Apart from the benefit of grabbing some extra cash, expanding upon the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and/or the convenience of having another trilogy to compare to The Lord of the Rings, we may never get a definitive answer as to why Peter Jackson has taken The Hobbit, a three hundred-page novel, and turned it into three movies. What’s also unclear is why each of the three films had to be around (or longer than) 150 minutes. And what’s even more unclear is just how Jackson has managed to get enough on film to make extended versions of the films that peak three hours. Nevertheless, the series is over, Middle Earth is in the cinematic history books (for now, anyway), and even though I think the last chapter of Jackson’s prequel trilogy is the weakest of the three, we can rest easy knowing that he made a return to this world, fueled it with passion, and didn’t botch it. That, in my opinion, is an accomplishment.
The Battle of the Five Armies, picking up immediately where The Desolation of Smaug left off, ventures into territories you could only expect upon hearing that title. For those of us that have read the book, we already have an idea what to expect, even though the screenwriters have just enough licensing to shake things up on us now and again. Basically, there is a colossal battle for the claiming of Erebor. Some want it for power. Some want it for evil. Some want it because it’s theirs by right. These are our main characters, the dwarves (Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Balin, Dwalin, Ori, Dori, Nori, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (just keep reading those names, in that order, and tell me it doesn’t put a smile on your face.) These dwarves have the Lonely Mountain by right, but leave it to the Cucumber-guy to stand in their way. Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug returns for a brief scene in the opening (which I might add, left me unmoved in a way which I didn’t consider possible), and he’s great again, even if he doesn’t get as much time to shine as he did in the third act of Part II.
But the title is put into effect when the battle for Erebor kicks in and the five armies (who really knows how many armies were fighting anyway?) battle each other to the death for an hour. And with two movies that peak the 150-minute mark coming before it, it’s okay to have a movie that is essentially a giant battle. But is it necessary? Not at all, and this is where my main issue with The Battle of the Five Armies lies. Originally, Tolkien’s book was to be directed by Guillermo del Toro (who, mind you, has served as a co-screenwriter on all three films) and split into two parts. Now that would’ve been great. I think a single three-hour long movie would have sufficed, but two of them would’ve given him just enough wiggle room to include bits from the Appendices, as well as whatever else (maybe more time with the dragon, etc.). Instead, we have a trilogy, almost every bit as long as The Lord of the Rings and nowhere near as good, that drags out its material to the point of ridiculousness. Still, I’ve had a great amount of fun with the previous two movies, and there’s still fun to be had in this third and final chapter, even if most of it is in knowing that it’s about to be over for good.
The battle starts almost halfway through (I’m estimating here, but it felt like there was a lot of boring stuff before things eventually picked up), and it doesn’t let up. Dwarves here, elves there, various creatures everywhere, and orcs, looking as animated as ever, are attacking from all angles. It goes on forever and forever, but I’ll give it this: it never gets boring. There may not have been a reason to make an entire third movie about the battle of the five armies, but at least the action was entertaining enough to keep me engaged.
The issue is, if we’re viewing this as a standalone movie, it just isn’t that great. Take the opening scene for example. Smaug the Dragon was the best part of the second film just as much as Gollum was the best part of the first. His conversation with Bilbo (and the preexisting chemistry between Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock), was maybe the best scene in the entire trilogy (even though the riddles were great in An Unexpected Journey). But Smaug’s destruction of Esgaroth in the first act of this movie isn’t even what comes to mind when I think about what I liked about it. When I think really hard about it, I did like Cumberbatch’s gravelly voice-work and Smaug’s impeccable design, and I hold the opinion that he’s the best dragon in film history, but his destruction of the town is underwhelming. Maybe it’s because the film starts right off with him burning the buildings and there is no time to get back into the feel of it. You’re there, it happens, and then it’s over. It’s almost as if the film is returning from a commercial break. It just puts you right there. It isn’t the movie’s fault, obviously. There’s no need for them to waste even more screen time explaining backstory. This is a giant, three-part epic, and people already know that Smaug is on his way to burn down Esgaroth. I just think they could’ve picked a better ending point for The Desolation of Smaug. There is an eye-roller of a scene in which Legolas is climbing a set of crumbling rock stairs that are hovering in the air that really made me question whether or not these filmmakers aren’t completely bonkers. I love Legolas and as long as we’re in Middle Earth, I say bring Orlando Bloom in for more (who cares if he isn’t in the book?), but that scene just didn’t do it for me.
But the movie does have gems, and they come in a few forms. Primarily, Martin Freeman, who has taken the role of Bilbo Baggins and made it his own. In all honesty, there isn’t a single actor working today that I can see playing the hobbit apart from Freeman. He’s perfect, and I don’t throw that word around too often. He’s been a great little hobbit for the duration of this trilogy and he has a few emotional moments (and some funny ones) hidden in this installment, but he just isn’t in it that much. I would say that out of all three movies this is one he’s in the least, as much of the screen time is taken up by giant creatures and fantastical monsters beating each other to a pulp. Still, Freeman is there and he brings a perfect sense of what a hobbit would be like. Richard Armitage is very good as Thorin, who has become a kind of Aragorn for this trilogy. In this movie, when he comes down with “dragon sickness,” his role requires him to pull out a variety of emotions, and he does what is required. And I can’t not mention Sir Ian McKellen, who has literally become Gandalf. There is no talk of Ian McKellen playing Gandalf. Ian McKellen is Gandalf. What a badass.
The rest of the cast, just like in the previous two movies, are good. Actually, as dwarves and elves and fantastical races, the cast is great. There are a few nice surprise performances for fans of The Lord of the Rings (which I will not spoil) and those moments are some of the film’s best. But aside from the performances and the well done battle sequences, the movie just doesn’t do it. It wraps things up nicely, sure, but that doesn’t make it a good film. I think my favorite part of the movie was the final few minutes in which Bilbo returns to Shire and tries readjust himself at home. Maybe I’m biased toward the solitude of a hobbit-hole, or maybe the Lonely Island adventure was just too drawn out for me to care anymore. I love the book dearly and I think Jackson has really done a wonderful thing with Middle Earth, but here’s to hoping that this “last” adventure is actually the last.
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