Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Ian McKellan
And so with a sense of exhaustion we come to the end of the story, or, if you’re counting this as a lead-in to the Rings trilogy, the middle. The middle of Middle Earth. Take a deep breath, make sure you’re pepped up on caffeine or have a decent on-hand supply of gummy sweets, popcorn or whatever your preferred snack is to accompany a movie. You’re going to need them.
The funny thing is, for one of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is, technically, pretty trim. Clocking in at a wispy 148 minutes (and that includes the languid end credits), Five Armies is positively brief when compared to, say, Return Of The King‘s Goliath curtain call. None of that particularly matters a jot when it comes to watching the damned thing, however. This feels like the longest, most arduous journey yet, not that this was entirely unexpected.
The Hobbit films, while never terrible, have paled in comparison to Jackson’s former trilogy (which I openly have an awful lot of time for). Part of this comes from the lurching tone that can’t quite decide if it wants to be merrily twee or super-serious, but mostly it comes from the near inexcusable expansion of the slim material in an effort to make it feel as significant as Rings. It hasn’t worked. Sure, there have been moments. An Unexpected Journey‘s ‘riddles in the dark’ sequence was splendid, while Smaug was very impressive once we got through all that other nonsense, but honestly, this has all been a bit much, hasn’t it?
Five Armies packs its best punch first, picking up exactly where we left off. The desolation of Lake Town by the aforementioned dragon is easily this film’s thrilling high note, allowing Luke Evans’ Bard his first decent opportunity to shine as this trilogy’s puff-chested human. Jackson executes the set piece superbly, and it is here that his blending of physical and digital effects works finest (more on that later). It’s resolution, however, feels a mite underwhelming after all the groundwork done previously. One suspects Jackson purposefully divided it up to lessen this sensation.
Regardless, once this is done with and the film’s title card is fondly displayed, it’s on to the more extensive business at hand; the titular clash as all species descend on the ruins of Erebor at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. Having dispensed with Smaug, Thorin (Richard Armitage) falls under the thrall of having acquired so many, many preciouses. Instead of settling-up with his displaced benefactors, he and his companions wall-up Erebor, while news that the treasure beneath the mountain has lost its fiery guardian spreads across the land. Inevitably, it’s all going to lead to a bit of a scrap. Quite a bit of a scrap.
Anyone who felt a sense of battle-fatigue during Return Of The King will be positively exhausted by what Five Armies has to offer. Pretty much from the moment Billy Connolly shows up for a spirited turn as Thorin’s older brother Dain, Five Armies suits up for an all-out brawl. Jackson wheels out his trick-bag of spectacles as thousands upon thousands of tiny digitised warriors clash swords in the great valley. Trouble is none of this feels particularly new, and rare are the moments of inspiration. When they do occur, such as an engaging late piece on some precariously thin ice, they are fleeting little nuggets within the broader spectrum of humdrum armour-clad combat. Cave trolls. Archery. Last-ditch charges against the odds, etc, etc.
Cinema has a long history of epic battles, and the ones that work best – especially the protracted ones – do so because they tell their own stories. Miike’s remake of 13 Assassins is a recent case in point. The film broods and builds to a 45-minute showdown, but the final payoff works so well because it unfolds like a tale in itself. There are plenty more examples in classic Japanese cinema of how to do this effectively, how to pace such action and keep it engaging. Jackson attempts to mirror this method, but his arsenal is weakened by the familiarity of its weapons.
The same can be said of the script. Assembled seemingly with the concern that each and every line might potentially make it into the trailer, the dialogue comes across like someone took all five previous Middle Earth scripts, ran them through a shredder, then tried to piece this one together from the surviving slivers. Like someone rearranging risque fridge magnets until they make some semblance of cheeky sense, Five Armies often sounds as recycled as it looks. It makes what frequently has the potential to be a riveting experience, frankly, a bit of a chore.
The film is stronger when it plays for smaller, more emotionally anchored notes. Armitage steps up to the plate to give the descent of Thorin some weight, though this too echoes John Noble’s power-hungry plunge as Denethor in Return Of The King. Martin Freeman, meanwhile, is rather sidelined for this chapter, which is at least true to the book. Nevertheless, he makes the most of what he is given. Five Armies contains much of his finest work of the series.
Few other characters are given much to wrap their teeth around, so busy and bloated is the cast. Ian McKellan goes through old routines as Gandalf (the captured bit, the eleventh-hour warning bit, the constant impression that he needs a wash), while other cast members old and new scrabble for the precious scraps that remain. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel frustratingly fails to contribute anything significant to proceedings (though the feminine presence in this boy’s club is welcome). While, some fancy footwork aside, Orlando Bloom’s conspicuously fuller-faced Legolas feels equally superfluous. As for Thorin’s diminutive companions, they remain as interchangeable as ever.
Five Armies has received praise in some circles for wrapping up with more urgency than Return Of The King (hardly difficult), yet it still feels excessive, like so much of this film (between this and Mockingjay Part 1 it seems a 12A certificate is very easily bought these days – this is not appropriate for the young). The final impression is as feared all along; the justification for expanding The Hobbit into a trilogy is borderline non-existent.
A further warning for all those viewers of The Lord of the Rings trilogy infuriated by the convenience of the eagles turning up right when the story seemed to have backed into a corner; that wasn’t the only time Tolkien played that card. You may be cursing them like The Dude getting thrown out of Malibu county.
TLOTR also had an earthy sense of realism to it. The miniatures and physical effects blended superbly with the digital spectacle. Here, as in the previous two Hobbit films, there’s a conspicuous imbalance. The reliance on CG renders many scenes distracting for their little flaws. A further small criticism, but a nagging one. While I’m being such a sourpuss, let me ruin one other thing for you; Lee Pace spends the whole film looking like he leaned on the wrong end of his Biro.
I’ll wrap up now for fear of being criticised for the same over-indulgence I’ve scorned these films for. The Lord of the Rings‘ reputation remains in tact. Jackson hasn’t torpedoed his prior achievements. But where once there was a great sense of adventure and absorbing wonder, here there is merely a feeling of being mildly diverted, or worse, rambled at. If I’ve rambled at you, I apologise.
My extended special edition DVDs of The Lord of the Rings are still there in the wardrobe, their corners now slightly scuffed. I know one thing; I’m far more inclined to spend another 11+ hours in their company than spend another 7 and change going there and back again again with The Hobbit.