REVIEW: 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies'

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Every story deserves an end – even an overstuffed, occasionally silly story like the screen adaptation of The Hobbit. If we compare The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies to other movies in the fantasy genre, or even the movies of 2014, there are (admittedly) plenty of ways in which it doesn’t measure up: like the previous installments in the trilogy, it doesn’t really stand on its own as a film, and it’s chock-full of scenes where Peter Jackson recycles ideas from his Lord of the Rings films.

But every film series will have its share of flaws and annoyances. When it comes to the third Hobbit film, yes, the romance between the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) is slightly cringe-inducing. Yes, the scene where Legolas (Orlando Bloom) seemingly flouts the laws of gravity in a fight with an orc is hard to believe. And yes, some of the dialogue scenes might feel unintentionally funny. But none of those things reveal much about the film as a whole, not even after we add them all up and post them in a numbered list format on a blog or in a video rant.

With any movie, what the viewer should be focusing on is theme and character. If we look past its gigantic battles, monstrous creatures and exaggerated emotions, does a movie have something to say, or a way of saying it, that sets it apart from other movies? I believe the Hobbit movies still do, albeit at considerable, sometimes tiresome length.

The theme that really began to emerge in last year’s The Desolation of Smaug was the dangerous pursuit of gold and jewels – not just by the Dwarves, but also by Men and Elves. While the Rings films are motivated by the corruptive nature of ultimate power, The Hobbit is a story driven forward by the destructive nature of greed. We see how even a fantastical world like Middle-Earth isn’t immune from the vices that can drive us in the real world.

And yet due to how Peter Jackson has structured the Hobbit series, the treatment of the idea in the second film is like an unfinished thought. Now it’s the job of The Battle of the Five Armies to sum everything up  and explore the most extreme effect of greed: by having whole armies try to destroy each other over a treasure hoard.

An army of Elves assembles before Bard (Luke Evans) before the battle.

The most common complaint about the Hobbit films is their over-length. As compelling as the theme of greed may be, viewers can sense when a story is being drawn out past what the material can sustain. Did we need to see Gandalf (Ian McKellen) investigating the Nazgûl and the Necromancer, and seeing him get locked up in another tower? In this movie, we do get a cool scene of Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman saving him (featuring Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee), but what did it really add that we didn’t already know from the Rings films? The example only repeats elsewhere in the films – scenes that have nothing wrong with them, but aren’t that necessary.

Even so, there are plenty of worse offenders when it comes to 3-hour franchise movies, and it’s a testament to Jackson’s ability as a director that the issue with the Hobbit films has always been that there’s just too much material, and not too much confusing, ugly material (I’m looking at you, Transformers).

Above all else, The Battle of the Five Armies stays true to the general spirit of Tolkien’s writing. It never twists anything to the point that it no longer feels like part of the universe.

For me, the strangest part of watching this third Hobbit film were the choices Jackson made about what to include and not to include. Even though the trilogy as a whole feels too long, The Battle of the Five Armies actually appears to forget to close off a few of the storylines, namely those of the Dwarves and the irritating, cowardly character Alfrid (Ryan Gage).

Even though Thorin (Richard Armitage) pursuing the legendary Arkenstone jewel is central to the plot, we never see where it ends up or who succeeds him as king (highlight for spoilers: Thorin’s buried with the stone, and Dain is made king of Erebor). Similarly, Alfrid is made to seem like a rather important character (Jackson’s allusions to Wormtongue from The Two Towers are also pretty obvious), and yet we don’t get a very satisfying end for him. Let me guess - we’ll have to wait for a 5-disc extended edition, won’t we?

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) glances at the Ring before heading on a mission

If the gaps are intentional, it may be that Jackson has a grander idea at work here: by abandoning some of the threads, it gives more weight to what Bilbo (Martin Freeman) will miss by heading home to the Shire. After all, Bilbo’s is the arc we should have been following all this time, and the trilogy does succeed in transforming him from the stubborn homebody in the opening scenes of An Unexpected Journey. And by closing with a familiar scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, The Battle of the Five Armies reinforces that The Hobbit shouldn’t be seen as a standalone trilogy - it’s squarely positioned as a Lord of the Rings prequel, and at long last, it’s complete.

There’s definitely an argument to be made for a version of The Hobbit that trims out the excess, and feels like the children’s storybook tale that it is. I wonder, though, whether that film would have been accepted by fans of the Lord of the Rings films, only ten years after the trilogy we love so much. Perhaps The Hobbit had to be made in the Rings mould first, and maybe a filmmaker will try re-adapting Tolkien with a different feel in the future.

Despite the flaws, Peter Jackson has accomplished great things with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, in a genre (fantasy) that is very difficult to get right. I believe he’s done right by J.R.R. Tolkien, who reminds us:

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

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What did you think of Peter Jackson’s final movie set in Middle-Earth? Were our expectations unfairly raised by The Lord of the Rings? Which scenes would you have cut? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!