Darker and denser – and also a bit shorter – than previous entries in The Hobbit series, Peter Jackson’s The Battle of Five Armies lives up to its title with a epic extended battle sequence that goes on for nearly an hour and rivals anything seen in his Lord of the Rings films.
But while this third Hobbit film may be a fitting finale for the series – and will likely fare better with audiences that took issue with the leisurely pace of the previous films – it’s also the part of the trilogy that suffers most from being chopped into three parts. All payoff with no setup, that battle royale finale can be frequently exhilarating – but just as frequently wearying.
Five Armies picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, to little effect. That film had built up an awe-inspiring climax featuring some scene-stealing voice work by Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon Smaug, but chose to leave audiences on a cliffhanger as the dragon flies into Laketown to wreak havoc.
Flash-forward a year, and that cliffhanger is resolved in a five-minute cold-open here before the title makes its way to the screen: while we’re still gathering our bearings – re-introducing ourselves to these characters and their situation – what should have been one of the trilogy’s most memorable moments is instead a chaotic mess. While the sequence will play much better for die-hard fans watching these films back-to-back, for the rest of us it’s a prime example of how splitting these films into thirds has hurt the overall structure.
After Laketown is set ablaze, however, there’s actually some time to get grounded. Luke Evans has a chance to shine here as Bard the Bowman, who takes control of the human survivors of Laketown – which includes Alfrid (played by Ryan Gage), a comic relief character invented for the film adaptation who gets way too much screen time here, clashing with the movie’s darker moments.
With the monstrous Smaug out of the picture, the humans seek refuge at the mountain castle of Erebor – or at least payment promised by the dwarves for aiding them in their quest (and y’know, retribution for unleashing the dragon that burned their town to cinders).
No dice, says Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the Dwarf King who is now going power-mad, barricading himself and his crew – including a bewildered Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) – in Erebor. Thorin has the greatest character arc in the film – though that isn’t saying much – and Armitage makes the most of his screen time with a commanding presence; his ice floe battle with villainous Orc Azog is the film’s highlight, and one of the most memorable sequences in the trilogy.
Learning of the fate of Erebor, an Elven army led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) marches in to demand some of the now-available riches, and forms an alliance with the army of Laketown men; Thorin’s cousin Dain (a CGI creation voiced by Billy Connolly) leads an army of dwarves to help protect Erebor; and Gandolf (Ian McKellan) warns of an approaching Orc army – which will require an alliance to defeat. The titular fifth army shows up late to solve everything (just as they did in Return of the King), and gets the shaft with all of 30 seconds of screen time.
And the stage is set for an epic battle that pays off nicely when you consider the trilogy as a whole, but feels like complete overkill in terms of a single film: nearly half of this Hobbit flick is war-movie action. And it’s not particularly strategic action, as seen in the Lord of the Rings movies, but quick glimpses of chaos followed by extended one-on-one battles, which fails to create a sense of scale or story progression.
Other detriments: the elf-dwarf love triangle, which includes a character, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), invented for the movie, and far too much focus on Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who has one ridiculous action sequence (you’ll know it); and the resolution of the Dol Guldur subplot, which features Gandalf, Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Radegast (Sylvester McCoy) anticlimactically “fighting” Sauron and his Necromancers.
Still, The Battle of the Five Armies represents not only writer-director Peter Jackson’s final film in his Hobbit trilogy, but also his final foray into the J.R.R. Tolkien world. And it’s a fitting conclusion, complete with new material designed to bridge this film into the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I thought An Unexpected Journey perfectly captured the feel of Tolkien’s original material, and the subsequent movies have moved further and further away from that. But it’s the terrific Martin Freeman as Bilbo, the titular Hobbit, who is able to rein things in when they start to get out of hand. While he has less screen time this time around – his character’s arc was handled best during the first film – he’s still at the heart of the movie, and his climactic journey back to the shire is the note-perfect resolution for this franchise.