The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
So, here we are again. One last time. Readers of this site will remember (I hope) my mammoth reviews of An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. This one will be a bit shorter, though I might go back at some point and give the entire trilogy a retrospective look.
When I came out of seeing The Desolation Of Smaug, I was rounded upon by an irked young woman, who proclaimed “I weep for canon” at me, after hearing my praise for the way the film had treated the Bard character. The incident got me thinking of fan expectation of films like this, and the tricky art of adaptation of much loved source material. My experience of fan interaction at the end of The Battle Of The Five Armies was a bit different, and I’ll get back to it at the end. For now, suffice to say that The Battle Of The Five Armies was one of my most anticipated films of the year, what is likely to be Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth swan song, and the capping feature in his second epic trilogy. Divisive among some fans and critics, The Hobbit trilogy has consistently pleased me, but how would this final chapter, this last goodbye, fare?
The dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) launches a fire filled assault on Lake-town, faced only by the bow wielding skill of Bard (Luke Evans). The consequences of this fight reach far and wide, as hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) confronts the growing madness of company leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) who is increasingly obsessed with Erebor’s treasure horde and the missing Arkenstone. Elsewhere, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and the White Council face Sauron, Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) plots paypack on the Lonely Mountain, his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom) prepares for war and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) considers her feelings for Kili (Aidan Turner). All these journeys eventually collide, in a terrible battle where the fate of Middle-Earth itself is at stake.
I find The Battle Of The Five Armies to be a somewhat difficult film to judge. It seems unfair, to an extent, to judge it purely on its own merits and what it presents in its 144 minutes of running time, because the story is so intrinsically connected to the amount of set-up done in previous films. It is the final part of a trilogy after all, and lacks any kind of self contained story in the same manner as the films of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy or, say, Star Wars arguably had. No, this film, The Battle Of The Five Armies, is just an extended pay-off for everything that has come before, and I believe that it is better to judge it on that basis.
I say that because, taken on its own, and its own alone, The Battle Of The Five Armies would have some significant problems. Principal among them would be pacing: almost one full half of The Battle Of The Five Armies is action sequences, with a long, drawn out one taking up most of the final half in some form or another. It’s almost like The Avengers in that respect, although The Avengers did it a bit better. There is plenty of actual plot and character development in The Battle Of The Five Armies, don’t get me wrong, but it is fair to say that the film is top heavy with action-orientated set-pieces. Its title is well earned, the battle taking up a gigantic proportion of proceedings.
It is The Battle Of The Five Armies, far more than An Unexpected Journey or The Desolation Of Smaug, that makes me realise how good a two film version of this story would have been. I have no major qualms with the three film route, even if I totally recognise the financial motivations of it. But I think it would be fair to say that two three hour films, or even three and a half, would have produced a tighter, more accomplished and emotionally engaging story. As it is, having three films means that Jackson has had the opportunity to create more of his own material than he otherwise would not have, and while some of it works, some of it does not. I think that’s most evident here, as several of the sub-plots fall flat in some respects, not enough to ruin the experience (or even come close to that) but enough to be noticeable. “Padding” has always been the wrong term to use (see my The Desolation Of Smaug review for more elaboration on that), but it is only with The Battle Of The Five Armies that I truly see how things evolved, for the lesser, with the move to three films instead of two. Things could have been cut here, and weren’t, with sub-plots begun a film or two ago having to be continued and brought to a fruition.
But I’m going all over the place. Let’s talk non-action stuff. At the heart of The Battle Of The Five Armies’ actual plot, lies the relationship between Thorin and Bilbo. We saw that evolve a lot in An Unexpected Journey, as Thorin went from regretting he ever brought Bilbo along, to acknowledging the error in that thinking. In The Desolation Of Smaug this trend continued, until we started to see glimpses of Thorin’s frailty.
In The Battle Of The Five Armies, the pay-off is here. Jackson chooses to go full tilt with the “dragon sickness” angle, having set-it up so subtly in the trilogy’s opening prologue with Thorin’s dark look at his grandfather falling to pieces. Here, it is Thorin beginning to obsess over the gold, and to define himself totally by it, and by the still absent Arkenstone. As the rest of the company watch Smaug eviscerate Lake-town from a distance, Thorin remains with his eyes locked firmly on Erebor, a chilling moment. All of the company are unnerved by it, but it falls to Bilbo to actually confront Thorin the most on it. The Battle Of The Five Armies puts their relationship, and their friendship, front and centre of the sections where fighting is not occurring, and it’s an endearing plot line, as Bilbo recognises the fact that someone dear to him is slipping away. He faces a really testing moment then, where the right course carries significant consequences. The Desolation Of Smaug rightfully faced some criticism that Bilbo was just sort of “there”. For most of its opening half, The Battle Of The Five Armies rectifies this, with Bilbo playing a crucial part in the developments with Thorin. For the rest, Jackson follows the book, and Bilbo’s relative lack of involvement, to the letter. Blame Tolkien. The Bilbo/Thorin relationships is executed really well here, and has some satisfying conclusions.
But things aren’t so good elsewhere. The love plot between Tauriel and Kili rears up again. I had theorised (and hoped) that Jackson would go for the “love” of the relationship being entirely from Kili’s perspective, with Tauriel more interested in Kili because of his uniqueness, and how he represents a world outside of the borders of her isolationist Kingdom: sort of a affectionate curiosity rather than love. But no, it’s a full on love plot, and that’s a shame. Not because of the visual disparity between the two – you could get over that – but just because it seems so throwaway in most respects, as if Tauriel needs a romantic plotline to justify her existence (she really didn’t) or a heartthrob dwarf needed somebody to swoon over (he really didn’t.). They try to tie it all in with an arc for Thranduil and his own coldness to the outside world, with some stuff about Legolas’ mother, and it all feels very hodge podge, as if there are important bits of cut material that we’re missing to make it all a bit more worthwhile.
In non-action plot terms, there are other problems too. The Alfrid character, a sort of one note villain that only really worked as a brief foil to Bard and as a toady to Stephen Fry’s Master, gets a truly crazy amount of screentime here, popping up over and over again to provide some unnecessary comic relief and a repetition of his one character trait. Most of the dwarves remain hollow characters, with no time to imbue with anything other than one note characteristics, exceptions being Ken Stott’s Balin, Fili, Kili and, this time, Graham McTavish’s Dwalin. Legolas seems to be in here just for action set-pieces (though they have fixed his eyes) and Beorn is here because…Beorn needs to be here?
Most of the better plots and sub-plots are wrapped around action sequences, so let’s move on to them. Bard is probably the best. He was the great success story of The Desolation Of Smaug’s source material alterations, and that continues here, where we get to see him being a leader, as opposed to Tolkien just declaring him one. Bard remains, throughout this trilogy (or, at least, his two films of it), the committed family man, whose every action comes back to that, with the larger community of Lake-town coming into his circle without his own conscious design. He gets sucked up into the titular battle and proves himself a hero, without ever falling into the hole of being an Aragorn rip-off.
The White Council plot line gets its resolution, with extended cameos for Christopher Lee’s Saruman, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast and Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel. I’ve seen a lot of bile thrown this plot-lines way, even though it forms an important part of the background developments in The Hobbit (the book that is). But it never really commanded that much of the trilogy’s running time when it comes right down to it, and used that time to provide an effective link between this series and The Lord Of The Rings. That continues here, with a trippy but surprisingly enjoyable magical fight sequence, where angry Galadriel gets to come out and play, in a way she never got to in The Fellowship Of The Ring.
Smaug has his part to play too of course. The attack on Lake-town was, in my eyes, unexpectedly short, taking up maybe 15 minutes of the opening. I had always imagined it much longer, and expected that doubly so after seeing the films running time. But instead, Jackson is direct and to the point (ha!) when it comes to the showdown between Bard and Smaug, and that works to an extent. I did hope we’d get to see a little bit more of Cumberbatch’s magnetic performance though, but you can’t have everything.
And then there is the actual battle itself, a running fight that takes in the majority of Tolkien’s bestiary and various different kinds of framing. It starts as a normal battle scene, moves into an urban combat setting, and then takes the form of a series of extended duels between key characters. It’s trying to be everything that it can be, and it does it well enough, leaving aside the superfluous stuff that Legolas represents. Azog, the decision to make him a recurring villain still as smart as it was two years ago, has his key role to play in everything, and that extended set-up allows the final battle between him and Thorin to have that extra bit of kick to it. There is salvation at points, and significant character death at others, and The Battle Of The Five Armies rides the waves of emotions to craft a satisfying action finale. I will acknowledge and point out that a certain amount of desensitisation to the violence and sword swinging will undoubtedly occur for some, and that parts of the titular battles pacing are a bit off – particularly a longish sequence looking at a conflicted Thorin inside the Lonely Mountain. But the actual battle of The Battle Of The Five Armies is a sprawling set-piece worthy of ending this trilogy, and brings to life the dramatic final pages of The Hobbit in a way that serves well both as an adaptation of the source material, and as a means for capping off some of Jackson’s own plot inventions.
And then there is the ending. I will still refrain from spoilers – there are those who have not read The Hobbit I suppose – but I felt that it was handled well. Bilbo and Thorin’s relationship gets a conclusion that fits very nicely for the story that was told in this last instalment, and Gandalf also gets a sweet moment to hog the spotlight one last time. If The Hobbit and this film trilogy is a story of Bilbo’s friendship with the company at large, well that also gets a scene or two of final looks, and Bilbo is put front and centre, as he should be. It wasn’t quite as good as the gut churning emotional impact of The Return Of The King’s “I will not say, do not weep…”, but it had something else. Jackson and company have been at pains to paint this as the final look at Middle-Earth – I suppose I must acknowledge that this might not prove the case, but let’s put that to the side – and as that, the final moments of The Battle Of The Five Armies might well prove affecting for those who have been so entranced by the journey that Peter Jackson has been taking us on for over a decade.
So, the story of The Battle Of The Five Armies has its good parts and its bad parts. Taken on its own merits, it might well seem clumsy and oddly paced, but seen as the concluding part of a continually running story, it has the right kind of pay-off and emotional resonance, the culmination of a journey begun with Smaug’s attack on Erebor in An Unexpected Journey, and finished in rousing style here.
Martin Freeman has been a great Bilbo Baggins, and his performance is at the same level as it was in the previous films. The theft of the Arkenstone is his key moment from the book, but in being allowed to have a bit more time with Thorin, Freeman is able to add some additional weight to that moment, a genuine moral quandary that leaves Bilbo with no good options. He is mostly an observer to what follows, but retains that innate hobbit cheerfulness, that innate Bilbo goodness, that has made this fantasy character one of the most iconic around. There are simple moments here, of quiet and thoughtfulness, which illustrate perfectly why Freeman was cast.
In many ways though, this is Thorin Oakenshield show, and Richard Armitage delivers the goods once more. We’ve been seeing the build-up to mad King Thorin for a two movies now, and here it is, a dwarf out of his mind on gold, and turning against everybody around him. Thorin’s descent into lunacy is well portrayed, first as a dark, insidious thing (how good was the decision to have Thorin start parroting Smaug?), then as outright displays of mental instability. We’ve seen Thorin the hero, now we have Thorin the villain, prepared to kill the ones closest to him just to get the Arkenstone. The road back from that point is a dangerous one, but Armitage is able to walk it with skill, bringing the audience along on his journey through dragon sickness.
Beyond those two, we’re into the supporting roles. Ian McKellan’s last ride as Gandalf begins in a Dol Guldur cage, but he doesn’t stay there long. He’s as full of authority and grumpiness as he ever was, and some of the saddest moments in The Battle Of The Five Armies are those where we realise we’re never going to see this again, this masterful performance by one of the acting worlds very best.
Evangeline Lilly is stuck with a very insipid plot that dominates her character, but she does try to make the most of it. She’s better than Bloom anyway, whose stoic faced and unemotional Legolas is rather par for the course at this stage. Luke Evans doesn’t have quite the same focus on him as he did in the last film, but still remains effective as Bard. Lee Pace is stuck with a half-done sub-plot with Thranduil, though he manages to give a more commanding performance than the guy playing his son. Aidan Turner remains the stand-out of the “other” dwarves, getting the (sigh) romantic angle here, as well as a brief verbal showdown with Thorin. Manu Bennet’s Azog is still mostly CGI, but at least the guy has the voice to make him as imposing as possible. Ryan Gage’s Alfrid is way too involved in the film, and his snivelling coward act is well worn before even the half way point.
From there you’re on to the cameos really. Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Sylvester McCoy and Christopher Lee form an unlikely ensemble for the White Council, and play their parts with gusto despite their limited time. Graham McTavish and Ken Stott get the most to do of the remaining dwarves, and do it fine. John Tui is alright as Bolg. Billy Connolly memorably pops up as Dain Ironfoot, with all of the expected sass. Stephen Fry briefly appears in the opening as the Master of Lake-town, and one wonders why he wasn’t more involved. And there is Benedict Cumberbacth, still as awesome as he was last year in the role of Samaug, and doing OK as the voice of Sauron too.
Visually, it’s typical Jacksonian fare, that we are all familiar with at this point. Soaring views of fantasy vistas abound, as Jackson makes sure that the countryside and mountains form just as crucial a part of the story as any of the wonderfully made sets, be they the ruins of Esgaroth, the gloomy halls of Erebor or the frozen plateau on Ravenhill. The costuming, make-up and general production departments are all back with their world class level work too, from rags to armour, the lowliest hobbit to the biggest orc.
But you didn’t come here to read me telling you Peter Jackson is a good director. The CGI work of this trilogy has come in for some debate (I gave An Unexpected Journey my 2012 best and worst CGI moment awards), but I do think that things have improved here. The evolution of the “Massive” engine is better suited to the large scale battles being shown, and the extra time has allowed the WETA guys to do a slightly better job with the computer generated orcs in more individual moments. Smaug’s attack on Lake-town is a fire blasted treat (remember, WETA revolutionised CGI flames for the Balrog, and that shows here) and the full extent of Tolkien bestiary is brought to life in a stunning way: various shades of troll, goblins, giant bats, giant eagles, transforming bears, hogs dwarves ride around and one creature, from a throwaway Tolkien reference, whose appearance I won’t spoil, all crafted wonderfully. There are still some problems though: the more zoomed out shots of individuals, like moments where certain characters are scrambling up a mountain, have trouble with looking as real as they could, and certain parts of the titular battle before the gates of Erebor don’t quite hold-up.
On that battle, the chorography, for real or CGI moments, is decent stuff, all of the sword slinging, shield blocking, dagger whipping and arrow flinging you could ask for, with plenty of variety to affairs. But even with that, the extreme length of the sequence means repetition is inevitable, and with that repetition comes a certain detachment in the viewer. People are right when they say that seeing the cast cut down “real” orcs in The Lord Of The Rings was more affecting than if they were cutting down purely CGI creations. That is not to admonish the work of WETA – God knows the effort in making this stuff is gargantuan, and frequently underappreciated in those terms – but that sort of “video game” feel to some parts of proceedings is there. At least the frame rate issue that was evident in parts of An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation Of Smaug, is not as obvious as it once was, save for a tiny few moments.
The script, from that Tolkien wonder team of Jackson, Boyens and Walsh, keeps up the good work, retaining certain elements of the source material where appropriate, and inventing others as they see fit. So, Smaug gets a brief conversation with Bard in Lake-town, Thorin and Bilbo have a few heart to hearts in Erebor and final encounters get a bit more of a verbal zing to them. Balanced with that of course is the stuff like the love plot (the “I love you” in dwarvish moment was somewhat clever, but couldn’t help overall) or the lines for Alfrid, which are played out very quickly.
But still, the distinctive voices are there: Bilbo’s heartfelt desire to one day go home, sit back and remember, Thorin’s insane rantings on how to save his gold and nothing else, Bard’s genuine pleading for the plight of his people before Erebor or Gandalf’s words of wisdom to Bilbo, as the journey nears an end. Scriptwork has never been these films’ problem.
Howard Shore is also back one more time. In keeping with the overall theme, the motifs for The Battle Of The Five Armies are more militaristic in make-up, already classic themes like the Lake-men’s simple horns, Thranduil’s ethereal strings or the more booming dwarven theme getting overlaid with marching drums and battle tunes, and that all helps to make the atmosphere right for the titular battle. The tighter violins have been overlaying scenes of madness since The Two Towers, and they’re back with an effective bang for most of Thorin’s arc. “Beyond The Forest” makes a welcome return to at least give the love-plot some decent music, while Billy Boyd’s “The Last Goodbye”, which channels “Into The West” a bit too much really, provides a nice outro to the series, an emotional farewell both to the saga and the audience. I think, regardless of any debate over all of these films and their quality, independently or relative to each other, one of the only things that is largely beyond reproach is the work of Howard Shore.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-The character deaths remain true to the book and are carried out well. Jackson has his own imagination to work with entirely here (seriously, how weird is it that Tolkien decided to skip most of the battle?) and the result is a satisfying show-down between Thorin and Azog, where both kill the other, with some nifty work done on the ice-capped battlefield. Fili and Kili buy it too, and enough work has gone into them to make it mean something. To make it real, as Thranduil says.
-Those final duels do go on for a long time though, between Thorin, Kili, Tauriel, Legolas, Azog and Bolg. Legolas and Bolg in particular, was a showdown that I wasn’t that engaged with at all, maybe because of the certainty that Legolas was going to survive. That’s part of the pacing problem with the battle, in so far as the gigantic clash of armies is interrupted by these one on one duels a bit too much.
-The Lake-town attack is great, Smaug is great, Bard is great. Bard and his son having an unlikely team-up to finally bring down the dragon was wonderful, as was the crashing image of the dead dragon hurling himself into the destroyed town.
-So yeah, were-worms. For anyone who doesn’t remember, Bilbo mentions them very briefly in the first chapter of The Hobbit: “Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert.” Throwing them in here was just for spectacle, the worms having no larger purpose to the plot, but at least they looked cool.
-What was with some of those trolls though? Jackson went all out with the sizes and variations, and that one with the maces for limbs was straight out of 300. Gotta love the battering ram version though. Pure fantasy, in the best way.
-The love plot could only end one way of course, it was just a question of whether Tauriel would follow Kili into the afterlife. She doesn’t, and the attempts to make the whole affair more meaningful fell flat to me. Not even Thranduil’s pontifications on the nature of love could do it I’m afraid.
-Thranduil himself ends his part in this story in a weird way. He was the isolationist monarch who doesn’t want to help anyone else, so the expected thing would be for that to change. And it sort of does, and sort of doesn’t. Looking at the dead elves, he is ready to up and abandon the battle (and the gems, which were apparently not that important in the end) but apparently gets guilted into staying by Tauriel? Maybe? And then a brief heart to heart with Legolas which was somewhat stilted, a recognition of the Tauriel/Kili bond and that’s it. It was all kinds of off, and I heavily suspect there is a wealth of cut material for Thranduil.
-Connected to that are the mentions of Legolas’ mother, which also feel like they were part of a larger plot line that got cut down to size. She died in Angmar Legolas tells Tauriel, and Thranduil’s last words to his son, as he sends him off to find “Strider” are “Your mother loved you Legolas”. OK? There’s something missing here, maybe some resentment between father and son over this woman, that didn’t make it into the final film.
-Gotta love that moment that Bilbo and Gandalf share, where Gandalf just cleans his pipe. It was like a scene expressly designed for Ian McKellan to just relax and be Gandalf in a happier time, before we say goodbye to him forever. That, and it tied into a similar scene in The Fellowship Of The Ring. “Gandalf my old friend, this is going to be a night to remember”.
-I had wondered about the ending point, after the critique of The Return Of The King and how Jackson had trouble letting go and saying goodbye. No such problems here, for good and bad. The battle ends and Bilbo swiftly departs, with only the shortest goodbye to the dwarven friends, before one last darkly tinted conversation with Gandalf, concerning magic rings (which Bilbo, creepily, insists that he lost during the battle for no reason). The transition to Ian Holm’s Bilbo, still attached to that Ring, was the final tie in to the first trilogy, but then The Hobbit wisely ended on a happier moment.
-That last shot of The Hobbit’s famous map was a good choice. Samwise Gamgee closed a door on the adventure in The Return Of The King, here we are reminded that this tale was just one part of a much larger universe.
So, to conclusions, very much in the vein of how Jackson would like me to view this film. As I was leaving the theatre, thoughtful on what I had seen, and reflecting on the overall power of this Middle-Earth saga, I saw a young boy alongside, presumably, his father. He was jumping and swinging an imaginary sword, proclaiming happily “I’m Bilbo!”. I think, far more than any hyper-criticism or snark aimed at this film and those that came before it by the “I guess I’ll see it anyway” crowd and their unpleasant ilk, or the bile-filled haranguing by the purists and their precious canon (Oh, I bet she’s still weeping), such images are what will stay with me. The ability of these films to touch the imagination of an audience, in the same way that Tolkien’s story was able to touch the imagination of the reader, in a way other fantasy and other media are unable to. Young and old, we are still able to be carried into this amazing world, be it on the page or on the screen, if we will just let it carry us. And, in the words of Gandalf, “that is an encouraging thought”.
There and back again, and so we have come. The Battle Of The Five Armies has its problems, some the fault of the source material, others the fault of this production team. But the story is still strong, the cast is still immense, the universe is still enthralling, the visuals have improved, the script is strong and the music is wonderful. This is fantasy at its visual height, the final chapter in a trilogy that I fervently hope will receive a kinder reception, from the hardcore and others, in years to come. Because I think it deserves it. This is one of the year’s best films, and I say that without reservation, even if it goes against the grain. I still find myself loving these movies and everything that they have to offer. Rose tinted, maybe, but that’s just how I see it. Now, we have a Middle-Earth saga, six great films, to treasure and look back on. For that, Peter Jackson and his team deserve a great deal of credit and applause. Fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).