In the goofy comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), there is a justly famous battle royale that stops the picture in its tracks. Our hero Ron and his band of newsmen are confronted by their cross-station rivals. Then a third group of anchorpeople join the fray, then another and another, each coterie of sportscoats giving us a look into the culture of the various stations. We are treated to shot after shot of the participants looking offscreen, reacting to the latest battle cry. The surreal escalation is perfectly handled, the incoming combatants (aided by celebrity cameos) are limited by the correct number, and their diversity and silliness get out of control in equal measure. It’s a brilliant sequence. When the filmmakers tried to outdo it in the sequel Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013), they forgot that the brilliance of the original scene didn’t come from its exuberance but from its restraint. Gonzo though it was, everything was appropriately motivated. In the sequel, the scene is hunting after an elusive feeling of epicnessand therefore it falls flat, tone-deaf to the appeal of the original. All the same beats were there, but it wasn’t unexpected and its over-the-topness was forced, sad and the motivations, flimsy as they were in the first, were absent completely. The genuine article came in at a brisk four minutes and thirty seconds; the sequel’s version stretched past an interminable eight minutes. The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014), which is a feature-length version of this scene, lasts 144 minutes.
I couldn’t help but think of Will Ferrell’s dim mustachioed face during Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth film because there are at least a half a dozen moments in which a character, mid-battle, mind you, looks off at an unseen noise as the camera zooms upon his or her face for them to say “It’s the dwarf army!” or “It’s the eagles!” or “It’s the war beasts!” as if they were saying “It’s the third place Channel 8 news team!” The problem is that the pacing, tone and meaning of all this much more resembles the dreary Anchorman 2 battle with its desperate, strained gambit that should you pile on enough stuff, it must eventually attain greatness (both films even include battling ghosts!).
By the breathless excitement or terror in their voices, we are meant to understand that whatever they are foretelling (the dwarfs, the eagles, the war beasts) are momentous, but the entities themselves disappoint because they simply appear without any emotional attachment. We are not invested in their arrival so the fact that they’re there carries no weight; it just means that another score of beasts or warriors has joined the chaotic fray that we already don’t care about. Now there’s just more to not care about. The movie would fail to gain Thomas Jefferson’s esteem, who said that the most valuable of all talents is that of never using five armies when one will do, or something like that.
But before we get to the battle we don’t care about, we have to get the sweeping off of all the things we do. Should you recall (I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t) the last we left our little man Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the titular hobbit, he was watching the fearsome dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) fly off to wreak the unimaginable destruction on a small town. The previous two movies,The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), were spent setting up this confrontation. The only through line we were given was—get to dragon, confront dragon—and now here it is, the only thing we’ve been prepared for, the war with the great dragon. Nearly five hours of film getting ready of this and, should you spend too much time parking or getting your popcorn, then you’ll miss the whole thing. Twenty minutes in and the dragon lays slain on the ground, dead as Good Friday. Like Janet Leigh’s unceremonious murder in Psycho (1960), this rift from the expected is a jarring change. If only the rest of Five Armies were like the rest of Psycho. Instead, we are treated to a slapdash political boiling point that, because it is rushed and undefined, proves to be worth little more than a canvas for meaningless sensation.
With the dragon dead, the gold-filled mountain that it called its home is up for grabs. The obvious claimants are a band of 13 dwarfs, lead by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the rightful heir to the mountain who organized Bilbo into the party two movies ago. Also in the mix are the displaced men of the town near the mountain that was destroyed by the dragon, led by Bard (Luke Evans) a fair-minded family man who just wants a small promised pittance of the untold scores of gold in the mountain to rebuild the town. Right behind them is a race of elves and their vainglorious leader Thranduil (Lee Pace), and here is when the motivations get murky. Thranduil, who rides a magnificent but impractical reindeer with what appears to be elephantiasis of the antlers, had decided to put his people at war over a handful of jewels that are in the mountain (dwarfs and elves are the Middle-Earth Jets and Sharks and so it’s hinted that both sides would be spoiling for the flimsiest excuse for a fight), but later he decides to withdraw his forces and forget about the valuables for reasons that escaped not only me but also the script. Then, most menacingly, there are a couple of armies of those dastardly orcs, the hideous goblins that have the nastiest faces on Middle-Earth and also the most delicate necks (they are decapitated by the dozen). They’re after control of the mountain as a strategic position for an unexplained future campaign that we are meant to understand is the war that makes up the basis of the Lord of the Rings movies, which are, narratively anyway, in the future.
All of this is set into swift and clumsy motion without any time to form any sort of attachment to anything. Needless subplots regarding Thorin’s power lust and an ill-fated romance between a dwarf and an elf (they’re like Tony and Maria if Tony had been 5’1”) don’t add any insight into the oncoming battle; they only pad the running time. All the while, new combatants are added into the breach, only they aren’t dear friends but unexplained strangers. This feverish escalation of armies reaches the ridiculous when we are made to believe that the entry of the 13 dwarves into the battle is a turning point. We are told that their verve and might come from the fact that they’re “fighting for their king,” but when that worked in Henry V, the odds were only five-to-one. Even ol’ Hal wouldn’t rely on 13 dwarfs against an army of thousands, and Thorin’s bunch didn’t even get to hear the St. Crispin’s Day speech before they rode out.
The frustration of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies is that many of the individual moments are rather stupendous. Jackson has a knack for battle, both in groups and one-on-one, and there are times in which the action flows very nicely. I’m thinking specifically of a parallel fight between two of our heroes and their gruesome orc enemies that is inventive and thrilling. It’s just that Jackson does not do the work to make these payoffs relevant. Despite the faults in the previous movies, the dragon worked because it had been so meticulously hyped up; the battle here feels slapped on and extraneous (and indeed, it dominates very little of the original Tolkein book and even less of my memory of reading that book). Contrast this to Jackson’s masterful build-up to the climactic battle that ends theLord of the Rings trilogy’s second chapter, The Two Towers (2002), which is built to such a palpable froth that it remains the definitive set piece of that series, but that bit of filmmaking relied on clarity of motivation, consequence and emotional stakes. It’s harder to identify what this film relies upon.