As callous as it may sound, I think it's rather undeniable by now that the tons of money Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy is making pretty much make up for any possible feeling of undiluted "sellout" from the decision to expand J. R. R. Tolkien's slender novel into three films.
For better or worse, there was a sense in Mr. Jackson's three Lord of the Rings films that here was a singular vision wishing to do justice to the book's power. That passionate commitment seems to have evaporated from The Hobbit: despite the occasional flourish, the director seems to be cruising mostly on auto-pilot and apparently nowhere more than in The Battle of the Five Armies.
The title is a perfect descriptor of the final instalment's pivotal event, the battle for control of Erebor, the dwarves' ancestral mountain home, and its incalculable treasure, between an ad-hoc coalition of humans, elves, dwarves and animals, and the evil orcs working for Sauron. Though this is intertwined with the fall of dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) under the seductive spell of gold and power, leading him to betray everything his company stood for, and the rise of Lake-town fisherman Bard (Luke Evans) as a leader, it still makes for a poor payoff for the nearly nine-hour slog through the three films.
Even though The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest of the trilogy by far, it resolves far too much into a certainly impressive but rather yawn-worthy display of digital trickery, cloned masses of computer-generated warriors and battle landscapes closer to video-game tasks to accomplish rather than to a narrative progression. There's little sense of grandeur or scope, swamped in the fake digital armies and textured castle walls, like a carnival display of attractions that seems to remain content in being a facade.
It's all the more bewildering because, for all the digital trickery that also permeated the Lord of the Rings films, they projected a sense of lived-in, tactile reality, inhabited by actual beings with feelings and presence; in The Battle of the Five Armies, by contrast, Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit becomes pretty much a supporting (if instrumental) character in his own film (as, indeed, most of the returning characters, rendered mostly in the shape of blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos).
It will be interesting to see how much the interval between the release of the films moulds my viewing response to them: seen at one-year intervals, any sense of character arc or narrative progression seems absent from the three episodes. Will that change once I see them one after the other, as a nine-hour-long "supercut"? Will the payoffs become more satisfying?
None of these undermines what should be self-evident: The Hobbit is by no means offensive or disastrous. It's just professional, indifferent, run-of-the-mill, without the enthusiasm or commitment that made The Lord of the Rings something else in modern-day blockbuster filmmaking. The Hobbit, by contrast, is just another media-saturation blockbuster - something I never quite expected from its director.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
USA, New Zealand 2014
Cast Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, Billy Connolly, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom
Director Peter Jackson; screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Mr. Jackson and Guillermo del Toro; based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien The Hobbit; cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (colour, widescreen); composer Howard Shore; designer Dan Hennah; costumes Richard Taylor, Bob Buck and Ann Maskray; effects supervisors Mr. Taylor and Joe Letteri; editor Jabez Olssen; producers Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Ms. Walsh and Mr. Jackson; production companies Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New Line Cinema and Wingnut Films
Screened December 15th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon (distributor press screening)