The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Director: Peter Jackson
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), New Line Cinema, WingNut Films
Released: 12 December 2014
Seven years ago it was announced that Peter Jackson would oversee a revival of the Tolkien cinematic world as a two-part film series, with new director Guillermo del Toro on board. A drawn-out and difficult production path followed with Jackson eventually resuming director duties, and ultimately assembling three films instead of two. With this new film's release the journey through Middle Earth is again concluded. Perhaps what is first notable is just how short it is compared to the other Hobbit films, and indeed the original 'Rings' entries. This however seems appropriate as much of the early exposition and scene setting was done in 'An Unexpected Journey
' and 'The Desolation of Smaug
'. This film focuses a lot more on all-out action, choosing to embellish greatly on certain passages of the Hobbit novel and almost ignore others. The prior set-up and expansion of various subplots in the earlier films needed closure, with somewhat mixed results achieved here. Ultimately the key for viewers is one of expectation - do they want a strong challenger to multi-Oscar-winner 'Return of the King
' or do they want something that works as a fun and mostly undemanding action epic?
One major aspect of 'Desolation
' was its choice to have a huge unresolved ending. At the time I was rather unsure if this was wise of the creative team. With Smaug central to that film's plot, it felt logical for his story to be resolved. However the execution of his cruel attack on Lake-town, in which there is little chance of escape for the exposed citizens, is a wonderful set piece. I did wonder if the dragon would get anything to say, as he constitutes an overpowering source of visual terror - leaving the dramatic duties to the humans and elves threatened. Thankfully we do get reminded of Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of supreme villainy. His hubris, arrogance and complete lack of fear manages to come across as rather impressive and menacing. This also ensures that his final fate works resoundingly well; the effect used to show he has been 'extinguished' is perfect. I did find the shoe-horning of Bard's son into the killer arrow climax a bit self-indulgent of the movie, but not jarringly so.
For those wondering if Stephen Fry's slimy Master of Lake-town will get some form of punishment for his lack of morals and flagrant disregard for his people, there is a very satisfying answer. It also serves as a strong modern-day retelling of a classic cautionary tale on greed. Less welcome however is the consequent focus on the Master's surviving servant Alfrid. Jackson has used comic relief well beforehand in his movies, with even some of the Orcs and Goblins being effective, as well as the fascinating Gollum. This annoyingly spineless character, who keeps surviving against the odds, instead provides one lead balloon joke after another. And this does indicate that like its predecessors, this Hobbit film has a somewhat uneven tone to it for much of its running time. Admittedly this is a problem quite common in action cinema, but one that never seemed noticeable with the classic original trilogy.
Thankfully the actual plot is decent. Although films' one and two had somewhat pedestrian middle acts, here I enjoyed the sections that preceded any of the battle sequences. Smaug is gone but trouble persists as the humans, dwarves and elves squabble over the many riches left in Erebor now that its giant custodian is vanquished. The way in which the dwarves virtually barricade themselves, just as Lake-town's refugees side with the Elves against Thorin's small company is really quite suspenseful. This development manages to later flow into the loud battle sequences such that emotional investment pays off and the film is comfortably coherent.
Those wondering if the White Council storyline from the first film ends up going anywhere should be satisfied enough with developments here. There is a rather terrifying moment where Sauron/ The Necromancer is unquestionably revealed to be back, and the reactions of the various elves and wizards is spellbinding. I did dislike the CGI overload of the Ringwraiths, who seem to exist in transitional form like their master. They were a great component of the original trilogy - in 'Fellowship
' especially - but feel contrived here and lack their previous menace. It also is very distracting to see Saruman use some kickboxing skills, when his character always relied on sheer power of magical ability and persuasiveness.
I gained great satisfaction from the psychological themes presented by the dwarves being helpless to stop Thorin from falling victim to powerful vanity, narcissism and irrationality. Once again titular Hobbit Bilbo is underused, but at least he is crucial in making sure that the forces of good stop squabbling in time to face the fearsome hordes of the dread Necromancer. Gandalf also plays his mediator part to perfection, the viewer being able to trust in Ian McKellen's gravitas.
Acting from all the returning actors from the original trilogy is indeed strong and assured, and the cast introduced for this trilogy mostly is generally equally strong. Although it is disappointing that Bilbo is sidelined yet again, this does not stop Martin Freeman from being note-perfect, and at least the equal of Ian Holm in the role. Freeman is one actor who has an effortless dimension to his technique but somehow never appears to be lazy in the process. I have also enjoyed the charisma of Richard Armitage's Thorin; making the most of his disturbing character arc, which eventually focused on resounding bravery despite terrifying odds. Luke Evans and Lee Pace really excel in the roles of Bard and Thranduil, with markedly different styles of asserting authority over their respective forces..
I did find the final showdown between chief Orc Azog and Thorin to be a curate's egg. The contrast of a man-o-mano fight with the bewildering battle of five armies is welcome, but it feels rather a mismatch such is Azog's brutal power. Later on the viewer is confused over the extent of Orc biology, with no real foundation to set things up, as a contrived twist sees Thorin letting his guard down to devastating effect. Luckily the final moments - with Bilbo utterly helpless to save the Dwarf king, and their mutual re-affirmation that they are true friends in spite of all their obvious differences - are terrific and avoid the trap of being maudlin.
Less successful though are the final touches to the Legolas/ Tauriel/ Kili love triangle. I got involved more with this new storyline than quite a few Tolkien fans, but had hoped it would build on the bones presented in 'Desolation'. Instead we get a procession of clichés, including a predictable saving of one another's' lives. Kili recieves no kinder a fate in this movie than he did in the source material, and likewise his brother Fili - who surely deserved more of a story arc himself.
There is some glimmer of interest earlier on when Thranduil briefly seems to consider killing Tauriel and even his own son Legolas, but it gets overwhelmed by the multitude of battles and hand-to-hand combats raging on at the same time. Evangeline Lilly still engaged me as the graceful and empathic Tauriel, and Aidan Turner's Kili is serviceable enough. Orlando Bloom is not a bad actor in anyway, but in keeping with the original 'Rings' trilogy Legolas is far more impressive in the heat of battle than he is when stationary and speaking.
The various field battles that justify the film's title constitute entertainment that should stir the heartbeats of any reasonable audience member. There is no chance of really getting worn down as there is so much variety and good choreography distinguishing all the different participants involved in combat. I was waiting with bated breath for the emergence of Beorn in the battle - a character that registered firmly with me when I read the original book when young. Yet he is barely featured in this theatrical cut, which seems a waste. The concept of a shape shifting man/bear is as fascinating now as ever and a complement to the Warg element concept found in TV smash 'Game of Thrones'
. More reassuringly, the use of the Eagles is once again magical, as they come in to help conclude the battle in the interests of the forces of good.
And by the time Bilbo and Gandalf do return to the Shire, the film has not taken too long to wrap matters up. It may still seem a bit excessive to some moviegoers, but anyone who recalls the twenty minute 'Rings' ending that broke new ground for all the wrong reasons back in 2003 need not worry about a repeat. A nice bit of continuity features as Bilbo has to deal with an auction of all his possessions left behind - his being assumed dead due to his long absence. There is also an excellent transition back to the older incarnation of Bilbo, and the opening of Fellowship is nostalgically revisited without feeling self-aggrandising.
' is a solid enough winter blockbuster, which should satisfy many fans of Middle Earth and the fantasy/action film genre. It may be weakened by being a prequel to a much more compelling and thematically rich story, and furthermore some characters fates are known already. But it is definitely worth seeing, if under the proviso that newcomers should make the effort to see parts one and two first, as there is no time spent on convenient flashbacks or verbal reminders. The biggest question left now is, will there be any new live action films based on JRR Tolkien's universe made in years or decades to come?