By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
It’s been thirteen years since Peter Jackson and his team first introduced their vision of Middle Earth to us. Now it looks like they’ve finally left the stage they borrowed from Tolkien and made their own. The Battle of the Five Armies proves a fitting conclusion, a gaudy exercise in excess that revels in all the strengths and weaknesses of its two predecessors.
Jackson’s instincts were always right. This is the story of Thorin and Bilbo, and the way their (mis)adventures link to greater challenges to come. For the most part, the finale remembers this, righting the wrongs of The Desolation of Smaug that side-lined Thorin’s arc for a seemingly never-ending sequence of overblown set pieces, and the unnecessary introduction of subplots that served only to distract. There’s some of that on display here, but The Battle of the Five Armies largely purges it from the system before the fun really starts.
The film opens big and fast. Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), unwisely woken at the end of the previous instalment, is on his way to wreak havoc in Laketown. Luckily, Bard (Luke Evans) is on hand to do the task the second film spent so much time laboriously prepping him for. Then it’s off to the Lonely Mountain where Thorin (Richard Armitage) has succumbed to the gold fever that brought his people to their knees last time around. Suddenly armies of elves, orcs, humans and dwarves are massing on his doorstep and his old friend Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) is back. Only Bilbo (Martin Freeman) seems capable of bringing back his senses.
Running shorter than before, the story bursts out the blocks as Smaug is dispatched before the title even appears. From there it’s a steady build-up before all hell breaks loose. The only extended divergence from the main thread is a welcome one, bringing Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) together to do battle on Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) behalf. Their burst of action is not only well-staged, it also draws The Lord of the Rings inextricably closer, an important task for a series that could hardly deny the existence of its illustrious forebear.
Unlike previous entries, the path proves linear with only minimal plot jumps, mostly occurring in the first half. Nearly everything moves towards the battle promoted in the title. Here, Jackson brings all the experience he’s gathered working on world sized canvasses. Armies stomp wheel and charge, shields clashing, swords crashing. The camera weaves through picking out individual duels before pulling out to survey the battlefield. It’s a long, long showdown that starts big and continues to escalate until the action folds in on a gruelling duel between Thorin and Azog atop fracturing ice. It’s not all doom and gloom though; plenty of entertaining moments flash by to demonstrate The Hobbit knows it’s made of lighter stuff. There’s Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his improbably acrobatic swashbuckling, and even the sight of Billy Connolly riding into battle on a pig, war hammer twirling above him.
The old flaws are still there of course. The dismal romance between Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is thankfully downplayed, and actually serves to add a little emotional punch to the climax, but elsewhere insignificant characters are elevated beyond their station. Bard occupies too much time at the start before disappearing into the battlefield, resurfacing occasionally to save his children. The worst offender is Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the slimy deputy to Stephen Fry’s corrupt Master of Laketown. Far too much time is wasted on his exploits as he somehow manages to come into contact with half the central characters. He’s meant to be comic relief. In the end, the relief comes when he’s finally ushered off stage.
These transgressions can be forgiven because the concluding film remembers what lies at the bottom of this bloated series. Thorin has always been the key, the classic flawed hero who can inspire fanatical loyalty while marching everyone to their end. His descent into madness is chilling, Armitage summoning cold rage at will. It also provides the opportunity for Freeman’s excellent Bilbo to shine, demonstrating yet again that Hobbits’ are not to be discounted. The completion of Thorin’s journey and Bilbo’s love for his friend land the killer blows to crown the trilogy.
Returning to Middle Earth was always going to be a risky endeavour. Just like Thorin, Jackson and his team succumb to their equivalent of gold fever, seduced by the riches of Tolkien’s universe. And just like the Dwarven king, they finally rise above their shortcomings. The Hobbit trilogy has been a long and arduous journey, beset by wrong turns. It’s also been a magnificent blend of garish visuals and childish adventure on a gigantic scale. The Battle of the Five Armies sends it out on an acceptably extravagant high.