Reviews

'The Battle of the Five Armies' Brings a Bloated Trilogy to Its End

This epic flick concludes a trilogy that, in retrospect, should have been a duology.


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
Distributor: MGM
Rated: PG-13
US DVD release date: 2015-03-24

When I reviewed the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, I had two main complaints: the flabbiness of the narrative and the videogame-like aspect of many of the action set pieces. While we have to wait until later this year for an Extended Edition of Battle of the Five Armies, I'll say now that I expect more of the same in the first department, based on the theatrical version, but less of the second department.

I'll tackle the narrative first. As I said in my earlier review, I didn't join the chorus of complaints when Peter Jackson announced that The Hobbit would be three films, since it really is an epic story, despite its original presentation as a simple children's tale when it was first published. Tolkien fleshed out much of what was happening in Middle-Earth during that time when he wrote the appendices for The Lord of the Rings, so I gave the first two Hobbit films a pass when they brought in the Necromancer and depicted a meeting between Saruman, Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel.

However, when the second film introduced a new, non-Tolkien character, the female wood elf Tauriel, and brought Legolas into the proceedings as much as possible, Jackson and company started to veer into fan fiction territory. That problem didn't go away in Battle of the Five Armies, which milks those characters, along with Tauriel's silly romance with one of the dwarves, for all they're worth. The film also spends too much time with the Master of Laketown and his Wormtongue-esque toadie, Alfrid, but inexplicably neglects to show us the fate of the latter, along with shortchanging the conclusion of a character arc for Bard, the heroic archer who kills Smaug.

The result is a film that could have easily been combined with its predecessor to create a leaner second part of a two-film series that would have still retained the epic qualities of the first movie. The Internet's knee-jerk reactions to just about anything can often be woefully off-kilter, but in this case, the rabble-rousers were spot-on in respect.

But no matter how Jackson structured his Hobbit narrative, it would have been better had he included none of the videogame-like set pieces, which were a particular plague in the second film. For example, getting in barrels and floating down the river didn't need to be expanded into a whiz-bang set piece with Legolas behaving as if someone at Weta was mashing buttons on a controller. If Jackson had wanted to lengthen that sequence, he would have been better served with some suspense; for example, some inquisitive orcs who argue over whether to intercept the barrels as Bilbo and the dwarves worry that they'll be found and killed could have been a good addition.

However, Jackson gets credit for toning down the Weta button-mashing in the third film. There's one particularly egregious example where Legolas is jumping among falling stones as a bridge collapses, but otherwise, Battle of the Five Armies puts its CGI focus on some breathtaking attacks on Laketown by Smaug as well as some stirring fighting during the titular battle.

You may want to wait for the inevitable Extended Edition, with its banquet of bonus features, before grabbing this film on Blu-ray. After all, if you've decided to overeat, will adding another course to the meal really make much of a difference? If you'd rather not wait, this release includes a series of featurettes that give a high-level view of the making of the film, with the meaty materials likely saved for that later release.

New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth Part 3 is a six-minute look at the country that did an admirable job of standing in for Middle-Earth for six movies. This feature is well done in its depiction of the geography of New Zealand.

As Recruiting the Five Armies shows, not every extra lives in a computer when Jackson makes a Tolkien film. This 12-minute piece follows this movie's extras as they do their thing. If you buy into Jackson's vision for this trilogy, Completing Middle-earth: A Six-Part Saga consists of ten minutes of him explaining how Battle of the Five Armies fits into his six-film master plan. To be fair, his six films hang together way better than George Lucas' six Star Wars movies.

For anyone who can remember reading rumors about the original Lord of the Rings films in the late '90s, the feature Completing Middle-earth: A Seventeen-Year Journey will be nine minutes of sweet nostalgia. However, for those who aren't huge fans of behind-the-scenes looks at songs from movies (this writer included), The Last Goodbye: Behind the Scenes will be 11 minutes too long. The music video for Billy Boyd's (Pippin in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy) tune is included too, of course.

The theatrical trailer and a promo for the Extended Edition release are also included.

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