Peter Jackson’s final Hobbit film is a bit of a known quantity at this point. From the most diehard Tolkien fans to more casual viewers, audiences expect this “defining chapter” to contain rich characters, a lush setting, incredible makeup and effects, and a story brimming with action. Even though the final installment of the Hobbit trilogy consists of all the aforementioned elements, most seem content to refrain from singing any sort of praise when it comes to this prequel trilogy. As the lights dimmed in the theater and I prepared to take in Jackson’s swan song to Middle-earth, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened by the lack of fanfare surrounding this adaption of the fantasy classic.
While I recognize The Hobbit as a seminal work of literature, it’s also clear that Jackson has gone to painstaking lengths to translate the text to the big screen. There’s no bigger fan or better director for the job either. That’s why I’m somewhat baffled by the indifference towards these films shared by critics and Tolkien lovers alike. If you’ve never cared much for Middle-earth, then I understand your dismissal of this prequel trilogy because it’s not made for you or to change anyone’s mind. However, if the fantasy genre has appealed to you in the past this should be one of your most anticipated films of 2014. Yet, there seems to be a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to The Hobbit trilogy. The only explanation that I can gather is that we’ve all been spoiled by the previous films. Sure, The Hobbit trilogy is somewhat bloated, but it hasn’t been stuffed with filler. Instead it’s been enhanced by large scale battles with some incredible special effects, reasons why we choose to see these blockbusters in the first place. That’s not to say there haven’t been any pacing problems in these Hobbit films, but they stem from an unwillingness to edit out any of the book’s content rather than from additional padding.
Keeping with my feelings of the previous two Hobbit films, I found The Battle of the Five Armies to be a fitting ending to the trilogy. This final chapter has little story left to tell, but the two largest confrontations remain. We pick up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with Smaug setting Laketown ablaze. This first act is mostly spent with Tuariel, Bard, Legolas, and the dwarves remaining in the village as they flee the burning wreckage. While it was a thrilling start to the third film, I admit that the continuity shared with the previous installment was slightly off-putting. I was fine with the cliffhanger ending to The Desolation of Smaug last year, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was finishing the second movie instead of starting the third. While the setup probably seemed great on paper, it opens the movie up to cynical critiques about splitting the book up into three films right from the start. It took a moment, but I eventually tuned out the enraged clatter of keys pecking away at internet message boards in my head and embraced the scene for what it was, a lavish visual representation of a scene book. It was breathtaking, and if you can avoid slipping into these distrustful thoughts there’s plenty to enjoy in The Battle of the Five Armies.
Following this first act we settle back into The Lonely Mountain where Thorin desperately searches for the Arkenstone after reclaiming his throne. Bilbo conceals the dwarven heirloom from Thorin to prevent him from slipping further into his greed fueled madness. Whether Thorin will be able to overcome his avarice is the central conflict of The Battle of the Five Armies. After harboring the dwarves earlier, Bard gathers the homeless and hungry survivors from Laketown and marches towards the mountain, hoping that Thorin will honor his word and grant the humans a share of the treasure as a reward for their aid. The elves soon appear as well, attempting to collect elven gems that are scattered throughout the mountain. Before long, these two armies are knocking on Thorin’s barricade, requesting the shares of the treasure they’ve either been promised or feel they are entitled to. If there weren’t enough factions squabbling at the base of the mountain, Bolg’s orc army is quickly approaching hoping to wipe out every human, elf, and dwarf in the area.
Suffice it to say, The Battle of the Five Armies lives up to its title, culminating in one of the largest fights I’ve seen in recent memory. It is in these spectacular battlefields that the movie is at its most awe inspiring. Alliances quickly form to repel the blood thirsty orcs and bodies begin to pile up. Jackson deftly maintains a level of coherence in these sprawling battles and manages to continue telling the story as we shift to multiple characters during absolute chaos. It’s admirable how he avoids slipping into any narrative distance whatsoever in this large scale conflict. I admit, the set pieces towards the end may have been overwrought with melodrama, but the sheer scope and beauty of many of these scenes far outweighed any problems I had with them. Much of the movie’s charm is in these well choreographed fight sequences, so if you’re opposed to copious amounts of action you might grow disinterested during the second half of the film.
In accord with The Return of the King, you can expect The Battle of the Five Armies to tie up all of its loose ends (with the exception of the threads that carry through to The Fellowship of the Ring). This bridge between the trilogies felt concise. Instead of squeezing a barrage of farewell scenes into the film’s final moments there are bits of foreshadowing subtly sprinkled throughout the film. It flowed in such a natural way that I immediately wanted to start up The Lord of the Rings trilogy after the credits rolled, which I consider a success.
Another aspect from previous films that The Battle of the Five Armies inherits is its strong cast of characters. I’ve grown very fond of Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Bilbo that has grounded the story in an endearing affability at times. Freeman seems to understand that Bilbo is as much of a character as he is a vessel for the audience, and he straddles this line beautifully. The only complaint I have about the character in this last film is that there isn’t enough of him. When Bilbo is on screen I found myself connecting the most with the movie, whether he was making me laugh or worry. Freeman’s is perhaps only rivaled on screen by Evangeline Lilly’s portrayal of the Wood-elf Tauriel. Between the two of them they did a great job making The Battle of the Five Armies final moments emotionally resonate with me.
I won’t sit here and defend The Battle of the Five Armies as the best Tolkien adaptation that Jackson has done. It’s not a flawless film. That being said, you have to be a bit of killjoy to not find any pleasure in watching this story go out with a bang. I think we’ve all become a bit jaded when we can’t appreciate films like this. We should be excited when beloved books get adapted this thoroughly, and not just so we can gloat to our lesser read acquaintance about idiosyncrasies and details they’re not privy to. No, we should be excited that more people get to share in the same experiences that we connected with, and that there are more people to nerd out with.