Reviews

'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' Is a Solid, not Sublime, Send-off

If all you care about is action, of witnessing outstanding special F/X and genre fantasy fashioned by a true master of such material, then this will satisfy your needs to no end.


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom
US Release Date: 2014-12-17

If there has been a single concept that has plagued Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth, aside from the obvious questions over expanding a single book into three films, it's been the idea of expectations. The last time he visited the world of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards, and orcs, he walked away with nearly six billion dollars in worldwide box office, 17 Oscars (including wins for Best Picture and Best Director) and a more or less definitive hold on the greatest fantasy film trilogy of all time title. It was a monumental achievement that some claim has changed the way movies are made in the new millennium.

Now, nearly 20 years after it all started, Jackson is back to finalize his quest to give Tolkien's original novel its definitive due. Again, the desire to make money off The Hobbit has seen the narrative expanded (often unnecessarily) to include other material and author footnotes. In the end, the resulting triptych can't match the majesty of the Lord of the Rings efforts, but then again, we've been here before and expectations -- there's that word again -- can't possibly match reality. Such is the case with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It's a stunning epic by any standard. By Jackson's, it's just good.

Taking about two pages out of the novel and turning them into an exercise in pure CG spectacle, Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies begins where The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ended: with the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lording over the dwarves' cave kingdom pissed off and ready to take his fire-breathing anger out on the local village of Laketown. Luckily, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), with the help of his son, strike down the diabolical beast, ending its reign of terror if not its devastation. Seeking a safe place for his people, he makes a pact with the dwarves for their help.

In the meantime, heir to the throne, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is back in his realm and succumbing to dragon sickness. He is becoming more and more greedy over the massive cache of gold. Vowing to protect it and the recently released kingdom to his last breath, his actions are troubling to his fellow dwarves and to hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). While Thorin continues his downward spiral, Gandolf (Ian McKellen) is saved from Azog (Manu Bennett) by the White Counsel. He then travels to seek the help of the elves as a massive orc army heads for the mountains. In an epic battle, lives are lost while the true potential power of the ring becomes clear.

If all you care about is action, of witnessing outstanding special F/X and genre fantasy fashioned by a true master of such material, then The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will satisfy your needs to no end. As he proved with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, no one can strategize cinematic mayhem better than Peter Jackson. He has a way of taking several divergent elements and syncing them up in a way that wins you over. Take the rapids barrel ride from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, or the encounter with the goblins from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. With a meticulous eye and attention to flow and narrative drive, this is a director who gets the purpose of entertainment and escape.

During the hour long finalé, made up of attacks and retreats, plotting and last minute reprieves, we see how brilliant Jackson can be. But we also see how hollow the Hobbit films are compared to the gut wrenching emotion of the Lord of the Rings titles. The skill set is still sharp, but the writing is more comic and a bit cloying. When Frodo and Sam suffered on their journey to destroy the One Ring, you felt every triumph and defeat. Here, it all passes by without so much as a whimper. It's not because of the acting -- everyone is terrific -- but there's so much going on, so much to consider and wonder about that it's almost impossible to become invested. And this is only one book, not three.

There's also a sense here that Jackson is less interested in the big picture than in individual scenes. When the Orcs come over the mountain to show their strength, it's an amazing "hero" moment. Similarly, when the battle lines are broken and Thorin is trying to stave off the assault, you feel the urgency. But since we know where this material is going, since we know Bilbo lives (how else can he influence Frodo to follow his lead) and Gandalf will still be around, there's an anticlimactic element to the storytelling. Even as Thorin and Azog fight to the death on a frozen waterfall, we don't find ourselves concerned over their fate so much as wondering how the inevitable will happen.

Perhaps Guillermo Del Toro should have stayed on as director. Jackson is an old hat at Middle Earth magic, so we more or less know what to expect. Fresh blood behind the lens could have doomed this project, but it could also have provided the kind of perspective needed to alleviate some of the obvious familiarity. That's not to say that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a bad movie, it's just a basic one. We've already had one near masterpiece explanation of Tolkien. At this point, a full six films in, we just want the books closed forever more. Jackson has said that he won't return to this source again, and that's fine. Last time anyone checked, few were asking for a three film overview of the Bible like Silmarillion.

Again, if one lowers their expectations and takes Jackson and his Hobbit works at face value, as action adventure entertainments, then The Battle of the Five Armies will work for you. On the other hand, if you want more of the mythmaking that turned Tolkien and his traditions into a worldwide phenomenon, better break out your Blu-ray releases of the Lord of the Rings films. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a fine goodbye. It should have been a lot more meaningful than it ends up being.

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