Peter Jackson’s final film of his latest trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, goes out on a high note. It’s leaps and bounds better than its predecessors and almost excuses the lengthy boredom of the first Hobbit film and the extended set-pieces that populated the still improved second entry. It’s good enough to make one wish the other two films were condensed into a single volume and this could stand on its own as a singular entity. It’s a thrilling and emotionally exciting end to a grand adventure that delivers on the same promises and expectations fans of Jackson’s work have had from the start.
Picking up immediately after the perfunctory end of Desolation of Smaug with the devastation of Lake-town by way of a pissed off dragon (once again voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), this entry once again comes up short on actual Hobbit-based action. Martin Freeman delivers his best performance of the series, but Jackson takes his sweet time getting there or giving ring-master Bilbo Baggins much of anything to do. At least this time, unlike with Desolation of Smaug, Jackson has plenty of interesting material to work with, allowing what could have amounted to a dull and dreary bit of political power playing to take centre stage.
With the wealth of his empire reclaimed from the dragon that once guarded it, the once noble and humble Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has gone mad with power and “dragon sickness,” ordering Bilbo and his travelling companions to fortify, hole up, and defend the mountain from potential outside invaders. Bilbo has been secretly hiding the one object that Thorin covets the most in his scattered abundance of riches in hopes that his once trusted friend will snap out of his dementia and come to his sense. The dwarves face two different sets of challengers with different ideologies and approaches. The humans, led by their hero Bard (Luke Evans), simply want what Thorin promised them so they can rebuild their village and their lives. The elves, on the other hand, and their army leader Thranduil (Lee Pace) want to reclaim a relatively inconsequential number of precious jewels that once belonged to them, and they’re willing to die for it. The humans try to negotiate, the elves let them, Thorin declines, war seems inevitable, and unbeknownst to all but a captured Gandalf (Ian McKellen) there are a ton of Orcs coming to take the mountain as their own and lay waste to anyone and anything that gets in their way.
It’s actually a simple enough set up that despite the early start only requires knowledge of the second film for any of this entry to make sense. To a certain degree, the efficiency of Jackson’s work here (alongside his frequent screenwriter collaborators) makes the first film’s endless exposition now seem highly useless in hindsight, and the lack of exposition in the second entry feel like it’s not enough to pay off this film’s several subplots and side stories.
Some of the tangential material works. Evangeline Lilly and Orlando Bloom have more to do here than in the last outing with a scouting side quest that goes nowhere special in terms of plotting, but offers a lot of character beats that are nice. Lily’s Tauriel has a genuinely tender relationship with the star-crossed Dwarf she has fallen for (played really nicely by Aidan Turner, who really lights up the movie whenever he’s on screen), and her relationship to Bloom’s protective, yet progressive brother comes with its own interesting sensitivity.
A beefed up role for Ryan Gage’s political lackey and opportunist human from the last film adds sometimes awkwardly shoehorned comedic relief, but he looks like he’s having a campy, good time. All those other dwarves that aren’t played by Turner or Armitage are all so indistinguishable by now that it’s hard to imagine why they all needed to be introduced so languorously in the first film. But really the film’s worst asset is McKellen, and not because of his performance, but because the film can’t reconcile what to do with a character that’s barely around and has only passing bearing on things. He starts the movie still trapped, gets saved by way of a quartet of magical cameos that do more than he does, and upon his release all he does is glower and shit talk everything else the characters do. McKellen is a fine actor, and he’s probably best known for Gandalf, but if you ever stop to think about his character, he’s probably the shittiest do-gooder in Middle Earth.
As for Freeman, he has to make the most of the screen time he’s given. As a title character, the onus rests on him to make an impression, and yet the films have increasingly shown that they rarely give a damn about Bilbo and more about the mess he finds himself in. It’s not like the Lord of the Rings trilogy where Frodo and Sam were off on their own dangerous quest. In these films (with the exception of the first, which in a rare point in its favour actually did centre on Bilbo), the main character finds himself in a situation that’s emotionally and metaphorically bigger than he is. Instead of actually having a ton to accomplish, Freeman has to convey a sense of weariness for his friends and for the audience. He has to look fed up, but never defeated or pessimistic. It’s an intriguing balance when he’s put in opposition to Armitage’s nicely realized good guy turned evil act. The scenes where Freeman and Armitage are left to their own devices to talk free of any other characters are the highlights of the film in a dramatic sense.
But the film ultimately belongs on an acting level to Pace and Evans, both of whom play vastly different leaders trying to strike accords with each other and the forces they attempt to sway or destroy. Evans, who usually gets cast as the villain in almost anything he’s in, once again gets to showcase a sense of compassion and heroic élan that he rarely gets the chance to do. Meanwhile, Pace’s perpetually side-eyed and greedy glory hog offers a unique counterpart; an opposition to negotiating a peaceful settlement to the situation that still undoubtedly knows more about the situation than those who want peace and reason.
Jackson has gotten better at conveying a sense of conflict in Middle Earth after stumbling somewhat with the plot dynamics of the two previous films. He balances the world’s shifting and constantly mutable alliances as deftly here as he did in Return of the King, but again, that only serves as a way of wishing the previous Hobbit films could have followed suit. Even on a visual level he feels more confident with the high frame rate shooting style that he attempted twice before to sometimes mixed results. He finally gets everything more or less right here, but where was this Jackson when the other two films were being made? He seems like someone who has become a poster boy for being a victim of his own ambition.
Granted, there’s a lot of ambition in this film. The much talked about and lengthy climactic battle sequence between the forces of good and evil doesn’t skimp on the extravagance and spectacle, but it also never forgets that there are characters with actual personal stakes in the fight. There’s just enough substance to make the sequence work and not enough slow points for the character beats to detract. It never comes across as a gimmick designed to bring back audiences that might have felt the first two films were (rightfully) too slow for their own good.
It should also be noted that the opening battle with Smaug, the stunning new design of the Orcs, a bit involving some “war bats,” Legolas fighting on a crumbling bridge, and a fight between one of the main characters and a monstrous baddie on a frozen lake are true show stoppers in their own right. The technical credits are once again impressive, and this time noteworthy, from Howard Shore’s impressive score to every individual aspect of the production design. It might be the better material that makes everything stand out so much better this time out, but the effort is still worthy of appreciation.
Ultimately, if you thought the first two films of this series did little for you, you’ll probably enjoy Five Armies, but still not love it after what you already had to sit through. If you’re a Tolkien or Jackson enthusiast, this will finally give you what you wanted from the start, and just enough to not burn you out before the inevitable special edition that adds an hour or more footage to what’s already a two and a half hour movie. But honestly, this is probably the only one of these films I would ever want to spend more time with and probably the only film in the trilogy I’d purposefully revisit another time.