The Desolation of Smaug addressed so much that was wrong with Peter Jackson’s second foray into Middle-Earth, after the light-hearted tonal shift of An Unexpected Journey. It was a more focused beast, with Martin Freeman’s wonderful interpretation of Bilbo placed front and centre into the action. He was a character in genuine peril, rather than one who’d previously been lost amongst any number of indistinguishable personalities thrown around in a visually impressive, but completely weightless CGI fairground ride.
It was also shrouded in a more sombre tone, with a sense of impending doom which had served the original LOTR trilogy so well, and had an identifiable evil presence in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular dragon. The cliff-hanger had promised so much, and with a name like The Battle of the Five Armies suggesting a Helms Deep rivalling showdown, expectations were as high as Mount Doom.
Previously on The Hobbit … Laketown was about to be decimated by Smaug, Bilbo (Freeman) and the Dwarves were perched atop the Misty Mountain, at the gates to the Dwarf Kingdom of Eribor, dealing with the ramifications of what they’ve done, all that is apart from Thorin Oakenshield, who’s consumed by greed for the gold beneath the mountain and the power it promises.
When the dust settles, a number of factions gather outside the gates to lay a claim to the fortune. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) wants compensating so that the Laketown survivors can rebuild their homes; Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his Elf army desire what they believe to be rightfully theirs; whilst all the while an Orc army march towards the battlefield, intent on gaining tactical ground during these embryonic stages of the Rings war. Seconds out, round three.
The most truncated of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, clocking in at a relatively brief 144 minutes, it’s also the slightest in terms of franchise achievement. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t retain the unique ability to tap into our imaginations with his own. There are moments here which can stand up to the arrow tracheotomy of the troll from Fellowship, such as the dying of Smaug’s light, an all too brief moment shared between Gandalf and Galadriel, and a post-battle lighting of some Halfling leaf that accentuates why Ian McKellen has been so perfect for this role.
It’s quite significant that it’s the smaller moments which resonate most, because Armies takes so long to make any kind of indelible impression in terms of spectacle. The resolution to Smaug’s attack feels so inconsequential and rushed that it undermines the brilliance of the ending to Desolation. It’s as if the film-makers have decided that the dragon has served his purpose in providing a crescendo to the action of part 2 that they can’t wait to propel the story towards the battle.
As for said showdown, it’s more like having a group of greedy guts squabble outside a cheap jewellery store for the latest budget range necklace: it’s completely weightless in execution and not a patch on the series’ other battles.
This might be because the film lacks an enemy with which to provide the threat and narrative drive; Sauron/The Necromancer is dispatched towards Mordor early on, leaving the returning Azog, his army of CGI splurge, and the tedious madness of King Thorin as the movie’s danger, and they’re simply not effective enough.
Battle of the Five Armies begins to feel more attuned to Jackson’s Tolkien world when the threads start to knit with the original trilogy, and as such the final 40 minutes is spectacular fan serving stuff. This is where the emotional beats kick in, with the script throwing in a few surprising twists, some great nods to characters we’ll come to love in LOTR, and some memorable standalone moments.
For a series of films that has been as up and down as the mountainous terrain often seen travelled, there has been one constant throughout: Martin Freeman. His performance has been the beating heart, so whenever he’s sidetracked, something the LOTR films rarely did to Frodo/Sam, it loses your investment, instead hoping you’ll be satisfied by the spectacle or goings-on of the peripheral characters.
A sometimes rousing finale to an epic series of films, Battle of the Five Armies might not get the “There” right, in terms of the meat of the movie, but it succeeds with the “And Back Again” aspect, finishing with an emotionally satisfying flourish.
‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes
Release date: Dec. 12 (UK), Dec. 17 (USA)
3 stars out of 5
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