The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens where The Desolation of Smaug left off, as the powerful dragon of the Lonely Mountain (still voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) descends on Lake-town for payback. To say that Peter Jackson captures the full horror and insanity of a dragon attack on a compact and inclosed area is something of an understatement, and you practically feel the pain and panic as Smaug’s attack lights up the entire town in seconds and doesn’t let up. But then, Bard (Luke Evans) heroically slays the dragon using the final black arrow, and Smaug is defeated. Ten minutes into the movie.
Pacing has always been a problem for The Hobbit movies, as you can well imagine if you’re creating an expansive seven-and-a-half hour movie trilogy based on a single 300-page book and some supplementary material. The previous film ended with a powerful “Oh $#!%” moment went Smaug leaves Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in the mountain to attack the people of Lake-town in retaliation for them giving aid to the Company of 13 Dwarves and their quest to take back Erebor. Dramatically, it was sound, but to use a comparison to The Lord of the Rings it would be as if The Two Towers were to end right before Aragorn and the others at Helms Deep ride out to meet the Orcs in battle for a last stand. It’s evidence of the fact that while Jackson has grown to handle well the overwhelming technical demands of the project, he’s lost sight of the best way to tell the story he wants to tell.
The quick dispatching of Smaug turns all attention to the fate of the treasure in the Lonely Mountain. The elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) comes looking for the precious gems he was promised, the now homeless people of Lake-town arrive looking for shelter, legions of orcs are on the way because of the mountain’s strategic value, and the dwarf army is coming to back up their kin. Meanwhile, Thorin (Richard Armitage) is going mad, paranoid that one of his fellow dwarves, yet not the hobbit “burglar” that tagged along, is trying to usurp him. But doesn’t he know that war is coming? He should, everyone keeps telling him.
Aside from pacing, that’s another big problem with how Jackson and Co. decided to tell this story, there’s no subtlety. You could read any number of thematic or subtextual things into The Lord of the Rings movies, be they J.R.R. Tolkein‘s original inspirations when he wrote the book, or the socio-political situation at the time of the films’ production and release, but nothing was on the nose as much as the scene in Battle of the Five Armies when Thorin sees himself literally being swallowed by gold. Howard Shore‘s score had the usual light-touch, but sometime, some video masher somewhere is going to have to set that scene to Jefferson Airplane to give it the full effect.
Now all that may sound like I hated The Battle of the Five Armies. I didn’t. I actually found it very entertaining, especially when we get to the titular, nearly hour-long fight scene. The logistical demands of balancing over two-dozen main characters, two massive sets, five armies of CG extras, not to mention the various creatures like battle mooses, Dune-like giant worms and the different trolls and goblins could only be described as enormous, but Jackson makes it all look easy. The action was clean and well-staged, and despite its vastness and incredible amount of detail, you never feel lost in the battle, nor do you struggle to keep up with the various maneuvers and individual fights.
The actors are also solid, although some of them they may or may not get their due over the course of the movie’s relatively (as compared to other Middle Earth films) brisk two-and-a-half hour running time. Sir Ian McKellen still owns as Gandalf, and in the half of the film where Gandalf gets to do stuff, the actor recalls what was originally so appealing about seeing him in the role as a cowboy wizard who’s not yet too cynical to believe the good fight isn’t worth fighting. Freeman’s Bilbo has grown nicely over the last two films, exhibiting moments of courage that are believable in character, yet don’t belie the timid hobbit that we’re introduced to in the first film. In other words, we don’t see kick ass Bilbo, but he is powerful in that he stands up Thorin and his growing (sigh) “gold-sickness.” Speaking of moments, Luke Evans as Bard gets to show off a lot of that leading man potential that Hollywood keeps trying to convince us he has. He’s no Viggo Mortensen, but Evans holds his own.
The dwarves get the (pardon the pun) short-shrift though. After three movies, I feel like three-quarters of the company are still unknown to me, and while its been years since I’ve read The Hobbit book, I don’t remember the dwarf characters being treated like dead weight in it. But even Thorin feels under-developed, spending most of the film stalking the halls of Erebor like a bearded Nixon. The movie doesn’t do a very good job of saying why Thorin suddenly snaps out of his obsessions, other than it was time for the main dwarves to get into the fight. We seem to squander time on one note characters like Alfrid (Ryan Gage), or stop the action to do a lot of fan service with a character like Legolas (Orlando Bloom) rather than explaining “the deal” with this supposed romantic connection between Fili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), for example.
Fan Service has always been The Hobbit films’ Achille’s Heel, and perhaps that’s what The Desolation of Smaug is the series’ most compelling chapter. You were allowed to forget for long stretches of the film that there was another series of films before this that also take place in Middle Earth, even in the presence of characters like Legolas. Those stretches of seeing Bilbo and the dwarves adventuring made it easier to swallow bits of Sauron and discussion of the “gathering darkness,” but Battle of the Five Armies loves to rub our face in the Lord of the Rings by comparison. There’s a scene where Saruman (played again by Christopher Lee) says something to the effect of “I’ll take care of Sauron,” and then we never see him again. And to top it all off, we’re reminded in the end that these film were bookended by scenes with Old Bilbo (Ian Holm) right before the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, which basically reduces The Hobbit’s tale to a flashback to the Lord of the Rings trilogy rather than its own unique story.
Again, that’s not to make it sound like I hated The Hobbit series because looking back on the whole trilogy, it was rather fun. Perhaps expecting it to be as weighted and significant as The Lord of the Rings was a mistake, but it was a mistake made by Jackson too when he up-sized Tolkien’s first Middle Earth novel. Across the totality of The Hobbit trilogy is at least one really good fantasy movie if edited right, and when we see the scenes that work, the magic weaved by Jackson and his crew a decade ago is lovingly preserved and expanded on. As for this final chapter, at its worst, The Battle of the Five Armies is an energetic and action-packed movie that is entertaining and thrilling in a way that a good swords-and-sorcery yarn should be. One may end up enjoying The Hobbit series, but for all intents and purposes, the magic is gone.