And so it ends — Peter Jackson’s sprawling, six-film adaptation of Professor J.R.R. Tolkien’s enormously popular and influential Middle-Earth saga, which began innocently enough with a little fellow who lived in a hole in the ground, and ended with, well, another little fellow returning to that same hole in the ground to finish the book the original little fellow started. Sandwiched between those two innocuous events was a century’s worth of sturm and drang involving wizened yet aloof wizards, giant fiery eyeballs, haughty elves, squealing orcs, magic rings, treasure-hoarding dragons, giant elephants, winged demons, a shape-shifting bear man, reluctant kings, stubborn dwarves, ambulatory trees, war, fate, death, love, hope, and the fate of the universe often resting in the hands of beings slight in stature, but mighty in resolve.
So, after taking a critical pummeling for stretching out a 300-page children’s book to three bloated opuses and trading in a massive percentage of practical sets, location shoots, and traditional effects work for gratuitous digital chicanery—all things I’ve discussed at great length about in my reviews for the previous films An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation Of Smaug —does Peter Jackson redeem himself and deliver a spectacular final chapter that makes the Hobbit trilogy a more cohesive epic worthy of the legacy forged by the Lord Of The Rings movies?
Well, not really…but he puts up a nice fight before succumbing to the sword.
The Battle Of The Five Armies (BOFA for brevity’s sake) is once again a mixed bag of gorgeous scenery, epic battles, and some nice emotional moments juxtaposed against some horrendous CGI, garish digital color-correction, ultra-fakey green screened environments, and characters who are utterly superfluous to the narrative. Its strengths this time around are the zippy pacing (“I wanted to make it sharp and fast rather than the epic-quest type pace,” Jackson told Variety), some strong beats between Bilbo and Thorin Oakenshield, and some more terrific tension-building leading up to the titular clash.
When it comes time to rally the host, beat the war drums, and prepare for Armageddon, no one does it like Peter Jackson — and when he finally sounds the booming war horn, PJ and his army of artists at Weta Workshop and Weta Digital belch forth a lavish, awe-inspiring, scary, exciting, goofy, surreal, and utterly bonkers battle sequence pitting dwarves, elves, orcs, men, and an array of grotesqueries (big bats! giant worms! battle pigs! disturbing man-baby trolls!) against one another in a nearly 90 minute-long orgy of fantasy violence on a scale that won’t soon be repeated. The majority of it is a lot of fun, and what I liked about it is that, while it probably involved more moving pieces and effects work than any other sequence in the six-film saga, it didn’t overshadow Helm’s Deep or the Battle Of Pelennor fields in terms of what was at stake. The battle also manages to retain a whimsical feel that’s more in-line with the tone of the source material.
While I had some issues with the geography of the fight (I couldn’t grasp how any humans occupying the city of Dale could possibly survive or put up any kind of fight, given the sheer number of orcs and giant trolls seen streaming through its broken walls), the real problem here is that the moral of the tale—greed and selfishness can be overcome by loyalty, honor, and friendship—gets lost amidst all of the indulgent, video game-esque spectacle, and Jackson’s compulsion to keep cutting away to the forced comic relief of Ryan Gage’s slimy Alfrid character. It’s obvious Jackson became wildly enamored with Gage’s poor man’s Grima Wormtongue shtick from The Desolation of Smaug, and decided to run it into the ground in BOFA; and the worst part about it is he deprives the audience the satisfaction of seeing this sniveling rat get his comeuppance at the hands of some gruesome beastie. (Maybe in the eventual extended edition, we’ll see Alfrid get impaled by a Azog’s arm-blade, or trampled by a war pig.)
BOFA also continues the unfortunate trend of squandering the talents of the wonderful Martin Freeman, who—despite being the titular Hobbit of the story—is all too often shunted out of the narrative by the aforementioned superfluous characters and needless subplots. (I’m looking at you, Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili love triangle.) It’s certainly nice to see the White Council (Elrond, Galadriel, Radagast and Saruman) again, and while the sequence where they show up to rescue Gandalf from his cage in Dol Gildur and Galadriel goes all Dark Phoenix on Sauron’s ghostly servants is pretty damn cool, what does any of it have to do with Bilbo trying to fulfill his obligations to the Dwarves, or Thorin’s quest to rebuild the Kingdom of Eerebor and escape the “dragon sickness” that brought ruination to his bloodline? Jackson and screenwriters Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh simply dropped the ball on the Bilbo Baggins character in this trilogy; failing to provide him with the narrative focus afforded to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings or exploring the Hobbit’s love of puzzles, games, and his obsession with cartography. It’s a testament to Freeman’s effortless charm that he is able to squeeze blood from a stone in terms of the limited material he was given.
At least this time around I found myself noticing (and appreciating) more of the breathtaking New Zealand scenery, which is thankfully more abundant in this installment due to most of the action taking place at the base of the Lonely Mountain in broad daylight. In fact, BOFA could have the most beautiful shot in the entire six-film saga: a super-wide helicopter panorama of Gandalf and Bilbo riding home towards the Shire on a stretch of mountain road resplendent with gorgeous rock formations and purple lupins. If you’ve seen any of the special features on the Hobbit Extended Edition Blu-rays, you’ll know much of the prior films took place in underground caverns, elf dungeons, and the halls of Ererbor; all sets consisting of one or two rock walls, and perhaps a pillar here or there, but otherwise completed with yards and yards of green screens, so to see grass and mountains again with little to no digital color-correction was a spirit-lifting breath of fresh air — but perhaps a bit too little, too late.
In the early 1960s, Professor Tolkien attempted to rewrite The Hobbit in the style of The Lord Of The Rings in an effort to make the tale better match up with his epic masterpiece, but quickly realized the notion was sheer folly and abandoned it. He likely realized that sometimes, things are better left alone to be what they are. What doomed this Hobbit film trilogy is Peter Jackson stubbornly carrying out Tolkien’s aborted concept and failing to reconcile the simplicity and playfulness of the Professor’s children’s book with the sprawling, mythic aesthetic and themes of The Lord Of The Rings. It was, as Bilbo put it, “Butter scraped over too much bread.”
In my review of The Desolation of Smaug I touched upon the parallels between Thorin’s arc and Jackson’s career trajectory/ current approach to filmmaking—both became obsessed with power and glitz and endless shiny objects—but while Thorin was able to shake it off, find himself again, regain his honor, and realize that simpler things were more important, Jackson remains consumed by “the sickness”; perhaps too exhausted at the end of this long journey to ever regain his old touch or philosophy. However, what he’s done here is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, and his Middle Earth is still a powerful, beautiful, mysterious place, whether its coated in CGI goop or not. The brilliant, back-breaking work of the countless actors, designers, artists, craftsmen, model builders, and technical crew cannot—and should not—be overlooked.
BOFA is marketed as “The Defining Chapter” of the trilogy, but the defining moment by far is its quietest — a beleaguered Bilbo and Gandalf sit next to one another in the aftermath of the battle and share a knowing, comfortable silence while the old wizard stokes his pipe. It’s one of the rare cases in this trilogy where Jackson shows restraint and nuance, and Freeman and McKellan are so remarkable that they don’t have to say a word to create some emotional resonance. Of course, if you’re the cynical type, you could view Bilbo and ol’ Gandalf here as audience surrogates; weary and bludgeoned and at a loss for words following six-plus hours of meandering bloat and PJ’s unchecked need to throw everything he can imagine up on the screen, whether it serves a purpose (or looks good) or not.
3 stars out of 5.
For more discussion on The Battle Of The Five Armies, be sure to listen to our all Middle-Earth episode of The LeagueCast !