According to Internet legend, actor Topher Grace once sat down at his computer and edited all three of the Star Wars prequels into a single 85-minute film. You can’t see it anywhere, of course, but purveyors of the legend say it's a tremendous improvement on George Lucas’ much-maligned effort.
Peter Jackson couldn’t have done justice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” in 85 minutes, but by the end of this year’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” you get the feeling that three films was definitely too much.
This won’t come as breaking news, though. We’ve been watching Peter Jackson adaptations of Tolkien novels for 13 years now, and most people have already made up their minds about his take on the Hobbit trilogy. It’s anything from a shameless, corporate-driven cash grab to three golden opportunities to bask in the fantasy glow of Jackson-style Middle-earth.
The reasoned opinion falls somewhere in the middle. “The Hobbit” may not justify three films, but the capital Jackson built up with his Lord of the Rings trilogy (and almost drained via 2005’s “King Kong”) is enough to excuse a little indulgence.
Sadly, “Five Armies” might be one indulgence too many.
We pick up the action where last year’s “Desolation of Smaug” left off, with the Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced dragon on his way to decimate a town of innocent villagers. It was quite the cliffhanger, but the opening sequence of “Five Armies” dismisses Smaug so quickly you wonder why Jackson didn’t just finish the job at the end of the second film. It’s not like the audience wasn’t going to come back for the third installment.
With Smaug out of the way, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves seem to be at the end of their quest. The dwarves’ home — and all the gold stacked up in it — has been restored to its rightful ownership.
But Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarf leader, is behaving strangely. Before long, other interested parties arrive to stake a claim. The people who survived Smaug’s attack need a new home. The woodland elves say some of the priceless jewels in the dwarf cave are theirs. And an army of Orcs is on the way to kill everyone.
Add it up and you have “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a two and a half-hour film that feels like one extended battle sequence.
Unfortunately, the best parts of “Five Armies” have little to do with “The Hobbit.” Throughout this new trilogy, Jackson has gone to great lengths to make ties to the original series, turning “The Hobbit” into more of a prequel than it ever was in print.
Early in “Five Armies,” Gandalf (Ian McKellen) & Co. battle with nine undead spirits that will become the Nazgul, the dark lord Sauron makes a cameo and, best of all, Christopher Lee makes a welcome appearance as a still-righteous Saruman the White.
It’s great stuff for long-time fans, but it also undermines the film’s central story, which pales as it tries to showcase a clash driven by greed against a burgeoning showdown between the forces of good and evil.
Jackson’s determination to retain “The Hobbit’s” lighthearted tone is also jarring at times — or maybe it’s just tough to see Ian McKellen rescued from danger by a googly-eyed wizard with bird feces all over his face.
None of this is to say that “Five Armies” lacks any high points. It’s still a fun movie — just a fun movie that goes a little too far and suffers for it.
Think of Legolas the super elf (Orlando Bloom) as Exhibit A. By now it’s expected that once or twice during the film, Legolas will display some kind of “Wow!” moment during an action sequence, and he has them here, too. But he also has a couple of additional moments that blur the line between “cool” and “stupid.”
Too many pieces of the movie just feel like pale imitations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Instead of the addiction metaphor that is the One Ring, we get the thinly developed Arkenstone. Instead of Arwen the immortal elf sacrificing the pride of her immortal race in the name of Aragorn’s mortal love, we get an odd elf-dwarf subplot that wants to be Romeo and Juliet but feels more like Sonny and Cher.
Worst of all, late in the film Jackson gives us a dose of cinematic déjà vu you might not believe you are actually seeing.
Maybe it isn’t fair to judge these three movies against the earlier series — after all, “The Hobbit” was the literary warm-up for “The Lord of the Rings” — but that’s what we’re stuck with. Both trilogies were packed with characters and action and overlapping story lines, but the difference is that for all its chaos, “The Lord of the Rings” was focused on one mission: destroy the One Ring.
Try to identify the mission in “The Hobbit”: Bilbo goes on an adventure, and he comes back with the ring that will set up the real story to come. “The Hobbit” is a 300-page prologue, and now it’s a seven-hour film trilogy.
Is it still fun? Yes. Is it indulgent? Absolutely. Give it a couple years, though. Maybe Topher Grace can fix it for us.
“The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” is rated PG-13 for considerable mayhem and action violence, as well as some profanity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.