The preview audience in the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center theater was in especially good spirits and vocally cheerful–kind of like a pack of dwarves or elves before a great battle. But my love for Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies ended in 2003. My annual visit with his new Hobbit trilogy has become a job obligation, not the act of a loving fanboy.
I still remember when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. I bought the tickets weeks in advance and caught the opening day, early morning showing at an IMAX theater in Denver with my brother and a batch of his friends. The film had such a powerful effect on me, I saw it a few times before it left theaters.
The Two Towers was even better and I liked The Return of the King, though I started to get franchise fatigue. Jackson, the gifted but offbeat director of hilarious gross out horror flicks and the wonderfully warped The Frighteners had pulled off an enormous, unlikely and truly impressive feat. For the beginning of the 21st century, The Lord of the Rings became the true movie heir to the first three Star Wars epics.
I don’t own the extended cuts of the Rings movies or know the back stories of even the slightest characters in J.R.R Tolkien’s universe (that would be my father-in-law, whose Hobbit nerdom trumps even my Star Wars acumen). But the second Hobbit trilogy seemed like a gift to those who couldn’t get enough. Instead of walking away a big winner, Jackson appeared unable to step away from the betting table and placed yet another gigantic bet. There’s no denying that the original cast and the story of Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee can’t be beaten. Still, as thoroughly uneven and seemingly unnecessary as Jackson’s encore trilogy is, this last entry justifies his efforts.
It begins with some leftover business from the previous film. The who-cares setting of Lake-town is being set on fire by the talking, fire-breathing dragon Smaug. As voiced again by Benedict Cumberbatch, this delicious character exits the film much too quickly.
Most of the running time is devoted to the battle of the title, in which Gandalf (Ian McKellen, perfect), Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) are at a crossroads that involves pivotal secrets, alliances that must be made and the mother of all rumbles. The build-up to this gigantic sequence is aided a great deal by Billy Connolly, adding exquisite bluster as the mighty Dain. Once the fighting starts, it’s a lot of CGI crash and bash, with hordes of soldiers smacking into one another. The best scenes are near the end, when the one-on-one duels pack serious thrills and more wow-inducing moments than the previous two installments.
At 144-minutes, it’s Jackson’s shortest epic and moves briskly. While there’s lots of supporting characters I never connected with, there are little emotional moments in the middle that are potently touching. The use of silence in some scenes is effective, and the production is, as always, staggering in its size and execution in creating a wondrous world.
Jackson is smart to linger on McKellen’s closing moment, as his magnificent embodiment of Gandalf is a pleasure to witness once more. The closing bookend is just right.
When all is said and done, this stands timidly in the shadow of a much greater trilogy. It plays like a big movie about minor characters, who are setting down the path for the great figures who will dominate The Lord of the Rings trilogy that follows. Yet, I have to hand it to Peter Jackson. He’s put on a good show and concludes this in a satisfying way. Both silly and exciting, this is the best of the three prequel movies.
Nice work, Mr. Jackson. Now, how about making a prequel trilogy to The Frighteners?