Peter Jackson bids farewell to Middle-earth with his sixth outing. Is it a triumph? Oscar gives us his verdict.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies concludes Peter Jackson’s extensive second Middle-earth trilogy with as much energy and action as one could muster. Is it worth it? For me, it is an agreeable “yes.” Perhaps it won’t be for those who feel that Jackson has gone too far off the beaten track or have lost patience with the series on the basis of its length. Nevertheless, it succeeds in ending his follow-up trilogy on an emotional and harrowing note, with a glimmer of hope for the future. Not to end the saga, of course, but to see it regenerate into The Lord of the Rings.
Picking up directly after the second film, Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) descends upon Laketown and proceeds to burn it to cinders whilst Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the Dwarven Company look on with dread. Bard (Luke Evans) manages to escape from prison and succeeds in killing Smaug with the aid of his son, Bain (John Bell). The survivors of the dragon’s attack gather on the shoreline, while the four surviving Dwarves set out to join their kin. Bard arrives and is hailed as a hero for killing Smaug, and declared the leader of the Lakemen, and decides to lead the survivors towards the ruined city of Dale to demand a share of gold to rebuild their lives. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) depart to investigate the spreading of Orcs in Gundabad to the North.
Meanwhile, the White Council enter the fortress of Dol Guldur to rescue Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) tend to the weakened wizard, whilst Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) hold off the Nazgul. Sauron then reveals himself and attempts to entice Galadriel, but she resists him and casts the Dark Lord out of his fortress with all her might. Back at Erebor, Thorin (Richard Armitage) has spent days brooding over the vast treasure hoard and scouring the gold for the Arkenstone, distancing himself from his kin just like his grandfather. Balin (Ken Stott) warns Bilbo that giving Thorin the Arkenstone would not curb his obsession. King Thranduil (Lee Pace) arrives at Dale with food and supplies for the Lakemen, intending to stake a claim on the treasure. Thorin grows paranoid and churlish, and refuses to negotiate with Bard or the Wood Elves, and summons his cousin Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) to come to his aid.
As expected, the acting is as good as it gets from Jackson’s direction. Freeman’s Bilbo is as earnest, courageous and affably Hobbitish as usual, and McKellen slips into the role of Gandalf seamlessly. Armitage really shows off his acting chops here, balancing Thorin’s obsession with moments of tenderness with Bilbo. Many of the Dwarves slip into the background, while the standouts include Stott, Graham McTavish, Dean O’Gorman, and Aidan Turner as Balin, Dwalin, Fili and Kili respectively, providing the most emotional performances of the bunch, holding their own amidst a massive cast. Evans carries himself with nuance and gravitas as the heroic Bard, while Pace is majestic and arrogant as Thranduil. McCoy, Weaving and Lee all have their small but awesome moments, while Blanchett has some gentle interactions with McKellen and manages to kick more ass in a few seconds than Tauriel manages in many minutes. Despite his limited presence, Connolly briefly steals the show as the rowdy Dwarf lord, Dain Ironfoot. Cumberbatch is electrifying in Smaug’s final moments and oozes with evil as the Dark Lord, whilst Arrow’s Manu Bennett and Lawrence Makore are still gruesome and intimidating as Azog and Bolg. In the underacting category is Bloom and Lily as Legolas and Tauriel, and despite a few strange lines they are completely serviceable, even given the situations their characters are placed in.
Jackson’s penchant for sweeping cinematography is put to great use, showing off the titular battle while keeping as much focus on the main characters as possible, allowing Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin or Bard to inject some vital humanity. Like Part II, the pace gallops along at around two hours and twenty minutes, so it feels a little more self-sustained. The film is technically-polished, boasting a cold, northern gleam that drives home the sense of frigidness in Erebor, so visually Jackson continues to draw the eye. The dragon attack is very well-executed, filled with fire, death and despair. You should expect a lot of CGI for the vast armies and fortresses but, fortunately, when it comes to the closequarter action between the Orcs, Elves and men, we do get physical actors and sets for the ruins of Dale. The Dwarves, though, seem stuck as CG creatures. Honestly, it seems like a seesaw between impressive sets and physical work to elaborate digital displays.
The score by Howard Shore builds up from the themes of the previously established movies and neatly highlights the story. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Bilbo and Thorin, as we see the characters share smiles, anger and, at the very end, tears. They work off each other splendidly, and as the film winds down after the battle, I genuinely found myself emotionally moved. Rather than vilify Thorin, the script manages to keep him sympathetic, heroic and morally questionable in a believable fashion that is genuinely worrying. When his voice deepens and begins to resemble Smaug’s, it’s quite unnerving. Bilbo could be seen as the Samwise of the company, providing the moral compass and standing up against Thorin’s decisions. Some may question the inclusion of the White Council’s battle with Sauron, but rather than taking it as fanservice, I myself see it as the conclusion to Gandalf’s mission before joining Bilbo, and it reveals both Sauron and Galadriel to be much more powerful than indicated in the Rings trilogy. I’ve been suspicious regarding the character of Tauriel and her presence in the story, but I did find her situation at the end more sympathetic and even tragic.
What about the rest? The action barely escapes becoming overdone, and when it’s over, you feel exhausted. I will warn you that there’s a handful of stunt sequences that are highly questionable, and at least one or two dialogue exchanges that didn’t sit too well with me near the end. The romantic element from Part II is thankfully reduced after the first twenty minutes, before resurfacing towards the end, and even then I know it’s more than some can bear. Mikael Persbrandt returns for a very brief appearance as Beorn, and once again, he’s gone all too quickly. Also, the menagerie of creatures on display, ranging from trolls, halftrolls, bats to giant worms, almost beckons the question: how much is too much?
While many criticised The Return of the King for its lengthy denouement, Jackson wraps the film up after the battle a bit too quickly, and Bilbo just slips away without fanfare. While there are details that have no doubt been reserved for the extended cut, it would have better here to let the film take its time.
It has been debated to death whether Jackson has produced a valid adaptation of The Hobbit book and its surrounding source material, and I can understand where the detractors are coming from. Yet, one thing that does dominate my thoughts is the sense of ambition Jackson has presented. When all is said and done, we have a six-part saga encompassing the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so he achieved what he set out to do spectacularly on that level. The aspects that work well are still enough to overpower my gripes with the film.
I look forward to going there and back again.