Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Connolly, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, James Nesbitt
So it all ends here as Jackson’s massive effort of world building over six films and two decades comes to a conclusion. No director has spent so much time and career over a quartet of books, the impact of which, both good and bad, cannot be underestimated. On the downside every moderately successful piece of young adult fiction now demands to be separated into parts, which has more the ker-ching of Hollywood money men than any real need to let the work breath. What these films have done is take the ginger stepson of science fiction that is fantasy literature and made it viable as both serious Oscar winning fare and commercially successful to boot, something which the likes of Hawk the Slayer singularly failed to do in either area. In short, if these films didn’t exist then there would be no Game of Thrones.
Running at a comparatively spry 140 minutes, Jackson has taken what amounts to an epilogue and bolted it on to the end of the real action involving Smaug and gold, giving it both the heft of Lord of the Rings and deepening the hitherto anaemic characterisation of this band of dwarves. This is in essence a two hour climax with some comedy business and strained attempts to marry the grave tone of the Rings trilogy with scenes created for the film to give connectivity where there is none.
It works but it does feel a bit arbitrary. It starts with the resolution of the battle with Smaug, but in a way that suggests you have pressed the pause button a year ago to make a cup of tea. It would have given a more satisfying end to the second film if it had concluded the dragon business and allowed a little more room to breath and establish the identity of The Five Armies in a way that does not feel like an extended box set binge.
Dwarves 1 Dragon 0, and the old adage of careful what you wish for leaps readily to mind as serious minded and frankly dour dwarf Thorin (Armitage) succumbs to gold sickness and corruption - heavy is the head that wears the crown. This in turn leads to the people of Lake Town demanding their share of the treasure along with Elves and Orcs (who three films in and I’m still not sure what they want or why they keep following Bilbo & Co). Cue set up, stand off, then one almighty ruck, which lasts the duration of the movie.
By now this film is critic proof; if you have been with it previously there is no way you are going to duck out for the final chapter. Cinematically, some of this is breathtaking. Jackson is one of the great choreographers of action scene set pieces, both comically inventive and twisted into almost absurdly convoluted situations. He has taken the fight to ground level for his final battle, giving a level of intimacy alongside the epic sweep, making it a little more Saving Private Baggins than before. Jackson feels so comfortable in his duties now that a sense of formula has crept into the franchise. The mixture of pomposity and seriousness of tone has always made fantasy such a struggle for this viewer, and the comedy set pieces and cockney monsters have become schtick. It all feels just a little second hand now.
But yet there is still great enjoyment to be had. Thorin develops as a character, which allows Armitage to look more than slightly constipated, and has a story arc that is both satisfying and surprisingly emotional (fans of the ZX Spectrum game of the '80s may long for him to sit down and start singing about gold - they must be saving this for the extended edition). Evangeline Lilly also gets to be far more than eye candy, her Tauriel more than just a token to make up for a deficit in Tolkien’s bloke heavy text. Martin Freeman is now completely in his element as Bilbo, though has surprisingly little to do this time other than be the heart of the film, but feels somewhat peripheral in his own adventure.
If in the end this is a lesser trilogy, this is only because of the source material. Lord of the Rings was in essence a battle for the soul and a way of life with epic world changing events, a World War One story in fancy dress. The Hobbit is a treasure hunt, or to keep the war analogy, a platoon movie. For all the tinsel and epic proportions this should have been a caper emphasising character and the scheme. With such a bloated cast list, most get lost by the wayside, and the scope gives it a bombast the fairly linear story does not deserve or need.
If The Return of the King felt like the end of an epic, The Battle of the Five Armies feels more like completing a tricky Playstation game. Jackson has created something marvellous and obsessive in its detail, and for that he should be commended. Now he needs a rest, a cup of tea and the chance to be a filmmaker rather than world builder.