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The latest entry of The Hobbit franchise is called The Battle of the Five Armies, and I guess I have to first say that I found the title a tad puzzling because I only counted four…armies, that is. There were elves, dwarves, man and orcs.
I guess the fifth comes about if you divide those orcky things into two different factions, but, I don’t know, that sorta felt like cheating to me.
At any rate, I think the story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings could be used as a metaphor for filmmaker Peter Jackson and his production of this final installment of the adventures of a little person called Bilbo Baggins.
The book in many ways can be seen as a dramatization of the devastating effect greed and a lust for power can have on a person. The gold the dragon guards has no meaning other than ownership since the dragon doesn’t use it for anything; he just wants as much of it as he can. And the ring, when worn, slowly takes over the person wearing it, breeding a great desire for power and evil.
In both cases, the objects create a need in the owner of wanting more and more, no matter the reason or result, robbing their possessor of all humanity and human connection.
And so here we have a rather simple little story about a hobbit who gets coerced into going on a great adventure turned into a huge behemoth of a special effects extravaganza with more battles, more action, more story…and I mean, more story…and I mean, a lot more story, a lot more, a huge amount more (it’s the shortest of the tryptic, but seems the longest)…and almost no human connection.
It’s not what Jackson does with it, it’s the size.
And so we have a film in which Bilbo Baggins, the book’s central character, is now merely an extra in his own story. There no longer even seems to be reason as to why Bilbo was asked to come along on the trek.
The four writers (Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro) try to give him something significant to do, but I never felt that his actions were that integral to the plot. One could easily have removed him from the movie altogether, and the story would have worked out pretty much the same.
Even at the climax, when Bilbo is sent to warn Thorin of an ambush and he uses his ring to turn invisible and get by the bad guys, he arrives too late to really make any difference in the outcome of that conflict.
The Hobbit, title character notwithstanding, is now Thorin’s story, Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, desperate to regain his people’s lands and treasury and who is almost driven mad by his lust for gold.
In fact, one might say…are you ready for it…you might want to be sitting down…remember, I warned you…Bilbo is now…dwarfed by Thorin.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
And in many ways, perhaps this is appropriate. When Jackson made The Lord of the Rings, he said he identified with hobbits. Now having made so many movies with such large budgets and big stories, maybe he’s gained so much gold himself, he’s becoming more and more like Thorin.
At the same time, the three movies do seem to follow the plot of the book, so maybe it’s Tolkien’s fault. I don’t know. But in spite of the fact that it is Tolkien’s story up there, it just doesn’t remotely feel like the original source.
Going back, I found the first of the films, The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey, to have some marvelous moments and a great deal of promise (though it often got bogged down in some boring episodes, especially when those damn dwarves starting singing).
In the second outing, The Desolation of Smaug, I found myself getting totally lost when it came to the plot. I no longer knew who was doing what and why they were doing it (especially when it came to Gandalf).
This time round, though I did find the story a bit more intelligible, it was too late. I just didn’t care. I had no emotional attachment to anyone or to the outcome.
The battle scenes, though impressive in their CGIness, also have no emotional impact. The Orcs were never particularly good fighters. In many ways, there are very easily defeated; one man, dwarf or elf can take out four, five, six at a time. The only way orcs can win, in fact, is to outnumber their opponents (which is nothing to sneeze at, I suppose; it is the way we won The Civil War and WWI, after all).
And even with all the beheadings, stabbings through the hearts and various dismemberments, as well as constant crushings by creatures larger than everyone else, it often feels like no one dies. Every time the film cuts to the extras, it always seems to be the same group of people.
The characters just never gain the vibrancy the characters do in the Lord of the Rings series. Here, they’re so overpowered by the grandiosity of the whole movie and the film’s special effects, they never become real people (or dwarves or elves, etc.). So it’s hard to care what happens to them.
With the result that the various altercations just feel repetitious, never ending and mind numbing until it’s all just a bit too, too dispiriting.
The usual suspects, I mean actors, are all here. Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, etc., etc., etc. None give effective performances. They’re never really allowed to.
I must say that the first half of the film adaptation of Stephen Soundheim and James Lapine’s great stage musical Into the Woods is pretty marvelous stuff. It has all the magic, imagination and vividness of the stage production.
Actually, it has a little more. Now that it’s a movie, there’s the possibility of employing careful use of special effects, so stage magic now becomes movie magic as a witch appears and disappears, beanstalks erupt from the ground, thorn bushes grow at the flick of a hand, and, in a more down to earth moment, a scullery maid is turned into a beautiful princess.
The basic story line is a mash up of several traditional fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel) combined with a new one about a Baker and his Wife who want to have a child and must collect four objects (conveniently, ones that are contained in each of the other story lines, such as a milky white cow, cloak red as blood, etc.) to give to a witch to reverse the curse they are under.
And this first half is a ton of fun as they say. It’s witty, energetic, clever and incredibly well directed by Rob Marshall, who has choreographed the blocking and the action within an inch of their lives. And his camera placement (cinematography by Dion Beebe, editing by Wyatt Smith) is scarily pitch perfect.
This whole first half is basically breathtaking, with such interludes as Jack dancing precariously on a tree branch as he tells of his cloudy adventures and two princes trying to out alpha-male each other as they describe their agony at wanting an unavailable love while dancing precariously on a bunch on rocks overlooking a waterfall;
It’s not that this first half is perfect. The main issue is that too much happens off screen (Cinderella’s interaction with Prince Charming; Jack’s adventures in the sky; a prince’s first attempts to climb Rapunzel’s hair).
These events are sung about in retrospect. And it’s easy to understand why they would be on stage. But you do wonder why, now that it’s a film, they didn’t just dramatize these events in real time.
At the same time, as soon as everyone starts singing again, one gets caught up in Soundheim’s astounding music and lyrics as well as the astounding singing and performances by everyone involved, as well as the astounding direction by Marshall, that one soon forgets this issue.
And I mean it; the singing, the acting, the everything by everyone is almost faultless. This is one of the best cast ensembles I’ve seen all year. There are no Russell Crowes, Helena Bonham-Carters or Pierce Brosnans here.
Though I guess I do have to take a moment to make one observation. Somewhere about a third to half way though, I suddenly had a thought: My god, this movie is awfully white. I mean, there is not one minority or person of color in the speaking/singing roles. Even the cow is about as pale as one can get.
And then I realized why this came to me. Yes, none of the main roles are non-white, but in the crowd scenes suddenly there will be an extra who is black. And you realize just what is going on here.
And I’m sorry (well, no, I’m not), there is something really condescending about only using minorities for crowd scenes. I mean, it’s not exactly back of the bus, but, yeah, it kind of is.
But again, there’s that music and those lyrics and that acting and that directing and, well, the movie, like life, goes on.
But then…but then…
We reach the second half of the film and, well, things don’t go as well. In fact, I will go as far as to say that Marshall and the others flub it, and flub it very disappointingly.
It begins with the omission of the big act one ender in which everybody is ecstatic over how everything is now happily ever after, the way traditional fairy tales end. It’s a huge celebratory number and very essential to the story, because it ironically sets up what is to happen in the second half: a series of scenes that show that fairy tales are not like life in that life does not end so satisfactorily as fiction.
Into the Woods, on stage, is a before and after narrative. It’s a plot in which something happens half way through that in many ways seems to stop a story, requiring everything to be restarted (or rebooted for those who grew up in the computer age).
This is not that uncommon a way to structure a film. Vertigo, Lawrence of Arabia, Double Indemnity and Boogie Nights are all structured like this.
But in adapting Into the Woods to film, the filmmakers forsook that path and instead just seamlessly zipped ahead without a false ending. Their attempt, obviously, was to ensure that the movie really flows. However, the opposite happens. By trying to ensure a flow, they actually interrupt it.
Everything now feels rushed and forced and the emotional connections are constantly missed.
Awful things happen in the second half. On stage, they’re quite powerful. But on film, they’ve been softened to a soft creamy texture.
When Jack’s mother dies, she dies off screen (she is pushed and falls, but you don’t see it, and she is carried off still alive). Rapunzel and the Prince’s confrontation with the witch has so little effect that as the movie goes on, you keep wondering what happened to them. Prince Charming’s interlude with the Baker’s Wife is so chaste, one can wonder what even happened. And, perhaps most regrettably, the death of the Baker’s wife has no strong impact on the viewer.
So that at the end, when the remaining characters gather and resolve to go on with the future, as uncertain and dark as it might be, it doesn’t have the sweet sadness of the play.
As was said, the cast is first rate with James Horton as the Baker, Anna Kendricks as Cinderella and Meryl Streep as the witch the standouts. Emily Blunt is also very good, and she’s been spoken of as a potential Oscar nominee, but she is not given that one moment that an actor usually needs to be named one of the top five.
With a cameo by Johnny Depp as the Wolf. It seems a role almost created for him, but it doesn’t quite have the impact one might like because it’s been so desexualized.
Like so much of the film, the whole thing feels a bit too much Disney, but not quite Grimm enough.
The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro, The Hobbit, Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Stephen Soundheim, James Lapine, Into the Woods, Rob Marshall, Dion Beebe, Wyatt Smith, James Horton, Anna Kendricks, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp