As the camera rests on a hand-scrawled map of Middle Earth and Peter Jackson’s director credit flashes up on screen one last time I must admit to feeling a degree of sadness that this staggering project to film the unfilmable world of Tolkien has come to an end, though I have to admit it was offset by a little sigh of relief as well. The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is, of course, the third instalment in Jackson’s beefed-up, fan fiction-y adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but also the sixth and final Middle Earth-related film made by the director, following the earlier Lord Of The Rings extravaganza. As such this last effort feels more like a giant full stop for the entire group of films rather than merely being the end of this later trilogy, and the filmmaker has pulled out all the stops, ensuring a grand spectacle that attempts to make the battle sequences in The Two Towers and The Return Of The King look like drunken midnight scraps in a pub car park.
I must admit to feeling conflicted about something else, too. I rounded on Interstellar a few weeks ago and (in a nutshell) moaned that Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster was completely representative of the current bloated, overhyped nature of blockbusters and mainstream cinema. For many people Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy would probably be a more deserving target of such ire, given that it has ballooned from one film to three and has been padded-out with new characters, interminable sing-alongs, unnecessary sub-plots and extended fight sequences as a result, but I’ve actually enjoyed this series in spite of myself. Jackson has managed to forge many common links between the two trilogies, some spurious and some not so spurious, and when The Battle Of The Five Armies ends at the same point that The Fellowship Of The Ring begins it’s hard not to think warmly about his achievements during the past 15-20 years. Naturally all of Jackson’s Middle Earth films share the same look and scenery, but The Hobbit has gradually taken on the same darker, adult-oriented tone as The Lord Of The Rings, as well as the more obvious adoption of many of its characters. For me this is the end of six films, not three.
As a standalone piece The Battle Of The Five Armies is actually much narrower in scope than the earlier films, with almost all of the action taking place within a couple of square miles, around the kingdom of Erebor vacated by the well-spoken dragon Smaug (voiced once more by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch). The story here picks up where it left off – most of Jackson’s films have wasted little time in taking care of business – with Smaug attacking Laketown in a thrilling sequence, which is defended primarily by the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the human Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Meanwhile the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) takes up residence inside Erebor and prepares to defend the re-claimed palace from those seeking a share of its vast wealth, including an elven army commanded by Thranduil (Lee Pace), Bard’s rag-tag bunch of human survivors and a huge force of evil orcs under the stewardship of Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett). Thrown into the mix are the familiar, neutral characters Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) … and it doesn’t half kick off, with the big fight taking up most of the second half of the film.
Other old favourites given one last outing include Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel and Christopher Lee’s Saruman. who combine in one fight sequence that finishes with some nice foreshadowing of later events in The Lord Of The Rings. Meanwhile familiar, eccentric faces from British TV – Stephen Fry and Sylvester McCoy – briefly return, and are joined this time (rather pointlessly) by Billy Connolly, whose dwarf leader Dáin arrives too late in the trilogy to make any real impact.
The emotional crux of this story lies mainly with Thorin, and this film continues to explore the dwarf king’s relationships with Bilbo and the company of men he has travelled with from An Unexpected Journey onwards. Driven partly mad through greed – a recurring theme across Tolkien’s work – Thorin’s see-saw finale is reasonably engaging, but the focus on the self-proclaimed dwarf king means that Bilbo, Bard, Gandalf and the others get a little sidelined, which is unfortunate – particularly with regard to Bilbo. Also unfortunate is the fact that out of all of the dwarves only a couple have ever really stood out from the pack, and as in The Desolation Of Smaug only Kili (Aidan Turner) is given a sub-plot to roam around in here. Still, Armitage carries the weight of expectation well enough; as this particular trilogy’s bearded, long-haired hero he has put in a commendable shift, and he has proved to be a worthy successor to Viggo Mortensen in that respect.
There’s a scene in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy where the future residents of Earth are found marvelling at a popular movie that consists of nothing but a large pair of on-screen buttocks for 90 minutes. The film is simply titled ‘Ass‘, and part of me wonders mischievously whether Jackson’s finale may as well have been titled ‘Battle‘ instead of the longer name that was eventually settled on. As a result of the gargantuan fight sequence there’s not much space in this movie for humour, and there’s a clear assumption that we have by now invested enough time elsewhere in the plight of these characters that a couple of individual issues and struggles scattered across the entire film will suffice. I began rolling my eyes by the time giant eagles arrived in the fight, but only because I was exhausted by the spectacle by that point. If you’ve enjoyed Jackson’s Tolkien films – particularly their biggest battles – then you’ll probably enjoy this one too, but those looking for more are advised to go back to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Yet in fairness this one does ‘fighting’ well enough, it rounds the story off in a pleasingly neat fashion, and as you would expect it is technically very impressive indeed (I’ve found the high frame rate less of an issue as the series has gone on). But equally it’s all very safe, despite the huge number of effects, and in spite of the vast scale of the events. Cynics may be disappointed with the money-spinning decision to make three films where one or two would probably have sufficed (original director Guillermo del Toro was intending to make two), but ultimately Jackson’s achievements in making these films should be celebrated for a long, long time. It has been an impressive collective effort.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, JRR Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellan, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm
Running Time: 144 minutes