The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 2014, New Line Cinema. Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Lee Pace, Luke Evans.
Perhaps I’m being mean, but on some levels, The Hobbit was always going to be somewhat of a disappointment. The Lord of the Rings breathed new life into fantasy and changed the game for blockbusters over the course of the decade in terms of aesthetic and marketing a trilogy. It was bold, exciting and showed what could be done with a bold, exciting director and a cast ready and willing to throw themselves into a world that, treated with too much reverence or too much flippancy, could have just looked a bit silly.
Eleven years since Return of the King, Battle of the Five Armies has taken the final bow for Middle Earth, and though it’s not quite with a whimper, it’s certainly not with the same bang. Much has changed in fantasy since 2003 and The Hobbit has never quite managed to stake its claim away away from Lord of the Rings and its ever lengthening shadow.
After Smaug has been desolated himself, people start to take a lot of interest in the Lonely Mountain and the riches therein, with just the one line of dialogue given to how this mountain is actually the gateway to the evil kingdom of Angmar (which is why two lots of Orc army want it). Thorin, overcome with all that glitters, backs away from his promise to the people of Laketown to share Smaug's wealth and decides it’ll be much nicer kept all to himself. Thranduil (Lee Pace, manfully battling with the largest eyebrows in modern cinema) wants a necklace with special gems in it and will quite cheerfully wage war over them, despite not mentioning them before or since. Some more dwarves turn up to lend Thorin a hand and then the film meanders as various creatures hobble each other under a moody sky.
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So really, in the conclusion to the Middle Earth saga, there’s a battle, a bit with a dragon and Bilbo doing his very best John Watson impression. How they managed to cram this all into two and a half hours is a miracle of editing.
It all feels very tacked on, which is a problem that stems from the source material. In the book, Bilbo misses the battle entirely, and so therefore does the reader. However, the previous films spent so long leading up to Smaug, when he’s dismissed in a spectacular pre-credits scene, there is a sense of a scramble to keep everyone’s interest. If there was more build up to the bad guys in Angmar, maybe there wouldn’t be such a feeling of loss when the dragon goes down, but as it stands the Big Bad is gone before we have a bigger bad to take his place.
Which leads me to the good side of Five Armies; it’s chock-a-block with really cool bits, Smaug being its crowning glory. Benedict Cumberbatch is obviously having an enormously good time being the most awesome dragon ever and he is breathtaking as he takes out an entire town in three minutes. Legolas, after a wobbly start in the previous film, is in full swing here; remember how cool it was when he took down a battle elephant in Return of the King? He’s way cooler here, unburdened with clunky dialogue this time around as he lets his sword do the talking – his fight scenes are full of air punching moments and it’s nice to see him kick ass and take names again. Even Galadriel gets to show her awesome side in a scene that highlights just how terrifyingly powerful she really is.
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And the ending is perfect. This, more than all of the portentous chatter about a gathering darkness, ties this trilogy to The Lord of the Rings. It’s beautifully judged, brimming with affection and really lifts the entire film. Without it, it could have been quite unsatisfying. Now, it really does feel like things have come to a close that can leave people happy.
No, it’s not another Lord of the Rings and I doubt it will inspire a generation of filmmakers to get out there and make their own mark on the cinematic landscape. But it’s fun, it’s worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find and it’s one more trip into Middle Earth before Peter Jackson puts his toys away for good.