The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies (2014)

And that, as ‘they’ say…is that. The ‘Middle Earth’ film series has now come to a successful end…unless some greedy jackass decides to attempt making ‘The Silmarillion’ into something watchable (Purge THAT urge, Peter Jackson!). What was started WAY back in 2001, with the ‘The Fellowship of The Ring’, has now come full circle with the release of this newest addition to the spectacular fantasy franchise…thus concluding it…and concluding it with style, in my humble opinion. ‘The Battle of The Five Armies’ (formerly ‘There and Back Again’) succeeds in wrapping up the epic tale of the little, ‘well to do’ hobbit ‘Bilbo Baggins’, who joins a company of displaced dwarf warriors to help reclaim their treasure and homeland from the grip of an evil dragon named ‘Smaug’.
Now, first off, I do have to say that THIS story would’ve been just fine in the originally-planned 2 picture format. Considering the shortened length of ‘The Hobbit’ book (especially when compared to the 3 hefty novels that make up ‘The Lord of The Rings’ trilogy), 2 movies seemed like an ideal way to do the story justice, without it out-staying it’s welcome. However, the prospect of untold riches clearly beckoned and director Peter Jackson and ‘The Powers That Be’ opted to pad out the run-times of the two flicks to manufacture a workable trilogy that would (hopefully) stand proudly beside the first three ground-breaking Middle-Earth movies. Did they succeed?
‘The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies’ picks up right where ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ left off, with a thoroughly pissed-off dragon incinerating large swaths of nearby ‘Laketown’, after a Battle Royale with the company of plucky dwarves in the gold-laden bowels of ‘The Lonely Mountain’. After the pesky aerial serpent is spectacularly knocked from the sky by the rebellious barge-man ‘Bard’ (c’mon, this should NOT be coming as a surprise, people!), the concern then turns to the inevitable prospect of word of the evil prick’s death spreading across the land, inviting other interested parties to now take a run at the abundance of material wealth piled in the darkness beneath the mountain. The company of dwarves, anticipating this obstacle, take over the ruins of the former dwarf kingdom to fortify it against the chance of invasion and plunder. As they do this, it becomes apparent that this victory has had some side-effects that weren’t anticipated, namely ‘dragon’s sickness’, which begins to have it’s way with the young dwarf king ‘Thorin Oakenshield’ (Richard Armitage). ‘Bilbo Baggins’ (Martin Freeman) finds himself caught between his loyalty to the dwarves, and the unfortunate realization that ‘Thorin’ is falling deeper and deeper into the destructive madness that destroyed his late grandfather’s soul, so many years before. This madness threatens to spark all-out war between the meager band of dwarves and the nearby refugees from the burnt ruins of ‘Laketown’, due entirely to ‘Thorin’s diseased sense of entitlement and blinding greed. Tensions rise even further when an army of Elves, led by ‘Thranduil’ (Lee Pace), arrive to lay claim to a bounty of precious jewels that were withheld from them by Thorin’s power-mad ancestors. As this situation develops, we also follow Gandalf (Ian McKellan) as he searches for answers about the dark entity poised to threaten Middle-Earth from the shadows, while trying to escape it’s sadistic clutches. This creature (aka ‘Sauron’ from ‘The Lord of The Rings’) has a vengeful army of Orcs at its disposal and soon after dispatches them to lay waste to all that lie before them, as they too intend to take the battle to The Lonely Mountain, to claim victory and ransack the dwarven riches, while also ending Oakenshield’s bloodline forever at the same time. And much battle ensues!
Yep, 2/3rds of this flick is large-scale war spread throughout the region surrounding the besieged mountain stronghold…and most of it is pretty friggin cool! That is one area where Peter Jackson has excelled time and again with these movies. Overuse of CG aside, he certainly knows how to show massive expanses of opposed warriors going head to head with arrow and sword. He’s also mastered conveying vicious bursts of violence without upsetting the PG-13 rating. There are stabbings, bludgeonings and decapitations all over the place…just done without any spraying blood or viscera…which is too bad cuz THAT woulda been sweet! Given how dense the story is, especially with some of the added ‘padding’, it wouldn’t have taken much to reduce the narrative to an incomprehensible mess, but Jackson and Co. have pulled off the admirable feat of keeping the action moving, while not cluttering up or confusing the ‘flow’. Everything moves at an agreeable clip, and this suggests that some of the critiques aimed at the somewhat lethargic pacing of ‘An Unexpected Journey’ (which I still REALLY like) were heard and addressed aptly.
It’s funny, I love the Extended or Director’s Cuts of MANY genre films, but I have mixed feeling about the proposed 30 minute longer version that Jackson has reportedly said will be released eventually. I WILL own it one day (to go with my Extended cuts of LOTR!), but I have to admit that the current and comparatively shorter run-time (2 hours, 24 minutes) is nearly perfect…at least for a theatrical viewing. I wasn’t bored once and the story ‘beats’ came about when it seemed like they should. With so many elements that need to be accounted for and resolved, it’s clear that someone with talent and vision was present in the editing room for the construction of THIS version.
The acting, as in the other 5 Middle Earth films, was beyond serviceable and definitely helped pull the viewer into the projected ‘tangibility’ of the world being shown. Of course, Martin Freeman, despite not getting quite the screen time one would expect for a movie essentially named after him, was solid as the formerly reluctant Hobbit. He does a good job of interjecting moments of courage and action with the slight befuddlement that seems to hang around the peripherals of ‘Bilbo’s ‘character’. He is always still ‘a Baggins of Bag-End’, regardless of far his character progresses. The hints of the slow ‘poisoning’ of his mind by the nefarious ‘Ring of Power’ helped add tension to his trials and tribulations. Richard Armitage ‘stepped up’ to play the stoic dwarf king and did a bang-up job with the arc that ‘Thorin’ endures as the hardship and tension of the scenario work on him. Naturally, Sir Ian McKellan WAS ‘Gandalf The Grey’ and easily knocked ‘it’ outta the park. Luke Evan’s brought an ‘Aragorn’-like quality to his portrayal of ‘Bard’, the rugged savior of much of ‘Laketown’s refugee population. Lee Pace brought a certain unpredictability and regal ‘gravity’ to the role of the slightly antagonistic Elf King ‘Thranduil’. Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly’s fighting Elf characters ‘Legolas’ and ‘Tauriel’ were certainly disposable, from a story ‘padding’ perspective, but both brought enough action and elvish stoicism to keep things interesting, despite the fact that I wish that the forced-feeling romantic subplot between ‘Tauriel’ and the dwarf archer ‘Kili’ (Aidan Turner) had been left on the cutting room floor. It wasn’t needed, and felt exactly like what it was…filler.
Which brings me to some of the Negatives. Surprisingly, there weren’t as many as I would’ve initially predicted…but there were a couple.
So, I’ve already used the words ‘padding’ and ‘filler’ when referencing the bloated run-times and the slightly greedy need to make two long films into 3, but I do have to mention it again. Like the source material, this cinematic endeavor could’ve been a lean, mean Middle-Earth machine, but I guess that they felt that they needed EVERYTHING to be EPIC…so that the EPIC-ness of THIS trilogy would ideally match the EPIC-ness of the first, and that included the EPIC-ally over-cooked run-times. Don’t get me wrong, Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle- Earth and his use of the gorgeous New Zealand exteriors do leave me always wanting more, but I also see how the integrity of the films could’ve benefited from a little more restraint. The subplot involving ‘Radagast The Brown’ (and his silly bird shit-encrusted mess of hair!) could’ve been dropped altogether and wouldn’t have affected the story in the slightest. As I mentioned earlier, the hammy and unbelievable romance between ‘Kili’ and ‘Tauriel’ also could’ve (and should’ve) been tossed out the window. I’m 50/50 on the vendetta between ‘Thorin’ and the giant orc commander ‘The Defiler’, as it does factor into the established cinematic history between the two characters, and does lead to Tension and Conflict that pay off as the story progresses, but there also would’ve been ways that it’s deletion or reworking could’ve worked in the film’s favor. There are some others that also could’ve used a little more thought, but those are the ones that immediately leap to mind.
I chose to see this one in 3D, but not in the ‘High Frame Rate’ format. The idea of 48 frames per second vs the traditional 24 doesn’t appeal to me at all, and the things that I’ve heard about THAT level of high-definition turn me right off. That being said, I really enjoyed the 3D (as I did with the preceding two Hobbit films), and felt that it DID positively add to the overall experience. Having just recently sat through a largely disappointing use of 3D in Ridley Scott’s recent Biblical ‘epic’ ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ (2014), it was nice to then see a flick where the time and money had obviously been spent to make sure the film didn’t end up looking dim and washed out by the process. I don’t know if Scott chose to have ‘Exodus’ post-converted to 3D while Jackson opted to film ‘The Hobbit’ in three dimensions from the ‘get go’, but the difference in quality was very noticeable to me. The colours and lighting here looked great, with lots of ‘black’ for shadows or nighttime scenes offsetting the rich ‘palette’ handsomely.
I earlier alluded to an overuse of CG and need to mention it again, in greater detail. It’s one thing that I’ve noticed with ALL these films. There’s an abundance of CG on display (no way around that, given the breadth and nature of the story) that, at times, pop out as looking surprisingly cheezy. It’s mostly noticeable in ‘close-ups’ of characters as they ride a conveyance of some kind. It often comes off looking like cheap ‘rear projection’ and I always find it distracting, even though the shots are usually very brief ‘inserts’. It’s like they throw SO much time, effort and cash into making the ‘wide’ shots of battle or landscape awe-inspiring that the smaller, connective effects shots suffer in the process. Something about the lighting or the layering just rings false in those shots and I get momentarily yanked outta the flick when I notice them.
All in all, ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies’ is a well-constructed and nicely paced conclusion to the Middle-Earth saga that I’m looking forward to getting on BluRay so that I can pick up some of the smaller details that may have gotten lost in the grandeur of the battle and the scope of the story. The acting is good, the effects are slick and pretty (most of them anyway), the sets and costumes are imaginative, the 3D was well used and this entry fits in snugly with the other films. If you’ve liked the ‘Middle-Earth’ movies up to this point, this one will not disappoint. It’s a little depressing to acknowledge that we will no longer have any additional films in this series to look forward to (please, just leave The Silmarillion alone!), but the ones that we do have come together in a nice package that almost unfairly sets the bar for what future fantasy films should strive toward, in terms of scale and tone. Check it out in the theatre…while you can!!

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