In “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” war is glorious and sorrowful — it is the stuff of legend, and, as the title suggests, it is the point. If you enter the movie theater looking for character nuance or an exploration of the great themes that prompt the titular onslaught, then turn away from this third and last chapter in a series of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s book. But if your eye is fixed on baser things, like rip-roaring action and some genuinely inspired fantastical sequences, then, in honor of the dwarf king Thorin’s final request to his company, I will follow you, one last time.
The Lord of the Rings
Director Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,”—the first chapter in a prequel trilogy to “The Lord of the Rings”—is a lighthearted fantasy adventure about the homebody Bilbo Baggins (played brilliantly by Martin Freeman) whose quiet, idyllic home is invaded by thirteen dwarves looking for a burglar to help them reclaim their homeland—the great dwarf kingdom of Erebor—from the dragon Smaug. Not fond of adventures, or anything at all except his books, maps, and garden, Bilbo is initially reluctant to leave his home and set off for a journey that will either claim his life, or change him forever, but will most certainly make him “late for dinner”—Bilbo’s first concern when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) approaches him, “looking for someone to share in an adventure.”
But the adventure doesn’t begin until after a lengthy exposition, a few dwarf songs, and a hearty meal that leaves poor Bilbo’s pantry the most desolate locale in a movie filled with more jokes, snot gags, and pleasant vistas than the entirety of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. “An Unexpected Journey” has a much lighter tone than its predecessors, which ultimately makes the movie something quite easy to marvel and laugh at, as opposed to being a story in which we can truly be emotionally invested. Peacetime in Middle-earth doesn’t allow for the apocalyptic portents of doom that made the “Rings” trilogy so compelling. Instead, this movie lacks any sense of urgency or suspense, taking its time with expansive shots of its characters walking atop a snow-capped mountain at a leisurely pace as the main musical theme pounds in the background, doing its best to convince the audience that great and terrible feats are ahead.
In “An Unexpected Journey” the only notable stakes seem to be Bilbo’s childhood fancies, his repressed longing for greater things beyond his safe, comfortable home, and the pride of the very serious dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (a brooding Richard Armitage), whose intense glare disguises a deep pain and vulnerability. Only between Bilbo and Thorin is there any kind of interpersonal tension amongst a colorful company of fifteen. Not until after a great deal of time and some courageous deeds do Bilbo and Thorin resolve their differences, a resolution that never feels earned and is altogether introductory from the perspective of character development. Despite the fact that we sometimes share Thorin’s oppressive pride and feel just as defeated as he does when he’s thrown down in battle at the hands of his great enemy, the pervasive introductory feel of much of the movie doesn’t allow for much emotional resonance.
The movie seems to use underdeveloped musical themes, an underdeveloped plot, and underdeveloped characters to hint at greater things to come. That may seem appropriate considering this is only the first part of a trilogy, but it nonetheless hinders the movie from being wholly successful on its own. The one aspect that doesn’t feel underdeveloped is the mythology of Middle-earth.
Sometimes it seems as if the movie is more interested in its own lore than engaging its audience. “An Unexpected Journey” never misses a moment to draw attention to the name of some famous blade or recount the evil history of an old, abandoned fortress. It is so encyclopaedic that it becomes a much more fantastical experience than the “Rings” trilogy. There’s constant talk of witchcraft, the five wizards of Middle-earth, racial tensions between dwarves and elves, and the threat of a nameless necromancer. We even see Gandalf dabble in his own blend of magic turning honeycombs into wizard grenades in a climactic battle against a fearsome orc chief who sometimes goes by the name of Azog the Defiler, but is just as often referred to as The Pale Orc. Many audience members will revel in this extensive appreciation of the mythos, while others may be mystified and put off because there is no emotional weight supporting the references.
Though “An Unexpected Journey” is full of shortcomings, it’s still an enjoyable adventure and quite an achievement when it comes to sheer spectacle, the way it uses its mythology to reach visual heights only possible in Middle-earth. But even the most thrilling set pieces feel a little underwhelming. Because of the movie’s overall lack of urgency, the scenes of great spectacle—mere consequences of Middle-earth’s inherent majesty—seem to have been approached from an indifferent perspective. Many of these scenes feel commonplace, as if we shouldn’t expect anything but vulgar, horse-stealing trolls and malevolent goblin kings to cause some problems for our heroes. In one scene, what begins as a treacherous thunderstorm turns even more precarious for Bilbo and the dwarves when colossal mountains turn into anthropomorphised rock giants and battle each other in their own form of hand-to-hand combat. “The legends are true!” exclaims the likable dwarf Bofur, as if he’s forgotten he’s in Middle-earth where just about anything can happen for no particular reason.