Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Aidan Turner, Orlando Bloom, Ryan Gage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee
After 13 years and five films which have between them grossed US$4.9 billion internationally, we have reached the final instalment in Peter Jackson’s adventures in Middle Earth, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
There is no time for a “previously on The Hobbit” recap as this final instalment gets straight into the action, picking up directly from the moment that The Desolation of Smaug ended, with Laketown under attack from the awakened dragon. While some ingenuity from Bard the Bowman brings the downfall of Smaug, Thorin and his companions hole up in the halls of Erebor, fortifying the entries to protect their gold. But the news of Smaug’s death spreads quickly and with Erebor and its stores of gold no longer under the dragon’s protection it is up for grabs. So armies of dwarves, elves, men and orcs – with a fifth to come later – arrive on the scene to stake their claim on the mountain and its treasure.
Despite being the titular character, in this final instalment Bilbo Baggins is relegated to a supporting role. The Battle of the Five Armies is Thorin’s film. This is a tale of the corrupting power of greed. Once Thorin finds himself King Under the Mountain and inside the treasure stores of Erebor, he is overcome with ‘dragon sickness,’ an intense paranoia and protectiveness of his gold. His integrity is sacrificed as he questions the loyalty of his companions, and his unwillingness to keep his word in reimbursing the people of Laketown for their assistance is central to the descent into war. This shift in character focus is a bit unfortunate as Bilbo remains the most interesting character in the film, thanks largely to Martin Freeman’s wonderfully understated performance. Richard Armitage on the other hand does his fair share of scenery chewing as Thorin, particularly in those scenes where he is suffering from ‘dragon sickness.’
The travelling company reached their destination towards the end of The Desolation of Smaug, so where the first two instalments were journey films The Battle of the Five Armies has a different feel to it. It is a war movie. Smaug (who remains the crowning achievement of the film’s CGI team) is defeated in the first fifteen minutes of this film and the rest of its runtime is devoted to preparations for battle and the battle itself. As such, we see a shift in the prominence of different characters. Those interchangeable dwarves thankfully take a backseat in this film, with the spotlight more focussed on those characters who can fight: Bard, Fili and Kili, the elven trio of Tauriel, Legolas and Thranduil. The battle itself commences at about the 70 minute mark and accounts for the majority of the second half of the film.
At 144 minutes, The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest of all the Middle Earth films by quite some margin. And importantly, given how long the first two Hobbit films felt, it moves quite quickly. It doesn’t feel like a two and a half hour movie. This action heavy film really is all go, to the point that some elements even feel a bit rushed. That said, with the battle taking an hour of screen time as we cut back and forth between different skirmishes and characters, battle fatigue will become an issue for some viewers. The Battle of the Five Armies also doesn’t make the same errors that the final instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy did in dragging out its ending.
The Battle of the Five Armies will again be released in High Frame Rate 3D – the film is recorded and projected at 48 rather than 24 frames-per-second – and it is still a terrible way to see a film. The peculiar high-definition movement looks like a cross between a computer game and digital video and is very unforgiving on costumes and makeup.
When Jackson first decided to venture back into Middle Earth for The Hobbit the original plan was to divide it into two films, and with the benefit of hindsight you can’t help but feel that would have been the right call. However, while some will see it as a cynical money grab, in the wash-up I’m more inclined to see this undeniably flawed trilogy as the work of a devoted fan who was so enamoured with the material and the world that he had helped create that his desire to spend as much time as possible there perhaps clouded some of his better judgement.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Aiden Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch
Much has been written about Peter Jackson’s decision to expand Tolkien’s The Hobbit into a trilogy of films, with more than a few considering it a cynical, opportunist move. After the first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, confirmed the fears of many, underwhelming and feeling unnecessarily drawn out, The Desolation of Smaug faced a tougher task. It is two-and-a-half hours of act two, with no beginning and no end.
The film starts with a flashback: a meeting in a busy pub between Gandalf and Thorin, in which the wizard convinces the aspiring dwarf king to take a hobbit thief named Bilbo Baggins on his quest to reclaim the abandoned kingdom and gold of Erebor. Fast-forward and we pick up where An Unexpected Journey left off, with our band of brothers continuing their journey towards the Lonely Mountain. On their way they will be persued by Orcs, trapped by giant spiders, taken prisoner by the woodland elves of Mirkwood and gain allies in the people of Lake-town, all before finally reaching their destination and coming face to face with the terrible dragon, Smaug.
The good news is that The Desolation of Smaug is a vastly superior film to its prequel – though, of course, that doesn’t take much. While it is still a long film, clocking in at 161 minutes, it doesn’t feel stretched. Unlike the first film in which every individual scene felt too long, the pacing is much better this time around. This film has more momentum, more drive.
Expanding a book that is significantly shorter than The Lord of the Rings into a trilogy of films that is every bit as long naturally requires some additions. While An Unexpected Journey was largely true to the source material, in The Desolation of Smaug this new material starts to come into play. Some of the additions come from unpublished Tolkien manuscripts like “The Quest of Erebor” while others are original ideas from the screenwriters. The most notable of these original ideas is the introduction of a new character, the female head of the Mirkwood Elven guard Tauriel. The introduction of Tauriel has two purposes. Firstly, she allows for a love triangle between herself, the handsome dwarf, Kili, and Legolas – whose inclusion in the film is another example of artistic license, and, who appears to be Benjamin Buttoning, with Orlando Bloom ten years older than when he first played the part despite the character supposedly being 50 years younger. Secondly, she brings a feminine energy to a film that is otherwise a bit of a sausagefest.
The storyline is by nature episodic as our heroes progress from one location and situation to the next. It is a movie of sequences and set pieces with two specific highpoints. The first is an exhilarating chase sequence which sees the dwarves travelling down a rapid river from Mirkwood in barrels while being pursued by orcs and elves, who battle each other on the river banks. The second is the introduction of the title character, Smaug. Voiced by the world’s busiest actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a both an impressive piece of visual design and a complete and engaging character.
Like An Unexpected Journey before it, The Desolation of Smaug has been shot in High Frame Rate 3D – meaning the camera rolls at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24 frames – and as with the first film it is difficult to see the purpose of it (outside of the extra couple of dollars you pay at the box office to see it in that format). The resulting aesthetic is very strange. At times it feels like you are watching a videogame, at other times a digital home video. The higher definition is also incredibly unforgiving when it comes to costumes, makeup and digital effects which all look more artificial in the HFR format.
While its only being the middle of the story robs the climactic scenes of some of their power – we have to cut away from Smaug, Bilbo and the dwarves in the halls of Erebor in order to keep tabs on what is going on with other characters – The Desolation of Smaug is a step in the right direction for Jackson’s franchise. Retaining the sense of adventure which differentiates this series from the darker The Lord of the Rings trilogy, this second instalment finds the sense of momentum that was missing from its prequel.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean