It’s impossible to enter The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies without feeling nostalgic. At least it was for me. The Tolkien films, and I would go as far as to say Tolkien’s works in sum, have changed my life. I don’t say that lightly- but anyone that knows me, or better yet, anyone that’s a close friend, wouldn’t doubt it. The Lord of the Rings is my generation’s Star Wars, the rarest of phenomena that has the mythical power to unite people, cultures, and countries, all under one banner. Call me a populist, but that’s film at its best. Cinema is the connective cultural tissue of the 21st century, and there are few better examples of how and why. But by that same to(l)k(i)en, The Hobbit was a betraying blade that was sharpened by the same stone as the Star Wars Prequels. For many fans, the wound cut deep.
The authenticity and psychological realism of The Lord of the Rings? As lost in An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug as a king was to Gondor circa the start of the Third Age. That is to say, there has been a festering hope the king would return, that the man Bilbo Baggins might describe as “camera wielder” would reclaim his crown. And while I can’t claim that The Battle of the Five Armies is of kingly make—or a great movie— it comes closer to the majesty of The Lord of The Rings than its predecessors.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien wrote greed as a pathology, an addiction-like sickness that cruelly passes through bloodlines. Quickly following the events of The Desolation of Smaug, where Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his company of 14 took control of Erebor, The Lonely Mountain, Thorin descends into “dragon sickness,” an affliction where gold embodies the same properties as heroin to a life-long addict. After claiming his throne, the “King Under the Mountain” has to pay his debts, but he’s no Lannister. Thorin refuses to honor his agreement to the people of Laketown, including the reluctant leader Bard (Luke Evans); they will get no gold. There are also sacred jewels composed of pure starlight that rightfully belong to Elven King Thranduil (a gleefully sassy Lee Pace), and they form a delicate (and deadly) alliance to receive their payment. They each have armies behind them, and especially with news an orc army led by Azog the Defiler is heading toward the Lonely Mountain, war is inevitable.
Peter Jackson called The Battle of the Five Armies a psychological thriller, a statement referring to Thorin. I agree, but I’ll do him one better. It’s a psychological thriller by way of King Lear, or, more specifically, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ran. There’s a mad king, and his forceful protection of his kingdom– and his fall into madness— launches disparaging kingdoms to conflict and eventually war. This is the makeup of Shakespeare, and as a result The Battle of the Five Armies burns with the dragon fire of tension. There is a sturdy narrative foundation, not of a dragon slain (if you think this is a spoiler you haven’t been paying attention) but of a king gone mad. Thorin’s madness is the catalyst of the entire story, making the escalating uneasiness between Bard, Thranduil, and Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connelly) feel focused when it easily could have felt convoluted.
As an additional boon to the quality of the writing, subtlety and nuance, two words never before spoken of this series, appropriately describe the tragic relationship between Bilbo and Thorin and the morally opposed partnership of Bard and Thranduil. Additionally, in a moment of creative inspiration, we’re thrust into the disturbed mind of Thorin in a visually audacious psychedelic head trip that’s as haunting as it is visceral. The scene is pure Peter Jackson, and shows a filmmaker creatively inspired by material that previously seems to have bored him. While no single scene from The Battle of the Five Armies matches the grandeur of Bilbo’s battle of wits with Gollum or Smaug the Stupendous, it has enough real drama. Thanks to the writing and the film’s strong sense of visuals, it doesn't need one. The burning of Laketown comes closest as one of the finest sequences of Peter Jackson’s career, and truthfully recalls the scope, scale, and emotion of The Lord of the Rings.
The series’ newfound focus allows you to feel more forgiving of its many flaws. There’s the frequent tonal clashes, especially ones having to do with the Master of Laketown’s (Stephen Fry) insufferable assistant Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who’s the closest thing these movies come to having a Jar Jar Binks. He has no place in the movie, and that he’s in it so much and other things (Beorn!) are in it so little acts only as an insult to viewers. Some stretches simply don’t work, and the first half hour is a slot machine of hit or miss. The Ravenhill climax is simultaneously one of The Hobbit’s best inventions while also being representative of the series’ many missteps. The sequence is often exhilarating but nevertheless exhausts by the unrelenting volume of “epic” action moments and “huge” emotion (that doesn’t always work). If the dwarf-elf romance from Smaug bothered you, be prepared for a climax semi-dedicated to it. I recommend using your time wisely during these moments as they run long. Meditate, perhaps.
Speaking of the battle, which I’ve somehow gone six whole paragraphs without mentioning, it’s predictably spectacular. Predictable because nobody in movies today goes epic the way Peter Jackson goes epic. This is also why his restraint is bold. Peter Jackson, the master of excess, waits. The first hour is patient, devoted to developing and understanding the cast of heroes—Thorin, Bilbo (the titular character that has less to do than ever, regardless of how perfectly Martin Freeman plays him), Thranduil, and Bard—before smashing them together in a bravura battle sequence that lasts more than an hour and a half. The action wows, like a chill-inducing moment when charging elves leap over the backs of dwarves into battle. Most surprising of all is that his restraint lingers into the battle itself. We see surprisingly little of the fighting, with PJ frequently cutting to intimate fights, like Bard defending his children to a troll or Thranduil confronting ten orcs at once. A brief but badass cutaway to Dol Guldur with Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) aside, the action is almost entirely staged in one location, and there’s a claustrophobic intensity that gives the sequence a distinct quality separating it from Helm’s Deep or Minas Tirith.
Other than a few wide shots of army-on-army warfare, we experience the battle only through the leading characters, which keeps things grounded without undermining the epic epicness of it all. It’s the first Hobbit with a genuine sense of stakes, and a big reason for that is how Peter Jackson strategically hangs the story on the shoulders of the characters and its very capable cast. The filmmakers have crafted for us a vivid geography of the battle space, making it easy to imagine which faction is where, how they relate to each other, and how it all started with a king going mad. The Battle of the Five Armies works because of its focus, and we see a rejuvenated Peter Jackson unafraid to finally make bold choices. The third Hobbit’s failures are simple but its triumphs are complex, but in the end it’s nothing less than hobbit holes of fun. It is a satisfying, rousing end to our six-film journey through Middle Earth.
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