– Summary –
Director : Peter Jackson
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lily, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Graham McTavish, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy, Manu Bennett, John Tui, Lawrence Makoare, Billy Connolly, Mikael Persbrandt, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, John Bett, Brett McKenzie.
Approx Running Time : 144 Minutes
Synopsis: Having reclaimed Erebor and a vast treasure from the dragon Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield sacrifices friendship and honor in his search for the Arkenstone, despite Smaug’s fiery wrath and Bilbo’s desperate attempts to make him see reason. Meanwhile, Sauron sends forth legions of Orcs in a sneak attack upon the Lonely Mountain. As the ultimate fate of Middle Earth hangs in the balance, the races of Men, Elves and Dwarves must decide whether to unite or die.
What we think : The epic conclusion to Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy delivers rousing spectacle, insufficient character development and stunning visual effects, capping off the Middle Earth saga in fine style. Although beset with a number of problems drawn out of a shorter running time, such as uneven character development for Thorin, and an utter waste of the other dwarves which, to date, have been fairly central to the story, The Battle Of The Five Armies (ugh, what a mouthful of “the’s”) is a thoroughly entertaining blockbuster that will have you laughing, clapping and cheering for more.
The Battle Over A Third Film
The discussion on whether Peter Jackson’s three film adaption of Tolkien’s Hobbit story can now cease. At least, they can wither to a faint mumble, instead of the cacophony of loud head-banging; The Battle Of The Five Armies, the third and final installment in this sprawling, often bloated cinematic Hobbit enterprise is a gleeful reminder of just how well Jackson handles the epic battles and widescreen glee of Middle Earth’s grand adventures. While the problems of the preceding two films follow Jackson into this one, at a mere 144 minutes, not only is it the shortest of all the Middle Earth films, it’s also the most restrained and emotion-packed. And, unlike Return Of The King’s never-ending downbeat conclusion sequences, Battle ends on a sweet note – it leads directly into Fellowship Of The Ring. Packed with action, Battle Of The Five Armies feels less like an epic throwdown and more like a computer game controlled by a ten year old. Did I enjoy it? Sure, I liked the last two films just fine, so this was always a given for me, but does Jackson finally pay off the decision to break this wafer-thin story into three gigantic movies?
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) have unleashed Smaug The Dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) upon the innocent denizens of Laketown, after taking back the mountain kingdom of Erebor. After Smaug incinerates Laketown, and is eventually smote by Bard (Luke Evans), the populace take to the once-destroyed ruins of the city of Dale, in order to have their share of Erebor’s vast treasure given to them by Thorin. However, Thorin’s lust for gold, and possession of the missing Arkenstone, leads him to turn his back on everyone, including his friends. Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), arrives at Erebor to reclaim his own stolen treasure, but Thorin’s bullish attitude soon brings them into conflict. Meanwhile, the forces of the dark lord Sauron, holed up in a distant fortress, advance on Erebor to claim the mountain as a strategic stronghold of their own, led by Azog (Manu Bennett) and his offspring Bolg (John Tui). Eventually, both Elves, Men, and the Orcs and Goblins of Sauron converge on Erebor, to take on the Dwarves for control over the mountain. Bilbo, caught in the middle, and Gandalf (Ian McKellan), try to make all parties see reason, but their exhortations fall on deaf ears.
Is it just me, or does it seem that as this film series has gone on, the title character – Bilbo, for those coming in late – has become less and less a central player in his own story? Bilbo Baggins is the primary character here: the films are essentially enormous flashback memories of the “old” Bilbo (a minor cameo late in the film for Ian Holm); you’d expect the majority of the films to be told from, or seen from, his perspective. Yet a large bulk of Battle Of The Five Armies is about everyone other than Bilbo. Thorin, in particular, comes in for the most auspicious screen-time, as he sulks about below Erebor’s front door, whittling his friends away with scorn and unreasonable distrust, while Luke Evans’ Bard has a wildly uneven plot arc that feels like a lot has been left on the editing bay floor (or, I guess, in the computers’ Recycle Bin, meh). In terms of character tone, Bilbo’s minor role status in his own film is telling, as Jackson and his digital artisans rip Middle Earth a new classic battle of Orcs, Goblins, Elves and so forth.
The final two-thirds of Battle is essentially the battle. I guess that’s what you pay to see with a title such as it is. Still, Jackson’s brevity in setting everyone up, getting all the pieces into play, and paying off the vast cast roster’s expectation of resolution, feels… well, rushed. Yeah, I know, it’s been two films of set-up to get to this moment, but it still feels like something’s missing. Thorin’s “Dragon sickness” arc, as he mulls about going slowly mad, doesn’t feel as organic as it ought, even though the parallel between the Erebor treasure and the Arkenstone, and the Bilbo/Frodo One Ring arc in Rings, is obvious to all. The One Ring makes its presence felt here too, make no mistake – and Gandalf himself makes a point of mentioning his awareness of it late in the film – but the early work here is Richard Armitage’s to bring to life in a way that seems fresh. Generally, Thorin’s greed and distrust feels generic, almost parody, in the way Jackson makes the voices in his head echo around the cinema, and his inevitable awakening from this idiotic mentality is clumsily handled, but in order to pay off the relationship with Bilbo, which is the strongest element of the movie by far, Thorin’s descent into madness is not only needed, but warranted.
Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is once more the patron saint of Good Decisions. While he never has to undergo the same physical and mental anguish undertaken by Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom, his relationship with Thorin – which hasn’t been as well developed through the preceding two films, I’ll be honest – crystallizes here in a most dynamic and moving way. This is largely thanks to Bilbo’s refusal to take Thorin’s crap, or Gandalf’s either, which is fun to watch. I love Freeman as Bilbo, he seems to give the character a degree more intestinal fortitude than Elijah Wood could give Frodo. Bilbo’s affirmative-action hobbit is a more accessible character than Frodo’s mostly passive handling of his journey. Trouble is, for a large portion of the film’s second half, Bilbo’s effectively unconscious – literally, because Tolkien wrote the battle to have happened while Bilbo really was knocked out. I guess he didn’t want to have a sixty page battle in a children’s book. Jackson, meanwhile, takes the term “armies collide” and turns it into a melee of such epic scope, it soon has most of the major characters reduced to bit payers throughout this entire thing.
Jackson’s inclusion of the wholly original Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), and Rings’ return package Legolas (Orlando Bloom), as participants in this event is a matter of fan conjecture, and no doubt there’ll always be those who hate what the director has done here. Personally, I think the addition of Tauriel in particular, and her relationship with the Dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner), is a nice little touch, bringing some humanity (ha!) to a film that bulges with fantastical horror on all sides. Jackson’s also not afraid to actually kill off some of his major characters (something he wasn’t able to really do with the Rings trilogy, where it seems nobody other than the Bad Guys perished) to generate some emotional weight, and while some might scoff at this addition as unnecessary, I think it works even in spite of its redundancy. Fans of the book will find the author’s intent with Thorin and Bilbo’s character arcs is retained, but the additional story points work to lay foundations of why the battle is so important to all involved. Tauriel and Legolas’ relationship isn’t really that clear, but Legolas’ fractured feelings towards the belligerent Thranduil provide some Elvish grist amidst their perfection.
The titular battle itself is grandiose, epic and enthralling, filled with moments of childish glee as Jackson allows his camera to swing past multiple storylines and give a number of characters a chance to shine in battle. A lot like the Pellennor Fields battle in Return of The King, most of the major players have a “moment”, although I will say it was disappointing to see the twelve dwarves we’ve spent the last two films with reduced to spectators for large portions of the movie. Bofur, who gave plenty of laughs in Desolation, barely has a line, while Bombur is seen in only a single close up before being reduced to wide shots and group shots everywhere else. Instead, the focus shifts for Legolas and Tauriel, Kili and Fili (Dean O’Gorman), Bard and the inexplicably haughty Thranduil, as the battle rages across the landscape of the Lonely Mountain’s shadow. Jackson handles the combat sequences with stunning perfection, as wave after wave of disposable orc and goblin are mown down by the forces of the silky Elves, the brutish Dwarves, and the flailing Men. Giant earth worms, a lot like the sandworms from Frank Herbert’s Dune franchise, arrive and vanish as quickly as possible, while once more those fricking Eagles show up to save the day towards the end. Seriously, if only those damn eagles would get into the battles at the start, I swear the overall body count would be lower.
Peter Jackson’s skill is cutting between the rapid-fire action and the slow, character moments, as the horror and scope of the battle begins to dawn on those involved. With Bilbo’s ring-wearing harkening to the Rings trilogy involved, and Legolas somehow defying gravity (one scene in particular drew giggles of derision and “really?” from the audience we saw this with – you’ll know it when you see it), together with the dwarvish filibustering and battle-hardened skills wreaking havoc on the advancing orcs and troops of Sauron, Battle Of The Five Armies is indeed a protracted war film that has a number of fist-pump moments to contend with. The inclusion of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), as well as a kick-ass Elrond (Hugo Weaving) against an incorporeal Sauron, is a nice little moment of “hell yeah!” that, in the cold light of day, feels unnecessary. The primary antagonists, Azog and Bolg (who have a fair amount of backstory added to their roles with this movie) deliver solid villains against whom to throw popcorn at the screen. Stephen Fry’s short-lived Master of Laketown (he doesn’t make it past a defeated Smaug) gives way to the rise of Ryan Gage as Alfrid, a cowardly snake who constantly threatens to undermine the mission of Bard to get his people to safety. Gage is slimy and horrible in the best possible way, but Jackson never pays off his arc in a satisfying manner (perhaps the extended edition will see him squished by a troll?) and his interplay with Bard is ultimately meaningless. Alfrid makes for a terrific asshole, but nothing eventuates from his inclusion in the film.
In many ways, Battle’s reduced running time compared to previous entries works against the story, or rather, the characters. In the previous films, characters had room to breathe and develop as interesting, rounded creations. Here, more often than not, the prevailing winds of dramatic expediency over bloated expansiveness leave Battle feeling a little rushed, almost as if Jackson just couldn’t wait to get to the end credits and stop this train. While I understand he was perhaps trying to coddle the complaining hordes who felt the previous two films were excessively long and filled with bloat, the third film is where the payoff happens, and I’d have preferred this one to be longer and more emotionally weighty than what it ended up being. The fact that Smaug, the main villain in Desolation, is treated almost with contempt by Jackson as he’s rid of within the opening sequence of Battle, makes me think Jackson had kowtowed somewhat to the pressures of the franchise’s thin story and decided to simply get to the end at the expense of maintaining his emotional flow with the characters.
At a tad over two hours, Battle is the most refined of all Middle Earth films (even The Two Towers theatrical edition could have been pared back a little, IMO) and it never outstays its welcome. While fans will debate even that as a foible of Jackson’s franchise hubris, I found the film to an action-packed, razor sharp entry into the trilogy, and yes, a worthwhile conclusion to the story begun so long ago with An Unexpected Journey. I assume a lot of my issues with the film will be fleshed out in the Extended Edition (the treatment of Beorn here, with a single frame of facial close-up, is wretched fan-service on Jackson’s part) and I would say that if you didn’t like the first two films there’s almost no way you’ll enjoy this one, but on the whole I think the Hobbit saga has been a success. Problematic character arc and insufficient moral and ethical motivations aside, The Battle Of The Five Armies is a worthy conclusion to the Hobbit trilogy, a terrific link to the Rings trilogy, and an entertaining film in its own right.
© 2015, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.