Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro
Before I go into depth about my feelings on this film, I figured that the best place to start is with my thoughts on the films that came before. Since this film is the final instalment of a trilogy that is a prequel to another trilogy, it is impossible to adequately judge this film without the context of the other films. Before Jackson embarked on this trilogy he of course made the Lord of the Rings trilogy which I absolutely love. Over the years I have acknowledged that the films are somewhat flawed and imperfect, but none of these criticisms have ever been able to diminish my fanboy love for this trilogy. Therefore I inevitably had high hopes for The Hobbit trilogy.
When An Unexpected Journey came out I thought that it was a decent enough start. Like most people at the time I was not convinced that an entire trilogy was necessary for this story, but I felt that the first film was solid enough in its own right. It was clear that Jackson was going for a lighter tone with this trilogy, which is unsurprising since The Hobbit is in fact a children’s book, so I was willing to forgive some of the sillier aspects of this film such as the comic relief provided by the dwarves, the excessive CGI and Radagast the Brown’s rabbit sled (that was particularly difficult to forgive). There were many good scenes in this film that balanced out the sillier aspects such as the Dwarven song, the meeting in Rivendell and Gollum’s riddles. Overall it succeeded in allaying some of my prior fears and, despite not achieving the same quality as the original Lord of the Rings films, was still enjoyable in its own right and was a promising enough start for the new trilogy.
I then went to see The Desolation of Smaug and I hated hated hated it. All of my worst fears came true in this film as I saw Jackson fall into the infamous George Lucas Trap, in which the director forgets what it was that made the original films work and sets about trying to outdo the originals rather than trying to recapture them. When Jackson first directed the Lord of the Rings it was the first time he had ever worked on a film this big, so he was naturally cautious to begin with. As the films went along and he grew more in confidence he gradually made the action bigger and made more use of CGI, which worked in this case because the growing scale of the action complemented the growing threat that the characters faced. However when Jackson set about making the Hobbit trilogy, a smaller story with a smaller threat, he was unable to pull himself back. Instead he tried to go bigger, which resulted in exaggerated and ridiculous action sequences that decreased the sense of danger. In the original trilogy there was never really a sense that any of the characters (with the exception of Legolas) were unkillable. Whenever these characters faced any danger, the scale of the action was both great and grounded enough to make the danger feel real. In The Hobbit trilogy however we are constantly presented with over-the-top action sequences that result in these characters surviving relatively unscathed, making it clear that these characters are indeed unkillable. Consequently these sequences are completely lacking in tension because it is clear that these characters are never in any actual danger.
The Desolation of Smaug was the ultimate offender in this regard because it is clear that Jackson was manipulating the action in order to allow the characters to survive to the extent that the action sequences defied reason, physics and logic. An example of this is that bloody awful river chase sequence where every possible aspect is manipulated to ensure the dwarves’ survival. The dwarves are conveniently given the exact weapons they need at the exact time they need them. The elves conveniently show up at the exact time they are needed to save another character’s life. Worst of all is Bombur’s barrel roll in which he is sent into an uncontrollable free-fall that conveniently knocks down every orc in his path, while he is left completely unharmed, before he re-joins the dwarves in a convenient empty barrel that is inexplicably there. It is almost impossible to believe that the characters are ever in any danger when the film allows for so much convenience to take place. The second film did have some good scenes such as those with the Necromancer and the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug, but these were overshadowed by the grating action scenes and also by the pointless filler that was shoehorned in between like the forced dwarf-elf love story and the unnecessary Lake Town politics.
With all that in mind, I was very cautious when I sent to see The Battle of the Five Armies. However I ended up being pleasantly surprised and found it to be the strongest film in the trilogy. The main reason for this is that I finally got the action that I had been waiting for. For the first time the characters were faced with a threat that actually felt real. This was the first time that I actually felt the stakes of what was happening. This was the first time that I actually felt like I was watching a Lord of the Rings film.
The Battle of the Five Armies picks up right where the second film left off and shows Smaug’s attack on Lake Town. It is a thrilling scene in its own right, even if it does contain some of the gimmicks that annoyed me so much in the second film, but I couldn’t help but feel that it would have worked better as a climax rather than as an opening. When the sequence was over it felt almost anticlimactic. After a year of waiting to see what was going to happen, I was left with the thought ‘is it over already?’ Overall it was an exciting, if somewhat unsatisfying, way to open the film.
In the aftermath of Smaug’s attack the people of Lake Town are destitute and, with their homes destroyed, they are left with no option but to go to the Lonely Mountain and claim their share of the treasure. Meanwhile at the Lonely Mountain tension is building up between the dwarves as Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone. His mind is corrupted by this raging obsession and he finds himself unable to trust anyone, not even his own blood. He refuses to share the dragon’s treasure with either the men of Lake Town, nor with the elves of Mirkwood, and calls upon a Dwarven army to come to his aid as he prepares for war.
While this is happening Gandalf is still being held prisoner by the Necromancer until his allies come to his aid. This sequence (which, retrospectively, might have served as a better opening for the film) is exhilarating to watch as we get to see characters who are familiar to us in action as they band together to combat the threat who has now been identified as Sauron. Gandalf is rescued and must race to the Lonely Mountain to warn everyone about the Orc army heading their way.
We all know that the titular battle is going to happen sooner or later so there is a sense of agonising inevitability (in a good way) as we see Bilbo and Bard do all they possibly can to try and prevent a war while Thorin and Thranduil have already resigned themselves to this eventuality. The tension is unbearable, the stakes are high and the resulting battle is epic (even if it does contain some of the gimmicks that annoyed me so much in the second film). This was the film that I was waiting for after I first saw An Unexpected Journey and it was a satisfying way to end a trilogy which, at the end of the day, really did not need to be a trilogy. If the team behind the franchise had stuck to their original decision to make two films instead, I believe that The Hobbit would be held in much higher regard than it is now. As it stands, The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film in its own right and is a satisfactory conclusion for the deeply flawed Hobbit trilogy.