Tolkien Rewatch: Part I – The Hobbit Trilogy

Image Source: Hyperpix

Format: Film
Genre: Fantasy
Date: April 16 2020

Disclaimer – this is a rewatch review and thus is full of spoilers. This is not a review for someone who hasn’t seen the films.

When it became clear to me that a lot of my free time for the foreseeable future was going to have to be spent indoors, apart from getting withdrawal symptoms from the gym, that only meant one thing to me : rewatches!
Going back and visiting an old series of films is a huge pleasure and often gives you a new perspective on the films you loved watching the first time in the cinema. Does the CGI translate well to the small screen? Are the jokes still as funny? Do they still make you cry? And overall, have they aged well?

I’ve definitely got a few different sets of films on the list, some of which will take longer than others. But I’m starting with a Tolkien rewatch of all 6 films – the Hobbit trilogy and then the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The Hobbit Trilogy (An Unexpcted Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies) tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit thrown into a quest of adventure to reclaim a dwarven homeland and slay an evil dragon. Thisincidentally, was my first time viewing the extended editions of The Hobbit Series. Similar to the Extended versions of the Lord of the Rings series, these editions are basically like a directors cut with all the deleted scenes thrown in.

So for those that don’t know, there were a few issues with this particular trilogy getting made. The Hobbit Films started out life originally as a one off prequel to the Lord of the Rings saga, directed by Guillermo Del Toro with Peter Jackson now only onboard as a producer and co-writer. It quickly became apparent that there was a lot of material to fit into two films. So Del Toro made the decision to split the story across two films. Here’s where it gets hazy. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that two should become three and that the story should now be split into three films. This jarred with Del Torro’s vision and he stepped down as director being replaced by none other than the messiah himself, Peter Jackson. Whether this was by accident or by design, we’ll never know.

Why am I telling you all this before starting to review any of the films? Because this trilogy feels baggy. It feels like it should have been and was planned to be two good films.Unfortunately, The Hobbit films fall into the trap that Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games (Definitely more rewatches to come there) series all did before, in that, spreading one book over two films can often lead to two unfulfilling, unsatisfying films. This is because the latter film ends up being centered around one big battle and being slightly devoid of substance and character development. As long as you like huge action set pieces , you’re usually ok. Whilst the one before ends up being the opposite – a bit of filler in terms of plot but with little action and very much a ‘bridge’ movie to get you where you want to be – at the finale.Except it’s even worse for the Hobbit films because one book was stretched over three. As a result what we have is a pretty solid, perfectly weighted first outing, a baggy stretched out full of filler second, and a CGI-heavy action packed finale. Each of their films have their strengths and issues but as a trilogy they leave a lot to be desired.

It has to be said it does start well. An Unexpected Journey feels exactly the right pace. There’s a decent amount of plot and a limited amount of exposition (as little as you can get away with in these type of films). There are 21 chapters in the Hobbit and An Unexpected Journey finishes bang on at the end of Chapter 7 in the book. So exactly where you’d want to if a trilogy was planned. Familiar surroundings of the shire and the face of Ian McKellen greet you like a nice warm blanket you’re really used to having and immediately feels comfortable. Then introduction of new faces melds together nicely and before you know it we’re off on a quest. Maybe it’s because this film shares so much common ground with The Fellowship of the Ring that it feels so reassuring. The fellowship of nine is replaced by a company of 13 with a surprisingly similar mix of warriors, wizards, novices and hobbits. Rivendell is visited, mines under mountains are explored, Eagles come to save the day and even Gollum makes an appearance. By the time we get to the end of An Unexpected Journey, we have enough invested in this rag-tag bunch of dwarves and their quest to find home to be willing and ready for the next outing.

That’s when, like the barrels out of the woodland realm, it all goes a bit downhill.

The next outing, The Desolation of Smaug feels oddly drawn out to the stage it has to resort to including previous fan favourites from the original three films in the form of a de-aged Orlando Bloom as Legolas, to creating entirely new characters such as Lilly’s Tauriel, neither of which appear in the book. The former was presumably to add some much loved elven elegance to the much meatier and barbaric dwarven fight scenes from the first film. The latter makes little senseThere are a few interesting set pieces including an entertaining spider fight and actually seeing Gandalf take Sauron on head-to-head. But unlike the first films warm blanket, these start to feel a bit repetitive and stale. The highlight of this film comes with the company’s battle with Smaug, using ingenuity and their smithing prowess in order to fight and defeat the dragon. Ultimately this fails and does nothing but angers Smaug into fit of rage, but apart from some ropy CGI at points it’s the most entertaining part of the film. However, this is shortly followed by one of the strangest ends to a film I’ve ever encountered. Smaug escapes the trap of the dwarves and sets off to seek his revenge on the people of Lake Town. We feel like something huge is coming and the film just….ends.

Which leads us neatly onto the last outing, The Battle Of The Five Armies. When a film starts with a huge set piece involving the torching of Lake Town and the death of Smaug, followed shortly afterwards by a showdown with Sauron involving a Saruman, Elrond and Galadriel all fighting the ghost figures of the Nazgul, you think ‘Right, this is it. Had to sit through Desolation of Smaug but this film’s clearly going to be non stop. Strap in. We’re ready’. But then we slow right down and spend a lot of time building up to what we know is coming. The film is even called “The Battle of the Five Armies” so you know what we’re heading for.Yes there’s an argument to be made that it’s an interesting character study of Thorin – his constant insistence that he isn’t his grandfather yet the inevitable strides towards madness and greed that the lack of the Arkenstone brings. But to be honest, engaging as this is, it goes on too long. Once the big battle starts and we’re introduced to all five armies, there’s lots to like about this film. The huge set piece of juggling dwarves vs elves, dwarves and elves vs orcs, orcs vs men, and even eagles vs bats is handled very well. And the battle even has two ‘F**K yeah!’ moments worthy of Thor’s arrival in Wakanda in Infinity War. I punched the air when Thranduil’s elves decide to help the dwarves of the Iron Hills, and I think I actually cheered when Thorin eventually decides to join the battle. Yes the Tolkien get out clause of “The Eagles come to save the day” is once again employed but by the point I didn’t really care. And by the time it’s all over, I did feel oddly satisfied and like a story was complete. But overall they don’t sit well as a Trilogy.

For me the best part of these films is the characterisation. We know already that Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom and Andy Serkis as Gollum are going to deliver based on their previous outings as these characters. But the true strength lies in the new additions (for the most part). Lee Pace gives a suitably haughty and patronising performance as Thranduil, giving us a slightly edgier take on elves we’ve not really seen before. Luke Evans is fantastic as simple bargeman and father turned reluctant leader of Laketown. The killer of Smaug is given a lot to do in these films and Evans pulls it off effortlessly as the one genuine person without a real agenda in the whole saga. The supporting cast of dwarves are all good fun and well cast giving us a mix of laughs and great fight scenes. Kent Stott’s Ballin is particularly good in the ‘Obi Wan Kenobi’ role of ageing mentor and father figure to both Thorin and Bilbo.

Which brings me neatly onto the Trilogy’s main two strengths. Richard Armitage’s Thorin is brilliantly complex. On the one hand, Thorin is loyal, fierce and brave, but this cleverly tempered with a stubborn, proud, and untrusting character struggling with a fierce resentment of what happened to him and his people. When this develops into full blown greed bordering on madness in The Battle of the Five Armies, we are treated to a nuanced complex look into how some may seem strong on the outside but are fragile on the inside. Thorin’s ultimate redemption and subsequent death are dealt with brilliantly and it’s a genuine tear-jerker when he shares his dying moments with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo. Freeman in turn is the shining star of these films. I absolutely love this portrayal of this character. We truly see a real character arc with him starting off as a repressed, awkward, quintessentially British hobbit who is quite happy with a slow, dull, peaceful and safe life. Throughout the three films we see him challenge his fear, his preconceptions and develop into a truly wonderfully complicated character. Freeman uses his routes in comedy to great effect providing a lot of the laughs of the films, mainly from his delivery. But the emotional beats land just as strong when it calls for it. From sparing Gollum to having to deal with Thorin’s death, Freeman captures Bilbo perfectly.

However there are some unfortunate lapses in the quality of characterisation. Mainly in the new constructs created purely for the films. Ryan Gage’s Alfrid Lickspittle is a supporting character created to be a Uriah Heap-esque assistant to Stephen Fry’s Master of Laketown. But he ends up being an odd mix of sinister behind the scenes puppet master in The Desolation of Smaug to downright farcical figure, dressing in women’s clothing to avoid the Battle of the Five Armies, not really adding to the narrative at all. Evangline Lilly’s Tauriel in particular feels crow-barred into a film, that, due to the source material, is sadly lacking in strong female characters. The only other female presence at all really in the whole saga is another returning character from the previous trilogy in Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel. Now I’ll watch Blanchett as Galadriel all day long but again her presence feels forced, like shes being included to show that Middle Earth actually does have some women. It’s a nice touch to make her the driving force of Sauron’s eventual defeat in this film, rather than her male counterparts. But after that she’s very quickly tossed aside and forgotten about, again in order to make way for the titular battle of the third film. Lilly’s Tauriel is partnered with Aiden Turner’s Kili the dwarf in order to create an incredibly contrived plot device in order to introduce a horribly awkward love triangle between the ‘invented for the film’ Tauriel, Bloom’s returning Legolas and Turner’s ‘suspiciously handsome for a dwarf’ Kili. It just doesn’t ring true – Lilly and Turner’s two characters go from slight sexual attraction to undying eternal love in a very short space of time. And unlike Thorin’s death, the grief Tauriel feels for Kili doesn’t feel earned.

Having said all that, all the usual strengths you would expect from a Peter Jackson adaptation are all here. The costume and set designs are up there with Lord of the Rings and really help immerse you in Tolkien’s world. Howard Shore’s scores for all three are masterful and whilst they aren’t up there with Lord of the Rings, the music is incredibly influential in creating the atmosphere of some of the film’s best parts. The CGI mainly stands up I have to say. There are a few notable exceptions. The barrel escape from Mirkwood is a bit patchy and certain shots of Smaug look like they’re from a computer game. But the performance capture rooted so well in Gollum from the previous three is used to great effect for Manu Bennet’s main villain Azog and even Barry Humphries gets a go as the Goblin King.

So, how to sum up my rewatch. When seeing all of these in the cinema, I was just happy to be back in Tolkien’s world. Coming back to them years later there are some problems and the middle film in particular does feel like a misstep. However I do wonder if they suffer in comparison to Lord of the Rings and how different my opinion would be if these films had come first. It fundamentally comes back to my first point – it feels like two films stretched over three. Yes it’s not without it’s flaws but as a huge Tolkien fan these films still do the job for me. And having watched them in chronological order, I really look forward to see how this changes my views on the original Trilogy in my subsequent Lord of the Rings rewatch.

An Unexpected Journey: 8.5/10 – Excellent
The Desolation of Smaug: 6.5/10 – Okay
The Battle of the Five Armies: 7.5/10 – Good
Overall Trilogy Rating: 8/10 – Very Good