Four books, sixteen hours of film and a cast of hundreds and it all comes down to this. The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies is the final time Peter Jackson and crew will be heading into the worlds of JRR Tolkien as it rounds out the trilogy of films based on the children’s book The Hobbit. Nobody can say that this prequel trilogy has been as popular as The Lord of the Rings, which changed the Hollywood landscape during its original release, and The Battle of Five Armies continues the tradition of missteps and pacing that have blighted this second series of films.
‘Master thief’ Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is holed up in the Kinggdom beneath the mountain with dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his crew. While they search for the Arkenstone, the great dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks Laketown. Desperate for somewhere to take refuge the men flee towards the mountain, while an army of Elves lead by Thranduil (Lee Pace) arrive to reclaim long-lost Elven artifacts from the mountain too, before a dwarven army arrives to protect their kin. As the armies begin to square off, two armies of orcs and wargs appear and so begins the legendary battle of five armies.
Trying to find a suitable synopsis for a Peter Jackson Middle Earth story has always been hard, in the case of The Battle of Five Armies it’s almost an impossbility. There are so many threads of small personal stories that you’re never entirely sure where your loyalties as a viewer are meant to be. There’s Bilbo, who Freeman handles with his trademark underplay and charm, but he disappears for large portions of the narrative, as does Bard and Gandalf. So the obvious answer is Thorin, but with the apparent necessity to have characters like Orlando Bloom’s Legolas appear, the main thrust of the story is confusing and awkward.
While on the subject of Legolas, while his theatrics in The Lord of the Rings were fun if a little overblown, his now presented as something of a Superman clone, complete with the ability to basically fly. Why Jackson included him at all is beyond me, but it doesn’t work and his perfomance actively damages the legacy of the original films. I use Legolas to make the broader point of the real problem that has blighted The Hobbit films since the start. They’re too bloated.
In his deperation to asdmirable squeeze in as much footage and lore from Tolkien’s world, Jackson has lost sight of the core principles of story-telling. The films lack focus, and in including extra material to try and make the story more dark and akin to The Lord of the Rings, he has sacrificed the charm and wonder of the story. Had they split the films in two we may have been treated to two excellent films, but by extending it to three he has killed its own momentum. Take the way he dealt with Smaug, the beautifully CGI’d dragon who was the focus of all of the tension in the second film. He is dispatched before we even get the title screen of this film. This is presumably to allow more time to focus on created relationships like that of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner), which feels shoe-horned and superfluous.
While there is no problem with including a stronger female character (something that Tolkien failed at entirely), not giving them proper character development is a real crime, and we end up spending too much time, but with too little to say about her. This is the case with all the characters, as our loyalties are stretched and pulled in a number of directions to the point that we don’t really know any of the characters outside those established in earlier films. The result is that when the dramatic scenes like death and love happen, there is no engagement or understanding of why we should care beyond ‘this person is dead, and that is sad.’
Peter Jackson is often forgiven these indiscretions because of the critical impact of The Lord of the Rings, but be honest; if Michael Bay had directed this film he would have been taken to task for his lack of character, his focus on action and his bloated running time. Fortunately for Jackson his ability to construct an action scene trumps anything Bay has ever done and elevates The Battle of Five Armies from being a complete bust.
The opening scenes with Smaug are stunning if short and the resulting clashes of the armies along with the fight in Dol Goldur with Gandalf, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) are so incredibly conceived as to provide a giddy sense of wonder and excitement. It is this feeling that Jackson is able to keep going throughout the whole film. This is his great skill as a director, and the one truly special thing to take from the whole Hobbit trilogy.