Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has too much CGI and not enough Bilbo

So, here we are at last: the final instalment in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth series, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. While Jackson’s decision to transform J.R.R. Tolkien’s concise fairytale into a blockbuster trilogy remains controversial, the strong box office performance of the first two films – An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug – suggests there’s still a sizeable audience eager to see how this prequel trilogy wraps up.

Sadly, Battle of the Five Armies fails to reach the same heights as The Lord of the Rings‘ finale The Return of the King – or even of its direct predecessors, for that matter. Indeed, while it’s entertaining in fits and spurts, more than any other film in the Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies suffers from too much CGI and not enough Bilbo.

The Battle of the Five Armies kicks off right where its predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug, left off: hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) has awoken the dreaded Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), and, boy, is this chatty dragon pissed. As Bilbo and his Dwarven allies – including king-in-waiting Thorin (Richard Armitage) – watch on helplessly from their Lonely Mountain perch, Smaug rains fire upon nearby Lake Town. Wrongly imprisoned bowman Bard (Luke Evans) could save the day, if only he could escape his jail cell!

Bard’s not the only jailbird in The Battle of the Five Armies, either; elsewhere in Middle-earth, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) remains behind bars following his disastrous encounter with franchise uber-baddie Sauron. This is bad news for everyone else since Gandalf is the only person who knows about the Orc hordes heading towards the Lonely Mountain. Unless the wily Wizard can get the word out in time, the Orcs will wipe out Bilbo, Thorin, and Bard, not to mention the nearby kingdom of Elves ruled over by chilly King Thranduil (Lee Pace).

Given the forces arrayed against Dwarves, Elves, and Men (not to mention our plucky young Hobbit) it’s clearly time for these factions to unite, however, Thorin’s increasingly unstable mental state threatens to push them towards war, instead…

If nothing else, The Battle of the Five Armies deserves props for its bold opening: starting the movie in the middle of a siege-by-dragon scenario is both unexpected and attention-grabbing. And if Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens’ decision to resolve the Smaug plotline – in theory, if not always in practice, the trilogy’s driving narrative force – within the movie’s first 15 minutes feels abrupt, it’s also admirable economical.

This atypical briskness permeates the rest of The Battle of the Five Armies. If An Unexpected Journey took too long to get going, the problem this time around is that the pacing is too fast. Once things really get going, the narrative bounces from one entertainingly-staged set piece to the next at breakneck speed, with character moments barely squeezed in-between. This results in a growing sense of battle fatigue and undermines the final showdown between Thorin and Manu Bennett’s Orc baddie Azog that’s been building since the first film.

The Battle of the Five Armies is also the biggest mainstream showcase yet for Jackson’s oddball sense of humour, for better or worse. If you’re a diehard Middle-earth fan, you’ll hate the numerous gags courtesy of Ryan Gage’s Alfrid Lickspittle on principle (especially once he starts to caper about in drag), however, even casual viewers will probably agree that Jackson overindulges himself in this respect.

But the real issue with The Battle of the Five Armies is that Bilbo Baggins rarely takes centre stage. Despite being the supposed lead character of the trilogy – it’s called The Hobbit, after all – Bilbo is frequently sidelined to make room for supporting characters like Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel (neither of whom even appear in the book!). The knock-on effect is that Bilbo’s friendship with Thorin – central to the book and film – is never properly fleshed out, which makes the film’s emotional climax feel frustratingly unearned.

It’s especially galling, considering Freeman is so perfect in the role. In the limited screen time available to him, he embodies the warmth, bravery, and above all, decency of Bilbo exactly as Tolkien describes it on the page.

Not that Freeman’s the only underused actor in The Battle of the Five Armies. Armitage also has to fight to make his presence felt; it’s a credit to his acting skill that he somehow manages to sketch out a vaguely plausible redemptive arc for Thorin. Then there’s McKellen, who is as flawless as Gandalf the sixth time around as he was the first, effortlessly transitioning from grouchy granddad to hardened warrior and back again without ever crunching gears.

Of the remaining supporting cast, the stand-outs are Evans, Pace and Lilly. Evans lends Bard the air of a man uneasy with the leadership position thrust upon him, while Pace melds the arch theatricality he brought to Thranduil last time around with a welcome layer of subtle emotion. Lilly arguably has the hardest job of the bunch, working overtime to make us believe Tauriel’s five-second relationship with Aidan Turner’s Kili is actually worth caring about.

But hey, at least it all looks and sounds good, right? Certainly, the lush cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, practical and digital effects wizardry by Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, and Howard Shore’s lyrical score, are second to none.

And yet, ironically, The Battle of the Five Armies‘ other big shortcoming is post-production-related: simply put, there’s too much CGI. 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 is overflowing with obvious – and often unnecessary – computer imagery. Perhaps the most baffling example of this is Jackson’s baffling decision to realise Billy Connolly’s Dwarven hothead Dain Ironfoot entirely through CGI when prosthetics and make-up would have more convincingly done the trick.

This CG-overkill spills over into The Battle of the Five Armies‘ action sequences, too. Unlike in The Lord of the Rings – where Jackson combined practical stunts with the odd OTT digital flourish, and limited all-digital armies to the mid or wide shots – here, all-CGI skirmishes are the norm. And when Jackson does bother to involve actual humans in an action scene, the result feels oddly weightless and cartoonish. It’s like we’re watching someone play a video game, not experiencing the final chapter in the biggest fantasy film franchise of all time.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a disappointingly underwhelming final chapter in Peter Jackson’s six-movie Middle-earth epic. While the film’s epic scope, committed cast and unparalleled technical artistry can’t be faulted, it comes unstuck by devoting too much time to lacklustre CGI spectacle instead of its likable lead character.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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