And here we are, at last. No, I don’t mean my long overdue review, but rather the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga, in the form of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Even with my general policy of avoiding reviews until I can see a film and make up my own mind of it, there has been a lot of stuff written about this film and I haven’t managed to avoid it entirely. A lot of it has been centred around whether it was necessary to split the story into three films, and whether this is all just a waste of time.
I am a big — but not uncritical — fan of not only Tolkien’s fantasy epics, but Peter Jackson’s heroic efforts to translate them to the big screen, and so I am probably pre-disposed to like the films come what may. That said, the previous two Hobbit instalments have not set me alight quite to the same extent as The Lord of the Rings.
So what to make of The Battle of the Five Armies?
With the Desolation of Smaug having ended with the Cumberdragon setting off to destroy Laketown, it won’t surprise anyone that the third chapter opens with the attack itself. In a CGI maelstrom of fire, the dragon does a lot of destroying, until Bard kills Smaug with a single “black arrow” fired from a makeshift bow made from (in part) his, err, son. Thereafter Thorin seals himself and his company away in the mountain going quietly mad, to the point of turning away an army of Elves, led by Thranduil, and men, led by Bard, who want their fair share of the treasure. And all the while an army of orcs grows ever closer looking to kill, well, everyone.
Okay, so some of the background first: did this need to be three films? No, of course it didn’t. It would have gone quite neatly into two films. The reason for the three films is, I suspect, less to do with money than it is a lack of editorial rigour. Which, to be perfectly fair to Jackson, is exactly in the spirit of Tolkien.
So what did I think of The Battle of the Five Armies itself? Well I enjoyed it. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t nearly the vacant sigh that some have made it out to be.
There were a few points which made me raise an eyebrow. The first was the plot ordering, and this is where the splitting of the story comes in. There were two definite parts, the attack on Laketown and the titular battle. And the latter is much weightier than the former. This couples with the fact that Buttermilk Collywog* is only on screen for what feels like a few moments as a CGI monstrosity, which is a shame, and leaves the dragon as something of an irrelevance after dominating the first two parts.
I strongly suspect that, when the DVDs are released, the Hobbit films will make a cohesive, exciting overall story. And this did make for an exciting and touching final act.
Richard Armitage has been the standout star througout, and he doesn’t disappoint here. Thorin’s descent into dragon madness is beautiful, crowned with a wonderfully surreal scene with a lake of molten gold. His reclamation of himself ahead of the concluding parts of the battle is real and believable, resulting in a truly moving conclusion.
And that is carried, as with really the entire story, by Martin Freeman. He has been superb as Bilbo, fitting into the role as if it were made for him, exactly as Elijah Wood did with Frodo, but less…annoying.
I recall, from the book, the battle being very much more vague, but here it’s specified a lot more. Which makes sense, I guess, and it’s a lot more fun. Watching elves leap over ranks of dwarves to hack away at orcs… Yes, it’s a lot of fun. And the personal battles amidst it, particularly in relation to Fili and Kili — whose fates readers of the book will already know.
And that ties in with the stuff they’ve added. The romantic sub-plot between Tauriel and Kili actually works well in adding the personal drama to the battle, and diluting the very male-centric world of Tolkein. A little. It also led to some really rather impressive use of Legolas, despite the fact that the immortal elf looks noticeably older than he did in the LOTR films.
And the scenes at Dol Goldur were an excellent addition. I remember thinking, reading the single line references in the novel to Gandalf and co forcing a dark power out of Mirkwood, and thinking, “That sounds fun, can’t we see that?” Well here we can. And it has Elrond and Saruman fighting the ringwraiths, and Galadriel recalling that moment in Fellowship when she goes full-on crackers. Here it actually manages to capture some of the scale behind its parent trilogy.
We do need to talk about the CGI though. Too much. Not simply some of the wider angles looking fake. Oh no. We need to talk about Billy Connolly dwarf. I’m not at all adverse to Billy Connolly, but does he have to be made out of CGI? It just looks…absurd. And actually shatters a reasonably realistic dwarf image throughout the rest of the series.
I didn’t like it as much as I liked The Lord of the Rings. But then it’s not really a fair comparison. As a film, The Battle of the Five Armies exceeded my expectations, and rounded off The Hobbit story very well. It brought the emotional weighted, and if it was very heavy on battle scenes then at least the groundwork had been laid by previous films.
And if there is criticisms to be made — which there are — then compare for a moment with the Star Wars saga. Both consist (at the moment) of six films: three well-received originals and three less loved latter-made prequels. The difference between The Hobbit films and the Star Wars prequels doesn’t even need explaining.
I will revisit the whole thing when I can watch all six films as a series, which I think will work much better, but I think that Jackson has done a good job with something which was once called unfilmable. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I started this journey hopeful, and I have ended it satisfied. Despite everything, I find myself on my feet applauding as it comes to a close.
*All substitute Bombadil Crumplesack names courtesy of the Benedict Cumberbatch name generator.