The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
In 2005, genre fans were able to celebrate the day when the entire six-film Star Wars saga was available for public consumption. Nine and one-half years later, the same can be said of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth epic. As George Lucas learned, the making of a prequel trilogy can be a troublesome thing; Peter Jackson has now been taught the same lesson. Not without reason, die-hards turned on him when The Hobbit became not a faithful rendition of its source novel but a long-winded attempt to wed book with appendices and tie them into the hugely successful Lord of the Rings movies. But, if An Unexpected Journey disappointed with its long-windedness and The Desolation of Smaug was weighed down by bad CGI and extraneous filler, at least The Battle of the Five Armies can be said to engage and enervate. The best film of The Hobbit's three, this final installment is closer in quality to The Lord of the Rings than to its immediate predecessors.
The credits-to-credits orgy of fantasy action and battles begins immediately with the story picking up where it left off at the end of The Desolation of Smaug. The great wyrm, enraged by the incursion into its domain of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and his band of not-so-merry dwarves, has decided to take out his frustrations on the hapless hamlet of Lake Town. It doesn't take long for the wooden homes with their thatch roofs to ignite and, even though the heroic Bard (Luke Evans) ends the danger, the damage is done. For Thorin, however, Smaug's demise is no cause for rejoicing. With his mind poisoned by greed, the endless gold of the dragon's hoard isn't enough. He betrays his word and walls himself up in the mountain, refusing to answer the demands of Lake Town's survivors and an army of elves led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace). Meanwhile, as men, dwarves, and elves squabble, an army of orcs masses for a sneak attack. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) is unable to warn Thorin of their coming because he is the prisoner of the resurrected Sauron.
The Battle of the Five Armies isn't quite as impressive as the two huge engagements of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Helm's Deep in The Two Towers and Gondor in The Return of the King), but it's still pretty amazing. Choreographing complex campaigns is among Peter Jackson's notable strengths as a director; it elevates the third chapter of The Hobbit trilogy even though the strategy and tactics aren't fleshed out with the details of The Lord of the Rings battles. There are some tremendous, heroic moments that allow various characters, including Thorin, Legolas, Bard, and Bilbo, opportunities to shine.
Despite The Battle of the Five Armies' devotion to action, there is a surprising focus on character development. Thorin has the strongest arc but there are opportunities for fleshing out Bard, Killi (whose quasi-romance with Evangeline Lilly's she-elf Tauriel becomes a defining characteristic), and (of course) Bilbo. Tangentially related scenes link The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings by showing how Sauron used the struggles of this film to mask his return. To that end, the goblins of Tolkien's original novel have been replaced by orcs.
With a running time of less than 2 1/2 hours, The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest of The Hobbit movies. The word "bloat," often used in association with An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, isn't appropriate here. This is a briskly paced motion picture containing little in the way of fat. (The exception is the fatuous backstabbing character of Alfrid, who appears to have wandered into this film by way of a Monty Python sketch.) In fact, it could be argued that too much was left on the cutting room floor - the back-end of the battle and the final resolution seem rushed and there are plot holes that will likely be plugged when Jackson re-inserts 30 minutes of material into the home video "extended edition."
The Battle of the Five Armies is the most CGI intensive of the three films, beginning with Smaug's immolation of Lake Town and continuing into the battle, which comprises roughly 50% of the running length. There are times, especially during wide angle clashes between opponents, when the involvement of computers is evident, but it's less intrusive here than during the escape from the Goblin Kingdom (in An Unexpected Journey) or the barrel ride (in The Desolation of Smaug). Once again, the 3D is unnecessary but at least not badly done.
The film ends with a scene that links it directly to The Fellowship of the Ring, allowing all six of Jackson's Middle Earth movies to be watched in sequence as a single 18-hour opus. The Hobbit as a whole is more uneven and troublesome than The Lord of the Rings but, as some fans have noted, the success of The Battle of the Five Armies goes a long way toward saving the prequel trilogy. It doesn't merely punctuate The Hobbit with an exclamation point, it makes some of the earlier flaws seem less egregious.
I'm not going to argue that the decision to split a two-part story into three segments was a creatively sound choice; it wasn't. An Unexpected Journey and especially The Desolation of Smaug suffered for it and the series' reputation took a worldwide blow. Fortunately, whatever narrative fissures afflicted the first two episodes have not carried over to The Battle of the Five Armies. This is a worthy follow-up to The Lord of the Rings, something fans have been awaiting for more than a decade.
© 2014 James Berardinelli