Whatever criticisms you may level at the first two films of Peter Jackson’s ambitious trilogy of Hobbit films (and there are many), one thing is certain: they did not lack heart. Amidst Jackson’s increasingly bothersome dependence on over-indulgent CGI and a few too-many side plots and characters, the story, conflict and emotions at the center have remained very engaging.
I feared that The Battle of the Five Armies, the third film in the trilogy (not a word I ever thought I’d use to describe a Hobbit adaptation), would buck the trend, focusing entirely too much on the battle the title emphasizes and foregoing a satisfying conclusion to the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves in their effort to reclaim their homeland.
I’m very glad to say I was wrong. While the film does indeed feature a handful of entirely spectacular battle sequences, it’s the quiet moments of the film I’ll remember the most, the kind of intimate conversations and interactions that elevated Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings trilogy into legend.
The story picks up immediately after the last film left off, with the menacing dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) set to destroy the city of Lake town and its inhabitants. That threat is dispensed of rather quickly (and anticlimactically) when warrior Bard (Luke Evans) fells the beast with a spear. But even bigger troubles are brewing.
After reclaiming the mountain of Erebor from Smaug, the dwarves hole themselves up in the mountain as leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) attempts to locate a magic stone that belonged to his father. But the others fear his increasing isolation and jealous nature may be the result of “dragon sickness;” an obsession with gold. Things get worse when Thorin refuses to allow the displaced people of Lake town asylum in the mountain as he had originally promised. And others have a stake in the mountain too: the Elves, led by Thranduil (Lee Pace), have jewels in the mountain that belong to them. And the menacing orc Azog the Defiler is amassing his own orc army to storm the mountain, which could act as sort of a strategic military stronghold for the Necromancer, who is on his way to reclaiming his former title of Lord Sauron. These varying conflicts set the stage for a massive battle that could determine the future of Middle Earth.
A big problem with this setup is the lack of a very particular character: a Hobbit. The title refers to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who has accompanied the dwarves on their journey to reclaim their homeland. J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story focused on the perspective of this little Hobbit as he comes to terms with the mighty challenges around him. In this film, there’s so much politics to focus on and so many characters, Bilbo gets a bit lost in the equation. And that’s a shame, because Freeman is a very fine Bilbo, once again striking that fine balance between heroism and helplessness that made Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee such classic characters in the original trilogy.
But Bilbo still plays an important part in the story, acting as sort of the clear-headed mediator between the various warring parties. And his relationship to Thorin grows even stronger and more affecting than before. Freeman and Armitage are world-class actors, and seeing them playing off each other in-between the movie’s many frenetic moments is a real pleasure.
Other characters receive a far less noble sendoff. I ultimately appreciate the direction the filmmakers took new Elvish character Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and her complicated relationship with Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner). But Legolas (Orlando Bloom) fails to justify his appearance in the movie besides getting to be in some badass action scenes.
A parallel storyline concerning the fate of Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and his struggle against the Necromancer’s forces also falls flat. We get token re-appearances from Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), but after the extensive buildup these characters got in the previous films, their sendoff seems pretty unceremonious and anti-climactic. Their roles are essentially reduced to cameos.
I expect the main draw of the movie will be the titular battle (or rather, series of battles), and they deliver big-time. Although never matching the scope or scale of the Lord of the Rings films (how could they?), the battles are nonetheless mighty impressive. Despite a large middle section that consists of little more than action, it’s amazing how Jackson and company were able to keep things interesting. Part of this is the changing perspectives as we jump back and forth between characters, but another part is the variety of battles on display. We leave a massive, clashing army for a smaller skirmish or one of several one-on-one fights, and it’s all so thrilling to watch. I saw it in 3-D, and I highly recommend it. The action, much of it set against a gorgeous snowy backdrop, really pops off the screen, and it speaks to what Jackson has been able to do with 10 years of advanced technology since we left the original trilogy.
But I was most grateful for how the film handles the book’s big moments in its latter half. There are a lot of deaths in the book, and I dreaded the moments they arrived on screen. It really speaks to how the filmmakers have allowed us to connect with these characters in a way that even the brief book could never really get around to. Without spoiling anything, I was really pleased with the way these events were handled onscreen (despite one notable exception).
I was hoping that Five Armies’ relatively brief running time (compared to the first two anyway) would mean we could avoid being subjected to Jackson’s hackneyed attempts to directly tie the events of The Hobbit into The Lord of the Rings, even though their events are set decades apart. Alas, this just means these pointless diversions were truncated, rather than excised entirely. I already mentioned the disappointing wrap up to the Necromancer story arc, but what’s even worse is the nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to other LOTR characters the writers couldn’t find a way to squeeze in here. There’s also the wrap-around story introduced at the beginning of the first movie, which I found irritating to begin with. It comes full circle here, in a haphazard, almost slapdash fashion. It’s pretty groan-worthy.
Thankfully, the movie has it where it counts. Despite its many diversions, the story wraps up the intimate tale of its source material perfectly. In its best moments, it matches both the intimacy and the grandeur of Jackson’s magnificent original trilogy. This is the closest a Hobbit movie has come to matching it. I have to question some of the director’s more iffy creative decisions, but on the whole I was satisfied with the grand finale of this Middle Earth tale. If you’ve enjoyed this take on the Hobbit tale thus far, Five Armies will not disappoint.