Bilbo and Company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the terrifying Smaug from acquiring a kingdom of treasure and obliterating all of Middle-Earth.
Year 3, Film #45
THE REVIEW: Ever since The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out two years ago, I’ve been part of a small, but ever-growing minority of supporters for Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth. Many people criticized the first movie to be painstakingly slow, spending over an hour in the Shire alone. With The Desolation of Smaug, more people got on board to these adaptations because it seemed to move quicker, be much more focused, and overall the Middle Earth we came to love in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Now, the tides have turned a bit. Based on early reviews, the overwhelming response from most critics is that The Battle of the Five Armies is the best of The Hobbit prequels and is on a level comparable to the original Rings films. While I won’t go so far as to say these claims are unfounded, I certainly left the theater utterly disappointed and confused as to why so many people are liking this film when they didn’t enjoy the first two Hobbit films. Believe me, if you took a poll, I would have easily landed among the most excited to see what the marketing team is describing as “The Defining Chapter”. Now having seen it, I can’t say the same thing.
A large contributing factor is that I feel the film started off on the wrong foot. The Desolation of Smaug ends with the dragon Smaug escaping the Lonely Mountain and heading to Lake-town to wreck havoc, and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) remarks, “What have we done.” The Battle of the Five Armies starts off with the conclusion to that thought and serves as a sort of prologue to the rest of the movie. This opening sequence was great. It starts the film off with a bang, gets you invested right away, and sets the tone for what’s sure to be an action-filled movie to follow. My expectations were being met and I was eager to see the rest unfold.
The only problem? This should have been the end of the second film instead of the beginning of the third. Because after this opening sequence ends, it’s like Peter Jackson slams on the breaks and turns around because he missed his exit. The Battle of the Five Armies is about the Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), his fellow dwarves, their fight to retain their home, and perhaps most importantly, the impending doom and darkness that’s about to fall over Middle Earth. Having Smaug kick off the film get’s you in the wrong mindset for what makes Five Armies so great. It’s nothing about the journey to get to Erebor, it’s about everything that happens after. Smaug’s wrath is the tail end of the former, and having it compete with the latter in Five Armies is a bit like crossing the streams.
Because of this, I went through the film distracted; not able to connect what I was seeing with what everything meant. At 144 minutes long Five Armies is the shortest film of the six Middle Earth epics but it feels like one of the longest (Two Towers being the closest comparison methinks to the Rings trilogy, stupid Ents). All of the little character moments scattered throughout the film blew right by me and left little to no impact: Thorin’s descent into madness due to dragon sickness (read: there’s a shit ton of gold in the mountain and he wants to keep it all), Thranduil’s (Lee Pace) quest for partial domination of the North, and Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and company over in Dol Guldur with the Necromancer (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) just to list a few. Instead of supporting the themes of loyalty, friendship, and the fight for good this film should be about, these moments played out like non sequiturs that felt thrown in to make a point. Whereas normally I feel like most minor (and major) details are well integrated (and a big reason I’m such a fan of the extended editions), instead they felt disconnected and disparate from the story as a whole.
Another thing I just couldn’t seem to process was this film’s sense of “humor”. While Peter Jackson has infused a certain level and style of comedy into these films (more so with The Hobbit films), with Five Armies there was an added level of what I can only assume was unintentional humor. The intentional funny parts were indeed some of the best in the entire franchise. Martin Freeman deserves recognition for his performance as Bilbo and for imbuing that character with a charisma that is so likable. All Bilbo needs to do is make one of his faces, reacting to something that Thorin says for example, and we can be left in smiles. However, there are also some other scenes that had the entire audience laughing, even when the moment was probably intended as a serious one.
A great example is towards the end when Thranduil is talking to his son, Legolas (Orlando Bloom). It’s a quiet scene, the big battle is over and things are calming down, and Tranduil’s line is “Your mother loved you.” Earlier in the film we hear Legolas talk about his mother and how she died at Gundabad (an orc stronghold). That scene is saddening and we feel for Legolas. When Thranduil speaks, the entire audience erupted with laughter. It was so abrupt, out of place, and insincere that all you could do was laugh. There is not one good reason I can think of why that line was necessary or what it added to the film besides confusion.
Even the eponymous battle between dwarves, elves, men, and two separate factions of orcs — a battle that many are praising as one of the best — I found to be lackluster. Chris Tilly for IGN said, “It’s worth the wait however, the battle featuring the kind of large-scale conflict that Jackson is so good at staging,” and Edward Douglas at Comingsoon.net remarks, “this isn’t just an hour of war between thousands of CG extras, but also a number of smaller one-on-one battles that offer a satisfying resolution to the loose ends created by the previous two films.” Perhaps the most lavish praise comes from Scott Foundas at Variety who describes the battle as:
[Jackson] stages it grandly even by his own Wagnerian standards… This sort of scene, drawing on every available trick in the CGI paintbox, has become such a reliable staple of Jackson’s work (to say nothing of the many lesser films of the past decade that have worn his influence on their sleeves) as to risk seeming almost ordinary. But Jackson, who’s surely aware of this conundrum, invests his five-army rumble with such a visceral feeling for landscape and physical action, a sure eye for elaborate battlefield choreography and, above all, a sense of purpose, that he leaves most of the competition — including some of his own previous battle sequences — seeming like so much digital white noise.
While I would agree that the battle in this film is quite grand, it’s not as epic as it might seem. To begin with, it’s often hard to distinguish between which army is which in most scenes. Elves are fine because they’re clad in golden armor and can be spotted a mile away. All of the other four armies are clad in similar silver/grey armor and chain mail that makes it near impossible to distinguish between them in wide shots. Yes, the dwarves are shorter and are more box-like (in wide shots they look like small, grey, moving and fighting boxes of death) and the men are more haphazard (read: no identical uniforms), but they aren’t to dissimilar from the orcs — and forget about them, the two orc factions look nearly identical they might as well be the same.
It’s not that the battle wasn’t enjoyable or mesmerizing; it was. All of the new creatures from trolls and bats, to “earth-eaters” (I think that was their name) and, probably my personal favorite, war pigs (I don’t care if they have a real name, I’m calling them war pigs). The scale is certainly impressive and tops the Battle of Pelennor Fields (the one in Return of the King outside Minas Tirith), but scale isn’t everything. I think one of the reasons people point to the Battle for Helms Deep (the one in The Two Towers) as the greatest battle in the series is because it is intimate in a way. Night falls as the orcs approach and it feels like you’re there in the pouring rain seeing everything unfold. In Five Armies, there is so much going on you can barely keep track of it all, let alone feel like you’re part of the fight.
THE TAKEAWAY: Ever since I saw The Fellowship of the Ring I fell in love with Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth and all the lore that’s associated with it. While I still can’t stand the books, the films have served as a great and fulfilling substitutes that satiate my needs for information and detail while still conveying the emotions and messages the stories carry. I was excited and extremely pleased when Jackson announced he would be returning to Middle Earth to adapt The Hobbit, along with additional material from the appendices of Lord of the Rings. Where many thought these prequels were boring and drawn-out I found them entertaining and an extension of the world I became fascinated with in Rings.
Unfortunately, with The Battle of the Five Armies, the final journey to Middle Earth, I was left disappointed; all because of the opening sequence in the film. Over the past few days as I’ve written this review, my thoughts and feelings towards this film have mellowed a bit (even if it doesn’t show in my writing) as I try to look at it from the bigger picture1. There’s a lot to love about The Battle of the Five Armies and it serves as a perfect bridge into where things start in Fellowship. It’s hard not to look at Five Armies and not see where it fits into the rest of the world. For any fan, this film is a necessary piece to complete the puzzle and therefore required viewing. And while this film makes a perfect fit into the puzzle as a whole, The Battle of the Five Armies is the first one that fails to work as a standalone piece.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens in theaters on Wednesday, December 17, 2014.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5
Listening to Billy Boyd’s end credits song, “The Last Goodbye” on repeat is certainly helping. Watching this four minute highlight reel is bringing up all the emotions I wanted to feel during Five Armies but didn’t. ↩