Review: The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies

You might notice this review isn’t headlined as ‘Unlimited’ – I saw this at the BFI IMAX in London. This is the biggest screen in the country, and as a huge, HUGE fan of Lord of the Rings, I saw the first and third movies in this second trilogy there as I wanted it to be an experience to remember.

As I’ve mentioned before, I wrote my dissertation about Lord of the Rings – I couldn’t really be a bigger fanboy. As a result, this new trilogy was a big deal for me, and this third film successfully concludes the series while not proving a patch on the original trilogy.

We pick up after the cliffhanger at the end of Desolation of Smaug, where Smaug heads to Lake-town to destroy it. A huge moment in the book, this is a great scene that dominates the first 15 to 20 minutes – and as Thorin begins to succumb to the mountains of gold in his newly-recaptured city, different races of Middle-earth squabble over the riches while Gandalf, Bilbo and others become aware of a threat to them all and try to stop it.

Seeing as Tolkien gives the battle incredibly short shrift, Peter Jackson does well to build tension with scenes both new and hand-picked from Tolkien’s notes to deepen the dread and fear, as well as accentuate the heroism and strength of even the smallest characters. The film is shorter than most of those in Middle-earth, and does really well to raise the stakes – culminating in a downbeat, rather grim conclusion that nevertheless offers hope.

One problem is that we know what will happen – both the battle’s implications and who survives (of the characters we’ve seen before), but this doesn’t detract from its quality. Richard Armitage, as dwarven leader Thorin Oakenshield, is perfect casting as the haughty yet honourable king, and is fantastic at presenting Thorin’s fall and redemption. However, the other dwarves suffer (as in the other films) from being too numerous. This is Tolkien’s fault – they aren’t given much characterisation in the book – and so Jackson focuses on some more than others. While Ken Stott’s kindly Balin and Graham McTavish’s Dwalin had more to do in the other films, Battle of the Five Armies focuses more on Thorin and ‘hot dwarf’ Kili (Aidan Turner), while the rest don’t even get more than a couple of lines each. I would have been happy with less dwarves, but I get why Jackson stayed faithful to the books – they provide a counterpoint to the fellowship. Unlike the fellowship however, most of the dwarves are forgettable, anonymous and superfluous.

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Martin Freeman, as Bilbo, is somewhat forgotten for large parts of the film, but comes into his own. I struggle to think of who else could have played Bilbo as Freeman balances between jaded, frantic and sensitive, much as he does with his other characters (Sherlock’s Watson for example). He has less to do here, but with Tolkien sidelining Bilbo for the whole battle in the books, anything extra is progress – and some of the conclusive scenes see Freeman provide great emotion (something missing in the second film) as well as a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

Among the rest of the cast, Ian McKellen is great as always as Gandalf, and it’s sad to see him finally play the role for the last time. This also goes for Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Christopher Lee’s Saruman, who thankfully all get a great scene early on that shows just why their characters are considered so important to Middle-earth. Orlando Bloom still looks too old, but his inclusion made sense, and helps tie the two series together, while playing an unemotional warrior elf is still about the best role for him!

Luke Evan’s Bard is understated as a selfless man who accepts power reluctantly, and while his kids are annoying, they give him more of a reason to exist as a character, which is a worthwhile change. Lee Pace’s Thranduil gives us a different, more selfish kind of elf, and the actor gives the character an edge that was really interesting, while Evangeline Lilley’s Tauriel – a good idea for a new female character – suffers from being a love interest, and as such isn’t able to do much. Finally, nonsensical comic relief in the form of Alfrid (Ryan Gage) offers a pantomime villain and some levity, but I would have preferred more Stephen Fry (his character doesn’t survive Smaug’s attack here, but remains alive in the book).

One big issue with this film and the series concerns orcs. The orcs of the original films and the Shadow of Mordor game are tangible, ugly monsters we can hate. This trilogy’s head orcs Azog and Bolg are CGI monstrosities, which completely takes away their menace. Yes the CGI is good (for Azog at least) but it isn’t necessary, and alongside an invisible Sauron as the bad guy (again), they remove any sense of real villainy (with the exceptions of Gollum and Smaug).

I think CGI is a great tool – but in these films we’ve seen Peter Jackson go OTT, and the events feel unreal and sometimes downright ridiculous contrasted to the huge human effort that went into LotR. You felt swept up at Helm’s Deep; at Erebor you just wonder when you’ll see something not filmed in front of a green screen. This obsession even extends to an appearance from Billy Connolly that, quite frankly, looks like a terrible video game character for no reason. And don’t even get me started on the pointless, invented-for-the-film worm creatures. URGH.

The music again is anonymous (after a fantastic first film soundtrack that had me really hopeful of another epic trilogy of scores), and I didn’t feel New Zealand was visible until we return to Bag End. Jackson still has a remarkable eye for action and battle, but where the LotR films focused on humanity, emotion and friendship in war, the Hobbit films culminate in conflict with no sense (at least until the conclusion) of any tangible emotion.

I enjoyed this film and Desolation of Smaug, but An Unexpected Journey is the peak of this trilogy – visually, thematically and musically. I loved being back in Middle-earth in the first film, which felt much more like part of the whole saga, where as the latter two feel off – like a bad imitation at times, but strong enough in other ways to justify their existence.

I disagree that there should have only been one or two films: how could you characterise Bilbo and Thorin’s internal struggles, or do justice to Gollum, Smaug, Thranduil, the growing threat of Sauron and the men of Lake-town? By filling time with scenes and plot threads from Tolkien, Jackson justifies three films, but with increased amounts of CGI and the missed opportunity to define most of the dwarves as individual characters (or at least lowering their number), I feel that the series could have been better as a whole, with a great opportunity dropped after An Unexpected Journey‘s early promise.

All the same, I’m thankful I got to go back to Middle-earth three more times, and I realise how lucky us fans were to be able to go and see three more films at all. I just wish they’d been a bit more like the original three!

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