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So we're finally there, fourteen years and six movies later: the entire Peter Jackson J.R.R. Tolkien epic is on screen. It would have been sooner had conditions not blocked Guillermo del Toro's proposed version. Jackson's three-part serial concluded last Christmas with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies , done in a style consistent with the blockbuster Lord of the Rings movie from a decade before.
There was plenty to talk about regarding the adaptation of The Hobbit. With the Rings project (2001-2003) Jackson and his crew had to compress three fat books into just three movies. Even in their extended editions we can see the screenwriters straining to leave out as little content as possible. The Hobbit is another problem entirely. The prequel is just one book and a rather slim one at that, but Wingnut Films has expanded it to fill three movies almost as lengthy as the Ring pictures. It's almost a Lewis Carroll - Alice problem of forced growing and shrinking. The story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) expends reels of screen time on a marathon feast with party-crashing dwarfs; later on it must invent major action scenes. It's a miracle things don't seem too drawn out.
Picking up exactly where part two left off, the fearsome dragon Smaug (voice: Benedict Cumberbatch) rises from The Lonely Mountain Erebor to destroy Lake-town. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and his son Bain (John Bell) stay behind to fight Smaug on their own. The citizens of Lake-town leave for Dale. Everything now comes down to a big battle for Erebor. An army led by Elf Thranduil (Lee Pace) is willing to fight the Orc hordes of Azog (Manu Bennett) to get back some Elf treasures in the mountain. He's at odds with both Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who has displeased him by falling in love with the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). The main problem is that Thorin (Richard Armitage), crazed by possession of the gold of Eredor, won't part with any of if it for any reason. Overcome by Dragon Sickness, he reneges on his deal with Bard, slamming the door on Bard's humans, Thranduil's Elves and his own cousin Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly), whose dwarf army is left to fight alone. Thorin ignores the pleadings of his dwarf comrades. He's sure one of them has hidden the Arkenstone... not knowing that the culprit is Bilbo, the only friend Thorin still trusts.
Meanwhile, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) free Gandalf from his cage on the ghostly mountain Dol Goldur. They apparently defeat the Nazgul phantoms and even send the giant fiery eye Sauron packing. Wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) arrives in his sleigh to take Gandalf to Dale. By the time he gets there several armies have engaged in the fight for Eredor, and more are on the way. Will Thorin Oakenshield act honorably, or will he continue to think only of his gold?
I remember around 1992 reading all of The Hobbit out loud to my seven year-old son as we waited at a bus stop. It took only two weeks of twenty-minute sessions. I mostly remember longs lists of dwarfs and their endless kin. I'm told that the events of this third film installment take up all of seventy or so of the book's pages. That's okay, in that at least nothing in this episode is rushed.
It is mostly wall-to-wall fighting for two hours. The main character byplay is satisfying, with Gandalf more charming than ever and Martin Freeman wonderful as Bilbo. The Tauriel-Kili relationship is played up, as otherwise the whole three-part show would have little romantic involvement.
Jackson's designers and animators don't let him down, in that everything is clear and fairly exciting. The major confrontations work well, especially those with Bilbo carrying the conscience of the mission, and trying to provoke Thorin to his senses. Unlike The Ring's young Frodo, Bilbo has better judgment and more self-control. He's not corrupted by the Ring or thoughts of treasure, which makes him a moral compass that even Gandalf respects. One of the best shots in the film shows them post-battle, sitting side-by-side and not needing to express their sentiments via words or fancy ritual. They're true friends and comrades, and as such possessors of a rare bond.
As for all that fighting? I have to say that the Rings movies took a lot of care to make every dust-up in every episode distinctive in some way or another. Its massive battles are in Part Two, yet the story is so well organized that the third installment doesn't seem a let-down, excitement-wise. By the time The Hobbit came along, too many fights are just extended chases in which our heroes succeed again and again against overwhelming odds, often helped by cartoonish gags that wipe out dozens of enemies for them. In the Five Armies all those dwarves seem all but immortal. We're surprised that the head nasty-Orc Azog doesn't feel more respect for them. When his opponents keep pulling magic aces out of their sleeves, can't Azog understand that the mysterious forces of Nick'oTime® and GeeThatWasClose® are on their side? We're rather peeved that the good Wizard Radagast's intervention with an army of Great Eagles arrives so late, after so many good folk have bitten the Middle-earthian dust... especially that magnificent army of armored Elf warriors that look like endless rows of golden grasshoppers. One would think that after the first episode, Gandalf might have asked his fellow wizard if those eagles were for rent. Not only would they destroy any and all evil forces about, using them boids for transportation would save the dwarf mission a lot of weary hiking up and down those vertiginous mountains.
Those thoughts make it all more satisfying when Azog's main henchman Bolg (John Tui) turns out to be such a competent foe, a really mean mutha. He and Azog actually succeed in killing a few 'A'-list heroes, finally giving the quest a sense of true mortality. The Hobbit is not just a 'the same, only different' prequel to The Ring, but it must be said that its highs and lows aren't as dramatic as the more elaborate tale. We're already familiar with the Tolkien world and the kinds of things that can happen in it. There are no grand revelations, such as a last-minute mass rescue by ghosts in search of atonement, or the emotional high of Gandalf arriving on the crest of a hill to save the day, waving a blindingly shining sword like an angel from heaven.
The Hobbit saga brings us full circle in a satisfying way, although we'd like to know how those ten or so gnarly dwarves are going to put their giant mountain kingdom back together again. The way Peter Jackson frames their farewell shot -- no time for hugs or signing yearbooks -- you'd think they were going to adopt funny names like Sneezy, so they'll be ready to receive Snow White. It's a good and worthy series and I'm glad the 'fans' didn't turn on it. If Peter Jackson still cares about moviemaking after so many years of running this monster enterprise, I hope he finds something completely different to do.
James Cameron and Peter Jackson have been giving us these cutting-edge technology epics for twenty years now. Cameron's 2009 Avatar goosed theatrical 3-D into high gear, while Jackson was the first innovator to really experiment with higher frame rates since Douglas Trumbull's 70mm Showscan effort in the 1970s. I saw the 48-frames per second version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey under optimal conditions and thought it very interesting. I respect Jackson for sticking with High Frame Rate after the drubbing from the media, which seemed offended by his attempt to improve the theatrical format. Even Dave Letterman pounced on the issue for cheap jokes, throwing Jackson to the mob, as it were. I feel the same way I did when I projected Showscan back in 1976: it would be best not for CGI fantasies, but for real subjects in real locations, with fast action that gets blurred at the lower frame rate -- certain sports, and dancing. The only time Trumbull asked me what I thought, it was the day after I saw a flamenco dance performance. The feet of flamenco and tap dancers are just a blur on normal film, with maybe two heel-taps per frame. In 'JacksonVision' we might really appreciate a close-up look at such impressive sights, when we could perceive every tap.
The Warner Home Video 3-D Blu-ray, 2-D Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a real treat in the third dimension. I realize that since the majority of the film is CGI, the 3-D is applied to the movie as part of the design, and maybe not even in much of the original photography. Yet every shot satisfies, from the landscapes that stretch to infinity to medium shots in which sword points and extended hands reach out at us. The 3-D is engaged in a balanced way, enriching the image and the action but never becoming the dominant subject of a shot.
If anything The Hobbit series has better color than the Rings movies, which seemed to default to a silvery blue monochrome whenever organizing a more complicated color scheme was too difficult. Back in 2000 the computing power to put together those complex animated shots must have been a real stretch.
Everybody's going to be satisfied with this release, but they'll first need to get Warners' packages straight. What I'm reviewing is the Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack, which I recommend over the straight Blu-ray Combo Pack because the price is the same. A third 2-disc DVD Special Edition is less expensive, but not by much. It makes sense to get the fancier package if there's any chance you'll upgrade to BD or 3-D BD, which is no longer particularly expensive. 1 More people are learning to use the download feature for the Ultraviolet digital version as well.
All versions carry five lengthy and richly produced featurette docus packed with actors and creative technicians expounding on the filming of the show and the wrap-up of the Tolkien saga. Recruiting the Five Armies, Completing Middle-earth, The Last Goodbye: Behind the Scenes and The Last Goodbye Music Video precede New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth Part 3, a wrap-up that celebrates the island nation's surplus of killer scenery.
On the Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack the 3-D feature has been given two discs, presumably to avoid taxing the bit rate. The Blu-ray version and the Blu-ray extras each get separate discs, and a solitary DVD is there as well. An insert sheet carries the download code for the Digital HD version.
This will be it for Hobbits and Elves, unless somebody discovers Tolkien's third Middle-earth Trilogy of novels, the handwritten manuscripts for which are hidden behind the peanut butter jar in my fridge. Actually, how many years will pass before some studio statistician computes that it is time for the whole epic to be re-booted?
The 3-D Blu-ray Combo cover features lenticular art of Bilbo pointing his sword.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Relatively speaking, of course. People who can really afford this stuff don't have to worry about the credit card balance. That said, thinking of the time and effort expended to make this movie, and the intense production and QC checking required to turn out this complex combo pack, the discounted price seems almost ridiculously low. Note: Special HTML coding blocks WHV personnel from reading this last remark.
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T'was Ever Thus.