This review features spoilers for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
It’s going to be kind of weird to not have another holiday season with a newly released film set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I remember feeling the same way after seeing The Return of the King in theaters on opening day. It was a fantastic movie, and it sated just about every nerdy bone in my body, but it also meant it was over. After spending three years in eager anticipation of each new film, I suddenly had nothing to look forward to. Now, I wasn’t nearly as excited for The Hobbit films, but still, as the credits rolled against pictures of the cast smiling brightly, I felt a tug at my heart. It is time to say goodbye to Peter Jackson’s incredible film series, and happily I can say that The Battle of the Five Armies sends the franchise over the horizon with a bang.
Immediately following Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) encounter with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), the legendary beast descends on Lake Town, burning everything in its path. Bard (Luke Evans) scrambles to save his family and his people as the dragons fury turns his home into a hellish wasteland. Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), still a captive of Sauron (Benedict Cumberbatch), tries desperately to escape his cage so he can warn Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Thranduil (Lee Pace) of the advancing legions of orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett). Unfortunately though, Thorin has fallen under the evil spell that lingers over Erebors treasure halls, blinding him to the coming war, and straining his relationships with the company. Thranduil is no less stubborn, and even in the face of coming doom, he fortifies the nearby town of Dale and prepares to fight Thorin for the treasure. As elves, dwarves, and orcs descend on Erebor, Bilbo must find a way to save Thorin from himself and find the courage within his own heart to stand against impossible odds.
For those of you that haven’t read the book, this film takes place roughly within the last sixty pages and most of those last sixty pages is this unbelievably epic battle. If you’re worried that this film might be nothing more than two and a half hours of fighting, you’ll be glad to know that that’s not the case. While the titular battle makes up a majority of the film, there is more to this movie than mass CGI warfare. As large scale as the action gets, there’s a surprising emphasis on character, even during the fights. This is especially evident during the films epic climax, as the brutal reality of war hit every character hard and leaves a lasting impression that no film set in Middle Earth has yet made. This is certainly the bleakest film in both series, with more major character deaths and violence than The Return of the King. You might be thinking, “Well, RotK was pretty epic, and those battles were huge! How could this film surpass it?”
The answer lies in the phenomenal cast. Every major character is nearly flawlessly portrayed. Even Tauriel, who was the weakest part of the previous film (which was more the writers’ fault than anything else), has more than her fair share of heart wrenching, ass kicking, or cool scenes. Everyone does a fine job, and without such high caliber performances, this would have been nothing more than boring CG spectacle. As good as everyone is, two cast members stand taller than the rest. Ian McKellen returns to the role of a lifetime with more passion and grace than ever before. Sir Ian IS Gandalf, and his performance in all six films should be nominated for an Oscar. The real hero of the series, and this film, is Martin Freeman. His approach to the character was not only a joy to watch, but it I imagine that Tolkien himself would even be amazed by how perfect Freeman is. He hits every note, be it emotional, comedic, or dramatic, perfectly. He shines especially bright in the films epilogue, as he shows us just how much Bilbo has changed from when we first met him in An Unexpected Journey. Screw it. Put Freeman and Sir Ian on the same ticket for the Oscars, and then just give them both one. They’ve earned it.
As good as this film was, it is certainly not without some pretty serious flaws. My major gripes with the film draw from how most of the story arcs from the previous films are dealt with so quickly in order to make room for the climactic battle, that they often feel wildly anticlimactic. I can’t say too much, obviously, but I can tell you that this is evident very early on. Regardless, by the time the battle begins, you probably will forget about that, just as I did. As a critic, I was hoping for a bit more. I was satisfied, but the flaws really stuck out to me. As a fan though, I couldn’t be happier that I got to journey back to Middle Earth for one last hurrah. And what a journey it was.