Film Review – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Six films, about twenty hours of runtime, spread out over thirteen years.
That’s a lot of commitment for Peter Jackson to give one franchise. And for his efforts, he’s delivered two trilogies taking place in the same universe, but different in terms of quality. The Lord of the Rings is touted as one of the best trilogies ever, successfully translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s books to the big screen. The same can’t be said for The Hobbit trilogy. Burdened with expanding a singular text instead of condensing multiple ones, Jackson and his team have struggled three times to add filler to what was originally a small story. There is no reason this should have gone on as long as it has, the financial motivations is clearly on display.
We finally limp our way to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), the connecting film for the two trilogies. When last we saw our protagonists, the hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and the other dwarves have reclaimed Erebor, their home inside a mountain, and the vast treasure held within. Unfortunately, by doing so they unleashed the wrath of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) on nearby Laketown, where Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and his family and friends lay in danger.
If you remember the last two Hobbit films, Smaug was described as kind of a big deal. He’s deadly, ruthless, and unwavering. Benedict Cumberbatch provides a perfectly menacing tone in the voice performance. It’s assumed that Smaug would be the big bad villain of the whole series, but not so. What was built up in the last two entries is done away with quickly. I won’t provide details, but how this particular storyline is resolved feels rushed and too easy. The screenplay (by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) has little concern for Smaug as a threat, and is focused more on a battle scene between multiple armies to close the narrative out.
A major problem is the lack of defined motivations and character traits. Reclaiming their home may be important for the dwarves, but it doesn’t have the weight to support Jackson’s intended scope. What is their end goal: their home, their treasure, or the magical Arkenstone? Why is there tension between them and the elves, lead by Thranduil (Lee Pace), when we know their common enemy is the orcs? The second act is devoted to Thorin and his refusal to help others in need. He goes from a brave hero to a selfish tyrant at the flip of a switch. This is used as a plot device to lengthen the runtime, not as an actual character development. The rationale for characters is murky, and when the major action happens – between men, dwarves, elves, and orcs – we’re left wondering how we got here in the first place.
Jackson, with his expertise in film technology, has taken a step down in shooting action. His reliance on CGI has gone to cartoonish levels. Understandably, these are characters that inhabit a magical world and are capable of supernatural things, but the action sequences are just plain loony. The climactic battle takes the whole second half, with little of it being thrilling. Seeing a character hop around on a falling platform, or swing around like a baboon looks silly. It waters down the suspense because we know it isn’t real. The final battle scenes drag on for an unbearable length, and when we think it’s over, Jackson inserts another action scene for good measure.
I would forgive the wackiness of the action if the drama was substantial, but those elements are only skimmed over. The love triangle between Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Kili (Aidan Turner) never blossoms in a way that wins our sympathies. No matter how many times Jackson shows a close up of someone thinking or crying in slow motion, he never reaches us on an emotional level. Bilbo, for whom the series is named after, operates as a bystander. His journey doesn’t change him significantly. He’s relegated as a means to help Thorin through his own internal struggle. The way things worked out, this series really should have been called The Dwarf.
But I don’t want to get too far ahead. There are redeeming qualities here. Jackson has learned his lesson from the last two films, and cranked up the pacing. Instead of sitting around talking or singing songs for an hour, characters move and try to push the momentum forward. Yes, there is a lot of filler, but we never stand still. Some of the best scenes feature names and faces we’re accustomed to. Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Christopher Lee as Saruman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel all provide their usual strong work. Even though some appear only in cameos, they remind us of all the good things coming down the line.
At this point, Peter Jackson appears to be suffering from Franchise Fatigue. He’s been wrapped up in Middle Earth for so long that his vision – which was once fresh and exciting – has been filtered down and worn out. His stylistic choices have become a parody of themselves. Now that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is completed and this saga has finally come to a close, he can step away from it all, recharge, and do something different.
And no, I don’t mean The Samarillion.