The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday December 17, 2014

A scene from 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies'
A scene from 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies'  (Source:Warner Bros. Pictures)

Peter Jackson brings his second Middle Earth-set fantasy trilogy to a close with the third "Hobbit" movie, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."

In order to assess the third feature in the Hobbit trilogy, it's necessary to do a quick re-cap. The new trilogy's first installment, "An Unexpected Journey" (2012), introduced us to Bilbo Baggins as a young man... er, hobbit... as played by Martin Freeman ("Sherlock," "Fargo"), and also introduced the "company" of fourteen hardy, adventurous souls on a mission: Trek to a distant mountain beneath which lay a ruined city, a horde of gold, and a slumbering dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (Freeman's co-star on "Sherlock" and currently an ubiquitous presence on movie screens). Their goal: Slay the dragon, reclaim the gold, and make a new city out of the ruins of the old one.

This company, aside from Bilbo and wizard Galdalf (Ian McKellen), is made up of dwarves. (Basinaclly, this means that are Scottish, surly, and rough of manner.) They are led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the heir to the lost city's throne, and their number includes characters with names like Bifur (William Kircher), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Gloin (Peter Hambleton), and the brothers Kili and Fili (Aidan Turner and Dean O'Gorman). Along the way the brave company face off with orcs, trolls, gigantic living rocks, and assorted other nasty creatures.

"An Unexpected Journey" had a tendency toward the labored and dilatory, with each plot point slogging by in super-slow motion. This isn't really surprising; the original novel "The Hobbit" by J. R. R. Tolkein, is a slender volume, readable in less time than it takes to watch even one of these three films that have been spun out of it. The movie doesn't just breathe; it creeps along with glacial leisure.

The second installment, last year's "The Desolation of Smaug," picked up the pace considerably, with the help of some material not found in the book, but contrived by the writers (Jackson, together with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro, the latter of whom was, for a time, slated to direct the films). Among the new material was the inclusion of elvish "Lord of the Rings" stalwart Legolas (played once again by Orlando Bloom) and an all-new female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly)... who, for better or worse, is presented as a love interest for Kili. Controversies aside about the wisdom, necessity, and taste regarding such major amendation of the source material, "The Desolation of Smaug" filled its running time in a brisk and entertaining way.

When it comes to pace, energy, and wit, "The Battle of the Five Armies" falls in between the first two movies. It's full of action, drama, humor, and intrigue; its 48-frames-per-second, 3D production makes every detail stand out in hi-def fashion, sometimes disconcertingly so. (The visual effects are gorgeous, by and large, but this level of detail can look unnatural and lends certain shots an artificial look.)

Essentially, this is a film built around a huge battle that takes place outside the dwarvish city, with elves and humans massing to fight dwarves, but orcs arriving in a great horde and triggering battlefield alliances. We saw lots of similar large-scale action in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and the problem here, as before, is that pitched battles quickly become tiresome.

At the heart of the film there's another familiar device: Obsession. Thorin not only conceives an insane lust for the heaps of gold the now-reclaimed city contains (thanks, evidently, to the negative energy the gold has picked up from the now-defeated Smaug, whose downfall constitutes the first part of the movie); he's also become frenzied with jealous possessiveness over a gemstone (or hunk of radioactive waste; what else to make of a rock that emanates a spectral glow and a rainbow colored cloud?) called "the Arkenstone." I suppose it's reassuring that human beings aren't the only creatures in the universe of Middle Earth given to bouts of feral avarice, but surely Tolkien had other plot devices in his satchel? No?

Be that as it may, events play out according to recognizable narrative form. Heroism is the order of the day, along with redemption and self-sacrifice. There are a handful of awkwardly staged moments that provide inadvertent comedy (they were meant, one assumes, to be poignant), but there are far more moments of genuine humor and clever twists. The battles wisely narrow focus to several intense one-on-one bouts of single combat. The epic concludes in epic fashion; the film feels bigger than it does long, and after so many hours already spent in this fantastical land, that's saying something.

"The Battle of the Five Armies" also manages to accomplish something the filmmakers had stated they wished to do: Set things up for the sequel, which, like the "Star Wars" movies, has already been made. It's with an eye to future viewers that the filmmakers have preserved certain elements of surprise. We may know, for instance, how the white wizard Saruman ends up dealing with lurking bad guy Sauron, and it would have been all too easy for this film to follow that narrative thread. Wisely, they don't. When teenage boys of the future discover this material for the first time (and, no doubt, express astonishment that once upon a time these adventure existed only in print), they'll be able to start with this trilogy before continuing on with "The Lord of the Rings." Their discovery of Middle Earth will be seamless.

Contemporary fans, meantime, will doubtless scramble to dig out their LOTR Extended Edition Blu-rays. The one major letdown to "The Battle of the Five Armies" is that, the trilogies having been made in reverse order, "The Hobbit" cycle feels like it's ending in the middle of an adventure. Big-screen re-releases of the "Lord of the Rings" films (converted to 3D, no doubt) seem like a natural next step.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.