Sometimes, low expectations pay off.
I skipped the second movie in the unnecessarily protracted trilogy of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies because I found the first one laborious and lumbering. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson & Co. mistake a lengthy running time and an enormous budget for grandeur and momentum. The narrative progresses listlessly, with an endless opening sequence that establishes the characters and plot in painstaking detail, lengthy battle sequences that neither advance the plot nor illuminate the characters, and an inevitably inconclusive ending that left me with little enthusiasm for one more round, let alone two.
To my surprise, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies corrects for some of its predecessor’s failings. Enlivened by the possibility of a conclusion within reach, Jackson successfully establishes the stakes for the title battle, introduces a dazzling array of mythical beasts and compelling characters, and brings the story to a pleasant halt without skidding endlessly as he did at the end of the last Lord of the Rings movie. Even without the context of the middle passage, I quickly regained my understanding of the events that had transpired previously, and found myself occasionally gaping in awe at the totality of Jackson’s visual creation.
It’s easy to forget that Peter Jackson was one of the most revered filmmakers in Hollywood in the early part of the 21st century. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an unparalleled achievement in cinematic hugeness, but its even grander feat is making us care about the tiny players in this massive saga. Technical achievements aside, the initial trilogy grows in stature as it unfolds, paying off the relationships for which it elegantly lays the groundwork in the opening hours. Frodo and Sam, Legolas and Gimli, Merry and Pippin, Frodo and Gollum, Aragorn and Arwen, Frodo and Gandalf – these pairings ground Tolkien’s endless fantasy creations in reality. The special effects are icing on the cake.
The Hobbit trilogy concludes, from what I can see, as a far lesser and more cynical achievement, though it’s an achievement nonetheless. Jackson initially set out to make two Hobbit movies before deciding to expand Tolkien’s ancillary Middle Earth material to fill out a full trilogy. The result is a lumpy, misshapen set of movies that appears motivated as much by fanaticism and a desire to reclaim the triumphs of the past as it is by a genuine desire to see a beloved story unfold on the big screen. On the page, The Hobbit reads like a trifle compared to the hulking tomes of the Rings trilogy. Onscreen, Jackson has essentially set the two equal, exposing the latter’s shortcomings as an epic in the process.
Tolkien presents The Hobbit as a fish-out-of-water tale about a contentedly lonely hobbit thrust into a world of fantasy and magic to which he never fully warms. Jackson frequently loses sight of that narrative, which might have anchored this protracted trilogy. Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins, but the characters disappears for long stretches of The Battle of the Five Armies, succumbing to a larger and more mechanical story of opposing factions that worked in the Rings trilogy alongside the human-scale story, not in place of it. But the singularity of The Lord of the Rings can’t be replicated or recycled. Even during the best moments of The Battle of the Five Armies, the original trilogy’s shadow looms large. We’ve seen this all before, if not with these characters.
Perhaps these movies aren’t meant for people like me, who like and appreciate the Tolkien-verse but don’t spend time outside of the books and movies pondering the totality of Middle-Earth. For my friend Jon, this Hobbit trilogy played as an extended epilogue (or prologue) to the achievement that came before. There’s something worthwhile about setting expectations for a movie series relative to your prior relationship with it. I admire people who found this series satisfying. But I also hope Peter Jackson can bid Tolkien farewell and go take his considerable talents to a new aesthetic style or budgetary scale. The past only repeats so many times.