I more or less knew what to expect when I decided to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies at the cinema over the weekend. Not much plot and loads and loads of battle action. Both predictions turned out to be accurate, though I must admit there was a little bit more plot than I anticipated and, amazingly, probably even more battle action than I was prepared for.
The whole film is essentially a massive, extended climax. At a relatively short 144 minutes, and with much of the running time dedicated to battle, it feels much swifter than An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. As such, it might be better to regard the film as pure popcorn entertainment and fantasy nerd eye candy as opposed to the resounding final piece of the Middle Earth puzzle. As a standalone movie, Five Armies comes across as fairly soulless in comparison to the other entries. But as a 144-minute climax to a 447-minute film — or if you include LOTR, a middle-climax to a 1005-minute film (a couple of hours longer than that if you add director’s cut versions) — it actually kinda makes sense. I suppose it all depends on your perspective.
By now you should be well aware that Five Armies deviates substantially from its source material. Of course it had to, considering there weren’t many pages left in The Hobbit by the time The Desolation of Smaug finished. This might irk Tolkien loyalists, but for me it didn’t matter. It helps that I don’t remember much of the book, which I was never that fond of since I first read it as a pre-teen, and then again at university.
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t remember much from the first two films either, because Five Armies is all about the spectacle. Say what you want about the rest of the movie, but there’s no denying that Five Armies is one of the most impressive visual feasts you will ever see. While it is dominated by special effects, I never got the sense that the film was overwhelmed by CGI. The war sequences were also spectacular and rarely felt repetitive, with long group battles involving all types of creatures and lengthy one-on-one duels. That said, the “wow” factor is no longer there. It’s undeniably good, but my mind was not blown like it was when I first watched the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.
The drama offered by the film obviously pales in comparison to the action, but you can still tell that Peter Jackson really tried. The humans (led by Bard the Bowman — Luke Evans) head to the Mountain for refuge after their Laketown village is ravaged by Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), while the dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) are holed up in Mountain with their gold, refusing to share. The elves (led by Thranduil — Lee Pace) want their share of the treasure in the Mountain, and the Orcs (CGI) are looking to kill everyone and claim the Mountain for themselves (I think that’s about five armies, no?). Throw in the love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner) for some romance, a bit of comedic relief in the form of a cowardly, greedy politician’s aide (Alfrid — Ryan Gage), old regulars like Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and don’t forget the the stoic protagonist, Biblo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and you can see how there’s more than enough characters and subplots to go around. The emotional resonance may be lacking if you compare it to LOTR, but at least Jackson gave it a shot.
Martin Freeman, whom I will never see in the same light again after watching him in the Fargo TV series, feels more like a supporting character here. He does what he can in his allocated slot of screen time, though I never got the feeling that the story was truly about him. But then again, the hobbits have always felt more like observers of the action than participants. Also, Richard Armitage might be no Viggo Mortensen and Thorin Oakenshield might be no Aragon, but Armitage still makes Thorin an awesome, memorable character who offers something different to what Aragon did for LOTR.
There will be a lot of people who hate this movie, or at least deeply disappointed by it. Lovers of the book might not like the liberties Jackson took with Tolkien’s story, or how he expanded just a few pages of text into a 2.5 hour movie. But if you accept all that and watch the movie for what it set out to be — and that’s an exciting fantasy epic filled with extensive and well-executed battle sequences — then it might turn out to be pretty thrilling. There’s dragons (well, dragon), elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, goblins, hobbits and giant eagles and bats, and they’re all killing each other. If fantasy adventure is what you want, then what more can you ask for?
I remember a time when each new installment of LOTR felt like Christmas (though that might have been because it was always released at Christmas). Hands down, it would always be my most anticipated movie of the year. With The Hobbit, on the other hand, watching each new entry felt more like an obligation. You’ve seen all of them, so you might as well keep going.
That said, it’s still hard to believe that it’s finally over. After 14 years — nearly half a lifetime for me — JRR Tolkien/Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth franchise has drawn to a close. If you consider the film part as of a six-entry series, then fair enough, it’s probably a disappointment. On the other hand, if you think of LOTR and The Hobbit as two separate trilogies, then you might find it as enjoyable as I did, for Five Armies is clearly the best of the three films (though not on the same level as any of the LOTR flicks). Either way, it’s both sad and a relief to see this magnificent world come to an end. Unlike Star Wars, there’s no more cash to milk from this cow, and that’s a good thing.
4 stars out of 5