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The pale Orc Azog, performed by MANU BENNETT, in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES," (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture)
The pale Orc Azog, performed by MANU BENNETT, in the fantasy adventure "THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES," (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture)

Surrender to a Hobbit assault on the senses Add to ...

  • Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro
  • Starring Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Classification PG
  • Country USA
  • Language English

I’m not being disingenuous when I say that some of the best modern film criticism is being done by comedians.

First is Peter K. Rosenthal, host of The Onion’s “Film Standard” segment. His reviews often chronicle his own descent into cinematic insanity, literalizing clichés of “checking your brain at the door” when you sink into the plush multiplex seats. Rosenthal may be fake, but the essential thrust of his “criticism” strikes me as valid: Hollywood filmgoing has become a maddening proposition. For Rosenthal, watching Gravity or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or the second Hobbit movie is an act of bearing witness, of savagely grappling with a sublime terror.

Elsewhere, there’s Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington, whose web series On Cinema at the Cinema reflects the rabid, entirely un-critical fanboy glee that animates the online film writing of the Ain’t It Cool News variety. Where Rosenthal succumbs to madness, On Cinema offers an alternative tactic for suffering through modern Hollywood cinema: numbness to the onslaught of sensation. Want to enjoy the latest blockbuster? Compose yourself like a stunted man-child suffering from a slightly debilitating head injury.

Without even seeing the movies in question, Heidecker and Turkington issue wholehearted, totally blind raves, reflexively awarding every movie full marks (usually five “bags of popcorn” out of a possible five). And among Heidecker and Turkington’s broad range of Hollywood enthusiasms, there’s a franchise they’re particularly passionate about: The Hobbit.

The Hobbit is the ultimate five-bagger. It’s massively scaled, monstrously budgeted blockbuster filmmaking deliberately calibrated to win the fanboy fervour of viewers who can rattle off all 13 of the franchise’s company of dwarfs.

It’s similarly engineered to seem somehow distinguished from whatever other low-hanging Hollywood fruit, attributable as much to its Awards Season-release date as the rep of its director (Oscar-winner Peter Jackson) and vaguely literary pedigree (J.R.R. Tolkien’s kiddie lit classic). In their stateliness, their spurious air of prestige and their cheery triumphalism, The Hobbit films manage to wick off the cynicism that sticks to more obviously soulless, shamelessly profiteering blockbuster franchises.

It’s a bizarre double standard. And altogether misguided considering that The Hobbit wrapping its reductively simplistic moral messaging (good guys are good; bad guys are bad) and computer algorithm action sequences in the muted corduroys of nicety and whimsy makes it seem even more cynical than the latest cash-grab Transformers or Ninja Turtles reboot-sequel-whatsit.

In The Hobbit’s latest (and final) outing, titular halfling Bilbo (played with perfectly cast aw-shucks timidity by Martin Freeman) prides himself on being an “honest” burglar. But Jackson and his army of bankrolling studios are anything but. The Hobbit’s a franchise as empty and money-grubbing as any: splitting a book that can be read in an afternoon across three bloated epics, threading in subplots to pad out the action and to foresee the weighty seriousness of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings pictures.

Adapted from a few paragraphs near the end of Tolkien’s story, The Battle of the Five Armies resolves the second movie’s cliffhanger before the subtitle even fades across the screen. After being loosed from his den in the Lonely Mountain, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is summarily dispatched by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), slaying the franchise’s most substantial villain in order to clear the table for its centrepiece scuffle.

Meanwhile, having reclaimed his subterranean kingdom, dwarf honcho Thorin (Richard Armitage) grows callous and psychotic atop his hillocks of gold. There’s little room in Tolkien’s good versus evil mythos for nuance, but Jackson finds shades of Shakespeare in his characterization of Thorin as a wrathful, avaricious monarch, head hanging ever-heavy under his art deco-ish Wonder Woman tiara.

Such subtlety of characterization is short-lived. As the ragged wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has urgently warned, an onslaught of orcs, goblind, trolls and other disfigured, amputated, somehow uniquely evil ghoulies, goofs and snarks arrive on the doorstep of the recovered dwarf kingdom, burrowing out of their nasty, dirty holes and forcing rival factions of dwarfs, elves, men and other kinds of dwarfs to band together. So begins the clamour of iron and steel, the clinking of blades and battle axes, the hacking and slashing and bounding and twirling – my god, the twirling. It plays out as if someone chucked a whole bunch of carefully detailed Warhammer figurines into a centrifuge – goblins, goats, dwarfs, wizards and wolves bouncing off one another in waves of alternating tedium and punishment.

The intimate, one-on-one skirmishes prove much more gripping, if simply by virtue of their legibility. But Five Armies only feels truly entertaining when it embraces the arch silliness of its material; like when 92-year-old actor Christopher Lee whirls about in combat with a handful of ghosts, or when an enormous elk scoops up a half-dozen goblins on its massive antlers, or when an especially fiendish orc mini-boss is seen sporting a human skull codpiece. Laughing at such ludicrous touches may be an alternate tack for surviving the sensory assault of The Five Armies. Though it’s not much preferable to surrendering to madness or wide-eyed, half-lobotomized rapture.

Eventually the dust settles, the clanging subsides and the icy thaw of the Lonely Mountain chills as Bilbo returns to the cozy comfort of his hobbit-hole. Winter turns to spring as the noble hobbit totters back to the verdant bloom of the Shire. But the long Indian summer of our interminable cultural adolescence drags on – an arid, stifling season bearing no promise of reprieve.

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