For all the huffing and puffing we’ve done over Peter Jackson‘s Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one big juicy payoff. For story look elsewhere, as Jackson’s latest is a smorgasbord of VFX battle scenes, one right after the other for practically the entire running time. Those not looking for elf-on-dwarf-on-man-on-orc action ought to look elsewhere as this is literally the foundation, the studs and the dry wall of this movie. Those thinking that sounds pretty, pretty good, rejoice, as this third Hobbit installment is Jackson’s most bombastic to date. Somehow it’s also his most restrained and the tightest of the series as well; it’s shorter and battle-ier than any LOTR-related installment and only has one ending. Color me satisfied.
Picking up in the midst of the Smaug v. Laketown populace face-off that Desolation of Smaug capped off on, The Battle of the Five Armies wastes little time dispensing with the namesake of the second film. From the get-go, this is a narrative charged with finality and doesn’t purport to drag its feet getting there. In past Hobbit installments, Jackson has made brevity his enemy and this opening pre-title card sequence makes fast work of ejecting old habits while setting the stage for that golden payday at the end of the tunnel. Call it a marketing strategy if you must but I believe Jackson’s claim that this third entry is his favorite of the prequel trilogy. You can finally taste his passion again.
In the smoldering ashes of a battle equally won and lost, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) is now a certifiable hero while Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), atop an insurmountable pile of loot, battles a monkey on his back that’s poisoning him against his fellow Dwarf companions and the increasingly faithful Bilbo (Martin Freeman). Dragon’s gold is said to hold that kind of sway and within this internal battle Armitage is afforded the opportunity to flesh out the themes of paranoia and addiction that have been bubbling to the surface in these Lord of the Rings prequels. Studying the not-so-subtle nuance of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s source material and his very specific in-book relationship to the idea of addiction, it’s clear that there’s no short pathway to redemption in Tolkein’s Middle Earth. For all his struggles, Gollum is never redeemed. Boromir ends up a pincushion for his once ring-craving. And Frodo and Bilbo ultimately end up shipped off to Elf rehab because they can never escape the sway of the ring. Ownership always ends in bloodshed and torment.
Jonesing over a stupid amount of wealth, Oakenshield’s internal battles get a touch hokey (the golden whirlwind of bad choice) but it’s his character’s pig-headedness and his fellow race’s predilection towards greed that becomes the fulcrum point of this five armies affairs. Everyone’s got their own legitimate or illegitimate claim to the fallen Smaug’s treasury and even in light of advancing enemies forces, struggle to band together to defeat a far greater foe. It’s thematic even if it does hit the nail on the head.
But what am I on about? Jackson’s sixth never pretends to be anything more than smashing time at the Hulk convention. There’s enough f*cking battle to make Hitler jealous (guy was a big fan of CGI.) An intercut twofer of big baddie fights pretty much occupies the entire third act. Turns out Orlando Bloom engaged in more gravity-defying elf-crobatics matches up with Armitage playing CrossFit with Azog the Sword-Armed like peanut butter and chocolate. For once in this series, I wasn’t just waiting for it to end. I was engrossed.
In chaos, Jackson excels. He makes big spectacle set pieces look grand beyond belief. From Smaug’s beautifully-rendered firebreather to copious stretches of advancing Orcs, The Battle of Five Armies is earmarked by a preeminent sense of technical mastership. The large-scale cacophony of peoples is a marvel to behold. Though 48 FPS (rightfully) went the way of the Balrog, I can imagine that this action-hectic film would have been breathtaking under the cowl of those next-gen glasses.
Rather than bake everything in a long string of fanfare, Jackson manages to tie things up rather quickly once the armies and their battles subside. Thank goodness. I don’t think the franchise could withstand a Return of the King triple decker ending.
From the humble (boring) beginnings of An Unexpected Journey to the foot-dragging musings of Desolation of Smaug, Jackson and Co. have depended upon a sense of nostalgia for the far superior Lord of the Rings to propel events forward in this cousin trilogy. Old characters have lent their personages and many, many moments of foreshadowing have splayed themselves like a cheap whores (“They call him Strider but you’ll have to figure out his real name for yourself”) but while Five Armies hits on more of the same notes – more steely-eyed, bratty-boy Legolas, more “remember him?” Ian Holms, more Gandalf scraping his pipe and packing a bowl – it does so with a dreadful amount of fun.