Having seen the first two films in the Hobbit series, the word that readily springs to mind to describe Peter Jackson’s much touted return to Middle Earth is perfunctory. An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug felt unnecessary in their very existence—both for the way in which they besmirched the neatness of Jackson’s superb original trilogy and for the manner in which they took a volume shorter than any of the individual Lord of The Rings novels and cynically stretched it into a three-film saga to increase profits. Jackson also decided to shoot and project the movies using the novel yet utterly de trop 48-frame-per-second frame rate, resulting in a strangely quick and jittery look more akin to an NFL game than a fantasy epic. With these grave faults in mind, I was shocked to find The Battle of the Five Armies to be the first of the Hobbit films to feel alive, exciting, even urgent(!)—without question the best of this sub-par series.
Battle comes in hot—pardon the pun— with an action packed opening scene depicting the defeat of the great dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) by noble human farmer Bard (Luke Evans). We then shift focus to the halls of the mountain palace Erebor, where impulsive Dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) has been driven half-mad by greed, searching the castle’s overflowing treasure trove for the fabled Arkenstone gem. As it turns out, none other than young Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) has himself pocketed the Arkenstone to keep Thorin from losing his mind completely. While this internal drama unfolds, three other armies—humans displaced by Smaug, the regal Elves, and an additional Dwarf battalion—arrive at the gates of Erebor, each seeking to gain control of the strategic hub and the vast riches within. Just as the tension reaches a boiling point, the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) charges onto the scene with news that a massive army of vicious Orcs is headed directly towards the mountain, intent on claiming the land for the dark overlord Sauron.
Threatened with annihilation, the humans, elves, and dwarves must team up to face the Goblin hordes in the titular battle (for those keeping track, the fifth army is a group of giant Eagles that shows up later), and boy do they ever battle! The ensuing melee is one of the most visually fantastic action sequences ever put to film, lasting well over an hour and spanning four distinct terrains: the mountain base, the burnt-out human village, a high summit, and finally an ice flotilla. The effects on display are impeccable, the choreography jaw-dropping, and the way in which Jackson chooses to frame the action masterful in its restraint. A prolonged siege of the Orc’s summit by Thorin, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a highlight, as the characters acrobatically swashbuckle with Goblin heavies while leaping across crumbling bridges and swinging between teetering outcroppings.
As impressive as the smash-bang affair is, it must be said that the proceedings can occasionally become a bit repetitive. For instance, there are at least six instances of a character or group caught in mortal peril, at the wrong end of an enemies sword or swinging from the edge of a cliff, when, suddenly, the music cuts out just at the climactic moment and then…whoom! Howard Shore’s orchestral score comes blaring back triumphantly as someone shows up at the last minute to save the hapless person from certain doom. This trick works the first time, but after a few cycles, it only serves to neuter the dramatic tension the audience feels in fearing for the characters’ lives.
It also must be noted that, though I did see this film in 3-D, it was also being projected at the traditional rate of 24 frames a second, as opposed to Jackson’s favored 48. In my opinion, this vastly improved my viewing experience, as I’d seen the previous two pictures in 48 and felt like I was watching a flat, lifeless BBC Christmas Special from the ‘70s. Without the distracting pan-and-scan effect of the quicker frame-rate, the lush and sumptuous visual landscapes of New Zealand truly popped off the screen. Sorry, PJ, but there’s a reason 24 is the universal industry standard.
Aside from being the most dynamic of the Hobbit films, Battle of the Five Armies is also by far the shortest, clocking in at a puny 144 minutes, compared to Journey’s 182 minutes and Smaug’s 187. As someone who isn’t much of a Tolkien aficionado, I appreciated the fact that Jackson glossed over the elaborate Dwarf songs and Elven chamber-room intrigue that so bloated the first two movies in favor of a leaner structure. That being said, the sheer scope of the battle, which starts around the beginning of the second act and doesn’t let up until basically the end of the film, made the actual climax itself (a mano a mano duel between Thorin and Orc leader Azog) feel somewhat small and abrupt by comparison. However, I’m more than willing to let this come-down slide if it meant not wasting my time with six additional endings and a Hobbit jig.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Warner Bros. Pictures
Currently in theaters.
Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).