who lamented the limited presence of actor Martin Freeman in The Desolation of Smaug can breathe a sigh: he is much more involved in this film. Indeed, it can be argued that the best scenes of the movie come before the blockbuster titular battle sequence.

One of the benefits of three movies allowed Jackson to develop individual personalities and presences for each of the dwarves in the company. This allows for more investment in the battle.
One of the benefits of three movies allowed Jackson to develop individual personalities and presences for each of the dwarves in the company. This allows for more investment in the battle.

By breaking the story into three portions, Peter Jackson is able to give each their own feel. The Battle of the Five Armies plays out like a tragedy, with all sides building to a war that few truly want. Each leader has their own personality but is depicted as small in the events that are rapidly spiraling out of control. Whether it is the gold-driven insanity of Richard Armitage‘s Thorin, the reluctant responsibility of Luke Evans‘ Bard, or the seeming indifference of Lee Pace‘s Thranduil: every leader talks of peace while preparing for war.

Bard and Legolas are two of the more reasonable voices leading to the battle.
Bard and Legolas are two of the more reasonable voices leading to the battle.

Here is where the not-so-subtle moral message of movie is hammered down. Greed is bad. Gold is not worth more than lives and the world would be a better place if more people treated jewels with as little value as hobbits do. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still fresh in everyone’s minds, there are definite parallels to be drawn. A war fought solely over money while many innocents are caught and killed in the crossfire: not as fantastical as we’d all like it to be.

Certain cynics have already dismissed Jackson’s newest trilogy as a Lord of the Rings cash-in, but after watching it all play out it is clear that this was not the case. The reality is a situation very similar to 2005’s King Kong. Peter Jackson has the spirit of a child, the love of a fan… and enough money to create Middle Earth in his own image. While The Hobbit trilogy does take its bombastic nature to a fault, there is a purity running underneath it, and a sincerity that is greatly appreciated.

The controversial addition of Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel ultimately adds heart and even more of a sense of loss in The Battle of the Five Armies.
The controversial addition of Evangeline Lilly‘s Tauriel ultimately adds heart and even more of a sense of loss in The Battle of the Five Armies.

Lightning may not have struck twice, but it was close. In the end, The Battle of the Five Armies serves as an immensely fun and satisfying conclusion to a trilogy done well enough to stand on its own. As the ending credits roll, one cannot help but feel a sense of sadness and gratitude at the sheer spectacle that is Peter Jackson and his Middle Earth epics. It is only a shame that the story is now truly done.

Sherlock Returns with a New Year's Celebration

January 15th, 2012. How many things have happened since January 15th, 2012? For those out there wondering, January 15th, 2012 was the debut date of “The Reichenbach Fall“, the season two finale of the popular BBC show, Sherlock. Boy, was that a finale: Moriarty dead (or not, if you believe the theories) and Sherlock faking his death. There was one question, one question on everyone’s mind at the end of that episode: How? How did Sherlock survive the fall?

Part of the BBC's marketing campaign. They were having fun with this before the episode even aired.
Part of the BBC’s marketing campaign. They were having fun with this before the episode even aired.

Fast-forward to January 1st, 2014 and the release of “The Empty Hearse“, the long awaited season three premiere (at least in the United Kingdom anyway) that finally continues the story of everyone’s favorite sociopath. Tonight I had the good fortune, through internet means I would never endorse (incidentally isn’t this an odd website), to watch “The Empty Hearse”. Spoilers? Nah, I won’t ruin the fun. Rest assured, Sherlock is more than aware how long its kept everyone waiting. I’ll instead stick to the basics, starting with the first and foremost question: is it still good?

Yep.

I’ll go into it a bit more than that.

“The Empty Hearse” serves as a joyous reintroduction to the series. Written by none other than Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes to all you fans) who is aware of just how long ago 2012 was in terms of television attention span. To that end, this is not a very plot heavy episode. Indeed, those out there wanting to puzzle along to a gripping mystery will have to wait. Sherlock was dead for two years: it takes time to get breathing again.

Two years have passed in the series timeline as well so a good portion of the episode is spent playing catchup. Kind of like season 4 of Arrested Development except actually funny.
Two years have passed in the series timeline as well so a good portion of the episode is spent playing catchup. Kind of like season 4 of Arrested Development except actually funny.

What makes it work is, of course, the actors. Benedict Cumberbatch once again fully inhabits the titular protagonist who gave his career life. Martin Freeman manages to look both fully fed up and happy to be back as John Watson. Perhaps the most surprising performance comes from Louise Brealey, whose original character, Molly Hooper, has transformed from one time comic fodder to the sad manifestation of Sherlock’s detached humanity. There are no weak leaks in the acting chain that hold this series up and, while the story this time is more tongue-and-cheek than we’re used to, this is a show built for powerful drama and moving stories on the human condition.

Amanda Abbington plays Mary Morstan, a new addition to the cast.
Amanda Abbington plays Mary Morstan, a new addition to the cast.

I will say, in the interest of perspective and placement, that this is not my favorite episode of the series. Indeed, as far as season premiers go: it may be the worst the series has endured so far. That is not a knock on it, however, when comparison is drawn with “A Study in Pink” and “A Scandal in Belgravia” (my personal favorite episode of the series). The story is fun and the presentation is thoroughly fourth-wall.

Are there any worries going forward? None but this: Sherlock is a series that has set itself a high standard. While nine episodes hardly breaks the bank on the source material, one does wonder if the series will ever again recapture this height of fan excitement. You can only kill Sherlock Holmes so many times before audiences stop caring how he survived the fall.

Season two contained many of the series' most famous characters. It will be interesting to see what season three comes up with.
Season two contained many of the series’ most famous characters. It will be interesting to see what season three comes up with.

Yet for the moment it is a party and a most welcome one at that. The world’s most famous detective is back and audiences will no doubt have nearly as much fun with his return as he did.

Sherlock returns to North America on January 14th... for anyone who is interested in waiting.
Sherlock returns to North America on January 14th… for anyone who is interested in waiting.

"I AM KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN!" – 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Review

Eleven years ago, New Line Cinema released The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The second chapter in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy found incredible critical acclaim and took home two Oscars. However, departures from the source material, including the delay of Shelob, the character change of Faramir and the presence of elves at the battle of Helms Deep, angered some of the more diehard Tolkien fans. To those people I have one thing to say: STAY AWAY FROM THIS MOVIE. Of course, if you sleep with The Hobbit on your nightstand and hold the word of Tolkien as law, then you probably already walked away from this new trilogy in disgust last December. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a bold departure from the source material and… a pretty good movie… I think? I’ll get into it.

(MINOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)

The Desolation of Smaug essentially picks up right where the first film left off. As you may remember, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and company are on the edge of Mirkwood. The orcs are still right behind them and the eagles have left to return to the realm of Deus ex Machina. Yet there is also flashback scene to ease us into our fifth return to Middle-Earth. Returning to the famous “Prancing Pony” Inn from Fellowship of the Ring, we witness the initial meeting between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage). This scene, as well as many of additions/changes to the source material, exists for one purpose: there are bigger things going on in Middle-Earth than Smaug.

Get ready, there is a lot of Lord of the Rings in this movie.
Get ready, there is a lot of Lord of the Rings in this movie.

This is grand departure. While Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy employees Bilbo Baggins as its chief protagonist, its identity is not that of the simple children’s adventure story. These movies represent the beginning of the war of the ring.

Did you hear that? Every diehard Hobbit book fan just groaned.

Yes, it is true, that little band of gold is as much of a star in this movie as Martin Freeman or Ian McKellen. Really, it is arguably a larger star than Freeman, who sadly takes a backseat in this second installment. Personally I felt that one of the strongest plus factors going in An Unexpected Journey was the strong characterization of Bilbo Baggins. Evidently Jackson and co. felt entitled to a pass this time around.

Bilbo Baggins is as much a part of the scenery in this movie as those blue butterflies.
Bilbo Baggins is as much a part of the scenery in this movie as those blue butterflies.

So, amidst the gathering doom of greater forces, the little dwarf quest continues – and is a lot more fun this time around. The film only really falters at the beginning with the interjection of Beorn (a were-bear who will no doubt come back into play in the third installment) before hitting its stride in Mirkwood. We get spiders and elves and a barrel chase and it is all great fun. The addition of Evangeline Lilly as Turiel, an elf guardsman, is welcome and breathes life into the movie. Really her performance and subsequent subplot with the dwarf, Kili do a lot to improve the pacing and give the audience a breather from the one-track Thorin (this dwarf needs his mountain something fierce) and the somber beginnings of Sauron (one of two villains this movie voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

It's Evangeline Lilly as an elf. Damn.
It’s Evangeline Lilly as an elf. Damn.

The result is a pace that feels at a thrilling rush and gets us to Lake-town feeling jazzed to see what comes next. What comes next: the audience is introduced to Luke Evans (good performance) and Stephen Fry (Republican performance) before it’s off to see the dragon!

Now, about that dragon… here come my spoilers. Those out there wishing to see Smaug die, you’re not getting your Christmas present this year. Peter Jackson, possibly trying to emulate the Hunger Games: Catching Fire, has gone the root of the abrupt cliffhanger leaving all resolution for the Hobbit: There and Back Again. The result is a jarring ending preced by a greatly expanded upon confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug (voiced by dragon-Sherlock aka Benedict Cumberbatch).

Pretty accurate.
Pretty accurate.

I said at the beginning of this review that I wasn’t sure how to feel about the movie and that’s why. This doesn’t feel like a complete story. Unlike the chapters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not much is resolved at the end of the Desolation of Smaug. There is no victory at Helms Deep, no breaking of the fellowship: the movie just ends. Yes, one can argue that the climactic expulsion of Smaug (yes, he gets forced from the mountain in this movie) is enough but that dragon is still alive and in good, fire-breathing shape.

Ironically this tale feels more like part one-of-two than part two-of-three. As a piece of a film, it is entertaining and fun… but it only a piece of a film. The final word on Peter Jackson’s trilogy will come next December. Until then, The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug is a solid blockbuster rich in Tolkien lore. I just hope that all of this buildup has a payoff… other than the Battle of Five Armies.

Verdict: Worth seeing at full price.
Verdict: Worth seeing at full price.

PS – For those curious about my thoughts on the first movie, click here!