After six films,13 years and 1031 minutes of accumulated running time (far more if you count the extended versions), Peter Jackson has concluded his massively remunerative genuflection at the altar of J.R.R. Tolkien with a film that may be the most purely entertaining of any in the collection (tellingly, it is also, by far, the shortest of the sextet).
Much as The Return of the King wrapped up the Lord of the Rings saga on an action-dominated high note, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies lives up to its mayhem potential by making maximum use of modern technology to create an abundant smorgasbord of wildly varied and sometimes mordantly amusing combat; this is an out-and-out war film, with gobs of trimmings. The film’s multitude of teenage boy satisfactions, not to mention its position as Jackson’s presumed swan song to this defining stage of his career, leaves no doubt that the Warner Bros. release will rake in the $1 billion worldwide that each of its predecessors’ did.
One of the frustrations of the first two artificially carved out Hobbit installments, which individually took nearly three hours to cover a roughly 100-page chunk of the book, was that, while everyone knew where the story was headed, it was clear it was going to take a very, very long time to get there. If An Unexpected Journey was basically a leisurely paced walking-and-talking film and The Desolation of Smaug was a waist-deep immersion in a world of peril, Battle serves up a Middle-earth version of the bombing of Dresden as an appetizer and just goes from there as grievances are aired, allegiances are weighed, potential foes are sized up and preparations are made for the ultimate battle to be fought at the Lonely Mountain.
What we’re in for, then, and happily so, is far less of the interchangeable dwarves waddling around and far more of dashing guys like Legolas and Bard the Bowman making like William Tell and Robin Hood, the brooding Dwarf Lord Thorin heading to the dark side once the dragon Smaug is dispatched, the gruesome, born-to-kill Orcs marauding in all their grotesque glory and Christopher Lee kicking ass like no 92-year-old ever has before. It’s doubtful many viewers will regret that the series has abandoned its more genteel and domesticated beginnings.
Liberated from his cramped lair deep in the nooks and crannies of Erebor, the stupendously malevolent Smaug spreads his wings and makes at once for Lake-town, a teeming bastion of desperate humanity he incinerates with a few well-aimed blasts of fire. But the dragon has an Achilles heel, which is found by emerging hero Bard of Bowman (Luke Evans), who then leads the attack’s survivors to the vicinity of the mountain, where others converge as well. The elk-riding Thranduil (Lee Pace) turns up, as does his banished captain, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and his unerring marksman son, Legolas (Orlando Bloom). The dwarves are already there, of course, each hoping to collect a one-fourteenth share of the booty no longer guarded by Smaug, while Bilbo’s main order of business is keeping secret his possession of the Arkenstone.
The latter is the particular obsession of Thorin (Richard Armitage), who, with power and riches now within reach, turns against nearly everyone who has supported him through the worst of times and welcomes the looming war that, if won, will install him on his hereditary throne. And naturally, no one knows the full picture as does Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who leaves the side of his benefactress, the Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), to help stave off the evil of the Dark Lord Sauron and his specially created warrior freaks the Orcs, giants resembling cretinous, muscle-bound mutant versions of Shrek who have been waiting for this moment all their miserable lives.
No matter Thorin’s sudden turning on his loyal friends and the bickering among allies; what’s clear is that, in the end, it’s going to be all the good guys versus the Orcs who, with their oversized pro wrestler physiques, look invincible but, as we’ve seen before, fall over like bowling pins and, once they’re down, stay down. It’s never explained why. They’re something like suicide bombers—they get just one shot at immortality. The first example of this is hilarious: One big oaf has been bred to be a human battering ram, his torso crowned with rock which he plows, to great effect, into the defenders’ fortress, opening the way for his marauding colleagues. He does his job, and he’s done.
There are other custom-designed Orc creatures, including beasts with catapults attached to their backs and a giant who swings an enormous rock and chain. The Orc leader makes a striking entrance, his blue eyes opening under a sheet of ice from which he then emerges. The lineup of villainous beasts here resembles a collection of best-of fantastical doodles by demented and talented high school students, all come to vivid and amusing life.
As the significant characters come to face their life- and sometimes death-defining reckonings, it’s mildly surprising that a measure of feeling attaches to their fates; surprising, in that these are all incredibly one-dimensional, superficial figures, all basically devoted to a single ambition and hardly what you would call emotionally accessible; they’re no more “real” than cartoon characters. And yet, their steadfastness gives them a certain integrity, a grit that is backed up by the resilience of what variously defines them. The lack of such stability and reliability is what ultimately makes Prince Thorin such a comparative disappointment.
So even if we have not, over the course of eight hours, become “close” to these characters, they have been sufficiently amiable traveling companions to make for a tolerably decent odyssey, more so than one could have imagined during the first hour of An Unexpected Journey, which was excruciating enough to make you want to jump off the ride before it was too late. But the final stretch of The Battle of the Five Armies possesses a warm, amiable, sometimes rueful mood that proves ingratiating and manages to magnify the good and minimize the bad of the trilogy. Financial considerations entirely to the side, in retrospect one senses that the ideal screen adaptation of The Hobbit would have been a two-part venture, as planned by original director Guillermo del Toro, and not the overstuffed three-parter that ultimately emerged.
From their prominent position front-and-center in An Unexpected Journey, the dwarves slowly recede into the background during Five Armies, arguably to the story’s benefit; in the pitched battle of the climax, they’d be of little use, and they collectively manage to survive the carnage largely by staying out of harm’s way. The exception is their leader, Thorin, and the formerly little-known actor who plays him, Armitage, who emerges as perhaps the dominant actor in this very large ensemble. Evans, as the Bowman, also stands out from the pack, while Lilly, Pace and, as a comically sniveling opportunist, Ryan Gage have their moments. As Bilbo, Freeman is at his most engaging earlier in the story, and it can safely be assumed that McKellen has now donned Gandalf the Gray’s wizard’s hat for the final time. Talk about a plum annuity.
After all the initial fuss and bother about the 3D and 48 frames-per-second images, Jackson and his visual team made the necessary technical adjustments to smooth things out, the result being a strong, robust looking, CGI-dominant film with great detailing and gargantuan imagery.
Production: New Line Cinema, MGM, Wingnut Films
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Billy Connolly, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Adam Brown, John Bell, Manu Bennett, John Tui
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Producers: Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh
Executive producers: Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins, Carolyn Blackwood
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Dan Hennah
Costume designers: Richard Taylor, Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey
Editor: Jabez Olssen
Music: Howard Shore
PG-13 rating, 144 minutes