So here we are at last: the final installment in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth series, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
At this point, it seems pointless to dredge up the old debate over the merits of turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim, whimsical fairytale into a blockbuster trilogy. To be honest, while I think the naysayers have a point, I’ve mostly enjoyed the ride so far, and overall I’m fairly happy with the three new films we ended up with.
The Battle of the Five Armies kicks-off pretty much exactly where its predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug, left off: gabby dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), having been woken by hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is raining fire down upon the helpless denizens of Lake Town.
Bilbo’s dwarven allies, led by king-in-waiting Thorin (Richard Armitage), can only watch on in horror at the devastation being wrought, which is still preferable to watching on from behind bars at the local pokey, where heroic bowman Bard (Luke Evans) remains.
And speaking of prison, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) is still cooling his heels in a gibbet after a disastrous encounter with series big bad Sauron, who you might remember recently dispatched a massive army of vicious orcs to wipe out pretty much every non-dragon mentioned above.
So basically, things do not look good for our heroes, and believe me when I say that things only get worse the further along the story progresses.
It should probably go without saying that starting the movie in the middle of a siege-by-dragon scenario makes for an incredibly strong opening, but what’s more impressive is that this sequence is used to resolve the cliffhanger of the last film in an economic 15 minutes or so.
If the first film in the series, An Unexpected Journey, took too long to get going, the problem this time around might actually be moving too fast, as the film soon bounces from one entertainingly-staged set piece to the next, with only the occasional moment set aside for character development and emotional engagement.
To his credit, Jackson is mostly able to pull off a sustained two-hour battle without things getting boring, but fatigue at last sets in during the home straight, which undermines the well-staged and engaging final showdown that has been building since the first film.
What does it get right?
But first, let’s run through the good stuff.
As with all the films across both trilogies, the actors are for the most part excellent, particularly Freeman, who continues to embody the warmth, bravery, and above all, decency of Bilbo, and Armitage, who ably brings to life Thorin’s greed-related madness. Also in top form is McKellen, who remains as flawless as Gandalf in his sixth outing as he did in his first, still able to believably shift from short-tempered yet benign old man to hardened warrior without raising an eyebrow from the audience.
Of the remaining supporting cast, the stand-outs are Evans, providing Bard with the air of a man uneasy with the leadership position thrust upon him; Lee Pace, melding the wonderful theatricality he brought to the role of Elven King Thranduil last time around with a more subtle layer of emotion; and Evangeline Lilly, working overtime to make us believe Tauriel’s five-second relationship with dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) could genuinely mean something real.
But the performances by the actors are only half the story in a series like this; the technical accomplishments of the craftspeople behind the scenes are equally as important. As you’d expect, things are top notch in this department, and the lush cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, coupled with the practical and digital effects wizardry by WETA, add up to the deliver the most immersive visual experience you’ll have at the cinema all year.
The Battle of the Five Armies is by turns moving, exciting and unsettling, and it’s very often thanks to the efforts of this small army of artisans (along with Howard Shore’s beautifully orchestrated score) that this is the case.
What does it get wrong?
So what about the film doesn’t work?
More than anything, what stands out as a major flaw is the seemingly excessive amount of CGI used throughout the film. Whereas the Lord of the Rings trilogy was lauded for its restrained use of seamless (for the time) digital effects, The Battle of the Five Armies contains numerous instances of unnecessary CGI, with the most notable example being the baffling decision to substitute Billy Connolly, who plays ordinary looking dwarf Dain, with a digital creation.
The overuse of digital effects spills over into the action sequences too, which at times stray from the series’ enjoyable “practical stunts with the occasional over-the-top digital flourish” formula and into outright cartoonish territory, and as with certain points in An Unexpected Journey, it begins to feel as if you are watching a video game rather than a movie.
Also prevalent throughout the film (although not something that hugely bothered me) is a reliance on oddball humour to break the tension. If you aren’t a fan of Jackson’s silly side, you’ll struggle at certain points of the film, and he probably does overindulge himself in this regard at times.
But the real issue I have with The Battle of the Five Armies (and it’s the same issue I had with the The Desolation of Smaug) is that Bilbo only rarely gets to take centre stage. Despite supposedly being the lead character of this trilogy, Bilbo is often marginalised to make room for other supporting characters.
The major fallout from this narrative choice is that Bilbo’s friendship with Thorin, which is central to both the film and its source material, never develops as fully as it should, which serves to diminish the emotional impact of the film overall.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
That’s not to say that the film fails completely on an emotional or thematic level; on the contrary it still manages to make a fair go of resolving the major thematic concerns of the trilogy, namely the destructive effects of greed, the cost of war, and above all, the power of simple moral decency even in the midst of epic conflict.
Of the various themes throughout the trilogy, greed is certainly the most obvious. Ever since the first film, greed has been presented as a sickness that leads to ethical decay within the soul of the affected individual, whether it’s Smaug and Thorin and their mutual obsession over the hoard of dwarven treasure, or Thranduil’s fixation on the white gems long denied him, or even Bilbo’s covetous relationship with the One Ring.
This idea really reaches its apex in The Battle of the Five Armies, with Thorin finally succumbing to the wealth-motivated madness that claimed his grandfather before him, and reaching the brink of war with an almost equally irrational Thranduil, in the process dragging Bard into the fray by reneging on his promise to provide the impoverished people of Laketown a share of the dwarves’ riches.
Whilst Bard is motivated only by the needs of his community, both The King Under the Mountain and The Elven King are driven by their own petty desires, and it is not until far too late that they appreciate the horrors that their selfishness has wrought.
This plays into the related theme of the cost incurred by going to war, as well as the cost of watching those you love fall in battle. Both Tolkien and Jackson are keen to temper the escapist notion of warfare with the sense of the loss that results when conflict ensues, both in terms of those who lose their lives, but also the loss experienced on an emotional level by those who survive.
For as much it is a great tragedy when Thorin, Fili, Kili and countless others lose their lives in battle, it is equally brutal for Bilbo, Tauriel and the few remaining survivors to move on with their lives in the absence of those that they love.
Certainly for Bilbo, the aftermath of the battle not only completes his maturation from naive young hobbit into a worldly soul, but also marks the point at which he is forever tainted by war.
Indeed, whilst he is still able to enjoy the comforts of the Shire upon his return, on some level, he will always be haunted by his adventure there and back again, as shown by his lingering heartache over the death of Thorin.
At the same time, it is the quality of hearts like Bilbo’s that drives the final major theme of the story: the importance of basic moral decency. This is apparent over and over again as the story plays out, as whenever our heroes are behaving at their most reprehensible, mutually assured destruction seems on the cards, and it is only through redemptive acts of basic goodness that this is avoided.
If you need evidence of this, witness the moment when Thorin triumphs over his avarice to lead his company into battle and provide aid to his loyal kinsmen, turning the tide of the battle.
Better yet, consider the single biggest “punch the air” moment of the film, when Thranduil overcomes his prejudice to give the order for his troops to (literally) leap into battle alongside the dwarves rather than allow them to be slaughtered by a common enemy.
In both these instances, we cheer as an audience not just because these are awesome moments (and seriously you guys, when the elves jump over the dwarves is so cool), but because they symbolise our greatest hope for humanity: that in the end, we all want to do what is right in the face of injustice.
But if you really do want to put a face to this theme, you’ll find yourself coming full circle back to Bilbo. It makes sense really: the main function of the hobbits throughout the series is to serve as everymen for the viewer to identify with, and Bilbo really shines in this regard throughout The Battle of the Five Armies.
Whether it’s through his surprising bravery on the front lines or his true loyalty towards Thorin and the dwarves (where he endangers both his friendships as well as his life to try to buy their safety), Bilbo reminds us that what matters most is following your heart and doing what you think is right above all costs.
For this reason, I respectfully disagree with the marketing team who labelled The Battle of the Five Armies as “The Defining Chapter” in the Middle-Earth series. It isn’t; An Unexpected Journey is, because that is the film where Bilbo has the chance (and crucially, the “right”) to kill Gollum, but chooses not to out of pity and compassion.
It’s through this act of basic decency that the wheels are ultimately set in motion for the destruction of the One Ring five films later, and that the thematic through-line of the entire series (including this film), that strength of character and moral bravery are the most important forces for good, is born.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
In the end, The Battle of the Five Armies provides a mostly-satisfying conclusion to a mostly-entertaining trilogy of films, that, if not quite the equal of that which came before it, still stands as a solid example of epic filmmaking.