Last Hobbit film is a victim of its own high standards

A cinema still from The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies starring Luke Evans (centre) as Bard the Bowman. -- PHOTO: WARNER BROS
A cinema still from The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies starring Luke Evans (centre) as Bard the Bowman. -- PHOTO: WARNER BROS

As I watched the credits roll on The Fellowship Of The Rings in 2001, someone in the back of the cinema yelled a loud and very long Hokkien expletive. He seemed unaware that he would have to watch two more films to get his proper ending.

Well now we have a proper ending. Two, in fact, one for the Ring trilogy in 2003 and another for the Hobbit story, now showing in cinemas.

After seeing it, I did not feel the need to make my feelings known in Hokkien, but I was not going to dance around in excitement either.

It was what I had come to expect from the Hobbit series - a little bit of plot, padded out with a lot noisy bits. The first movie An Unexpected Journey (2012) was plumped up with singing and dish-throwing; the second, The Desolation Of Smaug (2013) featured theme-park rides such as dwarves in barrels down a raging river.

It is not that the filler material is not good. All of it is top notch in production quality. The songs are solid, and the chases up and down goblin caves and torrential rivers are thrilling.

The problem is that director Peter Jackson fixes his gaze on them too long. Beyond a certain point, a clever tune or a slapstick-filled chase becomes irritating. You get the feeling that Jackson is either playing for time, or has fallen too much in love with his own cleverness.

And in The Battle Of The Five Armies, the clue is in the title. Fighting. Lots and lots of it. Elves versus Orcs versus Men versus Dwarves versus trolls and goblins and eagles and giant earthworms and who knows what else. A friend dozed off at a screening and when she woke up several minutes later, she was surprised to find the arrows still flying and the swords still rattling.

The problem with the Hobbit films lies partly with the source material. The Hobbit, as written by J.R.R. Tolkien, was one book, aimed at children, but put through the Hollywood money-milking machine and turned into three movies.

There is just not enough structural material to hold up over six combined hours of movies. The Lord Of Rings films, however, rested on three volumes of source material.

That depth of canon, married to Jackson's imagination, created pure magic. It would not be a stretch to say that the series made all other sword-and-sorcery films look like rubbish, thanks to its epic scale, emotional depth and production quality.

Does anyone remember how terrible the fantasy genre used to be before LOTR came along? The films were generally campy and violent, made for adult male appeal (think the Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan The Barbarian series, and all its copycats, featuring maidens in leather bikinis and dragons. Lots and lots of dragons).

There were a few good fantasy movies that understood and respected the genre and did not feel the need to pander to a general audience, such as Ladyhawke (1985), but on the whole, Hollywood played it safe.

Budgets were small or mid-sized, enough to create a peasant village or the odd castle here and there, but not enough for entire armies, and certainly not enough for massed battles.

There was little to differentiate a fantasy movie from a standard sci-fi action flick other than costumes and the odd "m'lady" and "Sire".

Then LOTR came along and changed the game. Here was an epic fantasy that made no excuses for what it was. It relied on magic and elves and dwarves, and did not feature an over-muscled hero. Its hero was a tiny creature with hairy feet. Yet it made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

It's just that when I watch the Battle Of The Five Armies, I don't get the same skin-prickling thrill I get from watching the sequence The Battle Of Helm's Deep from LOTR's The Two Towers (2002).

If the Hobbit pales in comparison, it is because LOTR sets such a high standard. The Hobbit is Peter Jackson circa 2010s trying to outdo the Peter Jackson of the early 2000s.

The older Jackson might have fallen short of the mark, but The Hobbit series is still a worthy achievement, both technically (the computer graphics are great) and in storytelling.

If only it had come out as one, or perhaps two movies, instead of three.

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is now showing in cinemas.

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