Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Sandworms of Middle-Earth

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Voices of Smaug and The Necromancer) (2014):

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is not terrible. It has its moments. Turning one chapter of The Hobbit into a two-hour battle sequence is pretty strange, and none of the wholesale changes made by Peter Jackson to the original story seem to be worth the effort. For example, there's a 'comic' bit with the cowardly second-in-command of Lake Town that eats up minutes to no discernible purpose other than a terrible pun at the conclusion of this 'comic' relief. For this we lost the thematic and metaphorical significance of Beorn's role in the novel? Beorn's role in in the battle has been whittled down to a cameo, though it's a cameo that suspends the laws of physics, so, you know, Anti-gravity Bear.

Changes abound. The added characters of Legolas and Tauriel get most of Beorn's major actions. Thranduil rides around on an elk, and that pretty much just looks stupid throughout. There's some Kung Fu sword-fighting between the trio of Saruman, Galadriel, and Elrond, and the nine Ring-wraiths that once again features Peter Jackson's reluctance to have wizards do any of that wizardy stuff they do in the books. Instead, they fight by jumping around like Kung Fu Panda, swinging that wizard's staff that Jackson has clearly mistaken for a bo. It's as if out of all the things in the universe of The Lord of the Rings, the thing that Jackson and his co-writers found most unbelievable was magic itself. 

Well, and elves who laugh and sing. Jackson's elves are pretty much Vulcans by this point, and not early Vulcans, but the pissy jerks of the first three seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. At least the invented elf-maiden Tauriel is nice, and Legolas sort of learns better. As Jackson's dwarves are pretty much Klingons, one wonders why he hasn't volunteered to direct a Star Trek movie already.

We also get the potentially exciting effort of Bard the Bowman to stop Smaug the Dragon as imagined by someone with a sudden loss of attention to drama. Does Bard shoot Smaug out of the air through that tiny chink in Smaug's armor-like skin? Well, no. Smaug lands about three feet away from Bard and jabbers away like the most talky of all talky villains, all the while keeping that hole in his outer skin exposed until Bard manages to McGyver together a bow from stuff lying around (including his son -- look, see it for yourself, I'm not kidding) and shoot Smaug dead. What larks, Peter Jackson, what larks!

As in the previous two Hobbit extravaganzas, Martin Freeman supplies all the wit and occasional gravitas as Bilbo Baggins. Ian McKellan is fine again as Gandalf. There's a Scottish dwarf played by Billy Connolly. There are endless widescreen shots of battlefields and ranks of warriors that don't seem to have been finished properly in the CGI department -- never has a Peter Jackson Tolkien movie looked more like a video game. The laws of physics come and go, subject to whether or not a character's going to die from a fall or just be slightly inconvenienced. And in an unexpected mash-up with Frank Herbert's Dune, there are sandworms. 

One of the long-standing discussions about The Hobbit's relation to The Lord of the Rings lies in the earlier novel's status as a work meant for children, implicitly taking the exaggerated and often comic tone of Bilbo's reminiscences long after the events of the novel. It's how things like the mountain giants are explained away, as no such things exist in the larger world of The Lord of the Rings and the other works about Middle-Earth. If we view the much different exaggerations and alterations of the three films adapted from The Hobbit in the same light, we're left with a Bilbo Baggins who must be addicted to video games and high-caffeine Mountain Dew. And poop jokes. And physics-free cartoons. Maybe his retelling of the events of The Hobbit occurs entirely in 140-character tweets. Lightly recommended.

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