Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

After three Hobbit movies and three Lord of the Rings films, it’s hard to view The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies as a standalone picture.  It carries far more weight than it necessarily should, and as the presumed final film in the Lord of the Rings saga it has higher expectations than perhaps are fair.  So while it’s a film that can be both thrilling and emotional while also plodding and uneven, its place in the saga serves to magnify both its faults and its virtues as a representation of the successes and failures of the Hobbit trilogy and the LOTR saga as a whole.  Narratively, it serves as both and end (to The Hobbit) and a beginning (to Lord of the Rings), but it’s status as a link doesn’t detract from the big dramatic moments of the film’s story, even if at times it feels designed more as a link than as a cinematic experience of its own.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off.  Thorin and company, including Bilbo but minus a small party of dwarves left behind in Laketown, have failed to defeat Smaug and the menacing dragon has set off to destroy Laketown and its residents as a punishment for allowing the dwarves to disturb his lair.  Most of the village flees in horror as their homes go up in flames, with only Bard the bowman standing up in defense of the village.  Thorin, meanwhile, is consumed with a desire for the Arkenstone, the legendary jewel that was the pride of Thorin’s grandfather before the dwarf kingdom of Erebor was captured by Smaug.  And Gandalf remains trapped by the Necromancer, revealed in the last film to be the dark lord Sauron, while Galadriel, Saruman, and Elrond attempt to come to his aid.

The survivors of Laketown’s destruction set up camp just outside the doors to Thorin’s reclaimed home, seeking both aid and the share of Smaug’s treasure that Thorin promised to them on his way through.  They’re joined by Thranduil and his army of elves, who seek elvish jewels that reside within the mountain.  Thorin, now obsessed with the treasure, refuses their claims, and backed up by an army of his kinsfolk the three races seem set on mutual destruction.  But fate and a host of orcs lead by Azog arrive, forcing men, dwarves, and elves to join forces in the titular battle against the orcs (the contents of the fifth army are generally up for debate as far as the book is concerned, but in the film it is clearly a second army of orcs).

If all of that sounds like a bit of a mess, it kind of is.  The Battle of the Five Armies suffers from some of the same issues that plagued the previous two films, in that the narrative flow and the characters have become somewhat lost among extended set pieces and mythology building.  Bilbo suffers the most in this interpretation of The Hobbit, as by now it’s clear that while the book focused on telling his story the films are telling a completely different one.  At this point, after six movies, the massive battle sequences that are a trademark of Peter Jackson’s films have ceased to be interesting on their own, and those segments are where the film tends to drag.  Other story beats during the battle feel completely reused from Lord of the Rings, even if they have a basis in the book.  While watching the film I couldn’t help feeling that Peter Jackson simply lost the thread of what he wanted to say, distracted by spectacle and disconnected moments of the narrative.

Bilbo, as I said, is lost in the shuffle, which is a shame as his perspective could have given us a new take on the massive battles we’ve come to expect.  Most of the dwarves are interchangeable, identified only by their particular beard style, while those that have established distinct personalities after three films are given little to do.  Dangling plotlines are wrapped up so quickly that we’re left expecting more, while inconsequential characters receive seemingly endless screen time while serving no purpose.  (I let out a silent groan every time the advisor to the mayor of Laketown made an appearance.)  Familiar faces pop up for one or two scenes only to disappear, while important callbacks to previous movies fail to hit home (Beorn, for instance).  There’s a lot for major fans of the films and the books to sink their teeth into, but I imagine the spectacle will feel somewhat hollow for casual viewers.

On the other hand, the truth of the matter is that it’s rare for films to be as lovingly made as the Middle Earth Saga has been.  Every aspect of the production is flawless, from sets to costumes to music to locations and props, to the quality of the effects and the richness and detail of every frame of the film.  And despite my complaints about the film, it still packs an emotional punch and has many moments that work extremely well.  The opening sequence covering the battle against Smaug is stunning, and Bard’s showdown with the colossal dragon is as intense and impressive as anything we’ve seen from these six films.  Richard Armitage does a great job as Thorin, whose descent into treasure-fueled madness, return to sanity and quest for redemption drive the film and provide its emotional core.  And the characters whose stories I found myself most drawn to don’t even appear in the book: Legolas and Tauriel.  The elves find themselves caught between their allegiance to their race and the pull of other ideals, and their desire to strike out on their own path gives the story some of its most touching and interesting moments.

The frustrating thing about The Battle of the Five Armies, and the Hobbit films in general, is that Peter Jackson is such a fantastic director, responsible for some of the most exciting and powerfully emotional moments of the last decade or so of cinema.  He’s one of the few out there who can handle character and spectacle with equal skill, and most importantly can find a way to unite the two so as to increase the meaning and intensity of each.  And this final Middle Earth film felt for the first time like he simply got lost in the movie.  It lacked the connectedness that set The Lord of the Rings apart from other movies of the time, and of which there was some promise in the first two Hobbit films only for it to disappear by the end.  There’s nothing in The Battle of the Five Armies that is in any way bad (other than the mayor’s advisor character), it’s just long, slow, and a little disappointing.

The end of the Hobbit series was billed as “The Defining Chapter” on posters and in trailers and commercials.  In many ways, I can see the message they were trying to convey.  As the theoretical final film in the Middle Earth saga, it is also the film that takes place in the middle, tying the two trilogies together.  Everything that’s happened in the last three movies sets the stage for what’s to come in Lord of the Rings, and it’s the lynchpin of the six part saga.  But in terms of defining the saga’s place in film history, of being the film you think about whenever someone mentions Middle Earth, The Battle of the Five Armies fails to live up to the tagline, which is a good thing.  The Hobbit never felt like an equal to Lord of the Rings, more like an add-on or supplement, and it’s for the best that Five Armies merely fills the role of capping off this trilogy.  While these three films are entertaining and impressive on their own, they can’t help but pale in comparison to the first trilogy, both in terms of artistry and audience response.  They could never hope to achieve what their predecessors did, and they’re better off standing alone as a companion to the main event rather than trying to be a part of it.  I’m sure The Hobbit will work its way into my regular at-home viewing rotation, but it will be nowhere near as frequently watched as Lord of the Rings.  As the final film of The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies ends things with a suitably big bang, but compared to Lord of the Rings it could only ever hope to be a very loud whisper.

B+

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