Damned as the third and most inert installment of an already stretched out film adaptation of a novel barely as thick as a pamphlet, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (C-) is the uninvolving conclusion of a most perfunctory trilogy. Coming alive only in an epic dragon village battle and an inventive swordfight atop a sheet of lake ice, the film contains beautifully rendered special effects but doesn’t connect in terms of emotion or storytelling. You’re left to reflect on lingering questions: Was Martin Freeman even the least bit compelling as a protagonist? Was Lee Pace’s elf character the spitting image of Chloë Sevigny with resting bitch face? Was it a cost saving measure to introduce virtually zero new worlds or landscapes? And maybe the dwarves singing in the first installment weren’t really the series’ low point? With the biggest threat in the trilogy slayed in the prologue, what was a post-Smaug epic intended to accomplish? The film’s central fight over the treasures in the mountain is prolonged into about a hundred mini-fights that we’ve definitely seen before in this milieu. This isn’t the worst movie prequel about trade negotiations, but it may wear a lamentable crown of being altogether unnecessary. Perhaps now that he’s milked all the funds from this cash cow of diminishing curds, Jackson can dream up something different and return one day as a king of imaginative moviemaking.
The second chapter in the Middle Earth set dwarf dynasty is slightly more interesting than its plodding prequel predecessor, upgrading Peter Jackson’s Hobbit 2 to a C+. Basically (1) an elfin forest needs better arachne-pest control, (2) a river escape in wine barrels drifts the adventurers to a lethargic lake town and (3) dwarves and an invisible Hobbit fight a very pyro-imprecise talking dragon in his treasure room. These raiders of a lost Arkenstone are especially frustrating when inside forests, castles or mountains, because there gravity and logic become that of video games rather than of cinema. You don’t fall into endless chasms in this fantasy, but rather a mysterious hook, mining cart, spider web or other device appears to save all central characters from freefall. Amazing how with all this action, it’s mostly notable for draggin’.
The most unexpected thing about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (C-) is what a letdown it is after his famous Middle Earth trilogy that came before it. If the Lord of the Rings novels were each dense books distilled into what amounts to a mini-series of episodic wonders, The Hobbit is a light paperback prequel stretched out into a three-part tedium. What else accounts for the first hour of this film being used for an unnecessary tacked-on framing device about Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party followed by an extended dinner party with a bunch of dwarves singing a song? By the time the underwhelming protagonist is introduced at his rightful age and played by Martin Freeman, the film has long since lost its ability to kickstart the thrills. This time around, the effects look like overproduced video games. There are simply too many characters winding through too many caverns for the eye to focus in on anything distinctive that looks at all remarkable or interesting. Instead of a cliffhanger that teases the thrills ahead, the ending prompts the question, “did this really need to be three films?”
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (A) has such a graceful finale, director Peter Jackson ends it three or four times. But it’s hard to admonish this visionary for wanting to take an extended curtain call to send off such a magnificent cast of characters at the end of what has become such an epic film trilogy about Hobbits and other inhabitants of Middle Earth. Viggo Mortensen gets his best showcase this time around, and the characters get to truly stare evil in the face as they end their quest. The film sustains moments of charm, introspection, delight, full-blooded adventure, wonder and thrills. Because of the goodwill developed for these characters, the film can plumb truly dark territory as the titular ring works its soul-crushing magic. By the end of Jackson’s three-part masterwork, he has reinvented film fantasy.
Even richer in its themes about the importance of telling stories, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (A) centers on the friendship between the Hobbit characters played by Elijah Wood and Sean Astin while continuing to build a mosaic of characters preparing for a battle for the ages. The adventure in this installment is a wonder to behold. The sequences with Treebeard slow down the film a bit like the Yoda sequences do in another famous trilogy, but it’s mainly forward momentum all the way here as the merry band of adventurers encounter new obstacles.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (A) is an epic fantasy that transports viewers to Middle Earth where a band of Hobbits, dwarves, elves and more must transport and destroy an enchanted ring that brings great power to those who wear it before it falls into the hands of dark villains. Elijah Wood is charming as Frodo the Hobbit and Viggo Mortensen dashing as human Aragorn in this adventure that starts the epic journey. Jackson is reverent to J.R.R. Tolkien fans but adds his own twists and turns to make the work more muscular. Sir Ian McKellen is towering as Gandolf, the wizard who provides a touchstone for the film’s characters and clarification for their mission. The effects are great and leave you ready for the continuing saga to come.