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And so, finally, we find ourselves once again at the start, having travelled there and back again in the likes of elves, dwarves, dragons and hobbits – an adventure which began 13 years (and more than 17 screen-hours) ago with the unveiling of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in December 2001.
Back in the time, the scope and scale of Peter Jackson’s visual imagination was underwhelming. Animators like Ralph Bakshi had taken a crack at Tolkien’s weighty tomes before, but Jackson was making game-changing use of computer graphics to blur the line between the “real” and the “imagined”. Having never paid attention for the original source, I found myself entirely transported to Middle-earth, swept away by the sheer cinematic force of Jackson’s vision. How long ago that all seems now.
Like the Star Wars prequels, the Hobbit movies were always destined to disappoint. Originally slated for direction as a two-parter by Pan’s Labyrinthmaestro Guillermo del Toro, the series returned to Jackson’s helmsmanship following lengthy production delays, and promptly expanded into a trilogy via the addition of extraneous appendices and gender-balancing new characters (viz Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel).
Yet like the haunted Thorin Oakenshield (a Shakespearean Richard Armitage), who spends much of this final movie holed up beneath the Lonely Mountain, bedazzled by an undulating sea of gold, one wonders whether the purity of Jackson’s original quest hasn’t been lost amid the series’ shiny success. Fans of the first two Hobbit films may not be let down by this final entry, which offers few departures from the formula of yore, but those who remember the stakes Jackson took with Bad Taste, Braindead, Heavenly Creatures and even his King Kong reboot may find themselves asking for more than just more of the same.
We open with a spectacular pre-credits set piece in which the enraged dragon Smaug – once again voiced by a lizard-tongued Benedict Cumberbatch – lays siege to Lake-town, raining fire from the heavens. It’s a bravura curtain-raiser, an air-raid orchestrated with a dynamic skill which suggests that Jackson’s long-nurtured Dam Busters remake won’t be short on blitzy spectacle. As buildings burn and innocents falter, Lake-town’s greasy Master (Stephen Fry) attempts to make off with the loot, introducing a note of humour to the carnage (“if only we could save more people, but they’re just not worth it”), selling his soul down the river as Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) strikes out with his righteous arrows.
Unfortunately, little that comes after can hold a candle to that kinetic opener. While the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug, largely dispensed with the endless tea-party pootlings of opener An Unexpected Journey to serve up a succession of fairground thrill-rides, Five Armies has more than its fair share of brilliantly tressed actors reciting lumpen expository or emotional lines while brooding CGI landscapes roll everlastingly in the background.
It doesn’t help that Jackson films every meeting with a panoramic swirl which accentuates the virtual artifice; even though once hailed as a potential successor to David Lean, Jackson’s cinematic instincts are here singly over taken by a computer game aesthetic. Even the more action-packed moments suffer from a superfluity of flat runny-jumpy-stabby action better suited to Assassin’s Creed, though a sequence in which one of our many heroes jumps unfeasibly atop tumbling rocks makes him look less like Ezio than Super Mario;
I half expected him to gather spinning gold coins on the uawy. As for the titular final conflict, despite an abundance of goblins, trolls, bats, eagles and massive Dune/Tremors-style worms, it’s no Battle of Helm’s Deep. Yes, there’s a lovely Kurosawa moment when the elves leap in formation over the shielded ranks of dwarves, catching their attackers unaware.
But elsewhere, despite the much vaunted “darkness” of this finale, it’s a succession of clanging and banging that continues for what seems like an eternity – only without the sense of history in the making. There are, indeed, good points, most especially the irrepressible Martin Freeman, who has created the role of Bilbo Baggins his own.
With his flustered perseverance and tirelessly quizzical expression, Bilbo wrestles the prototypical Tolkien themes at the heart of this tale (the malady of riches, the corruption of power) with deceptive levity and engaging sprightliness. No wonder McKellen’s consistently pipe-smoking Gandalf is so into the little fellow; you really miss him when he’s off screen, which is often, as the narrative slips hither and yon, severally addressing its multi-stranded distractions.
And what of the future? Since Jackson first set foot in Middle-earth we have witnessed the dawn of “performance capture”, which organically blends acting with computer graphics, and the widespread rejection of the faster 48 frames-per-second format in which studios and viewers alike appear to have lost both faith and interest. He leaves the Shire in rude health, the future of fantasy cinema changed forever by his work, the legacy of Tolkien solemnly enshrined in the annals of movie history.
Now it really is time to move on.