A Totally Biased Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Middle Earth saga ends with a fitting bang!

From the very first Lord of the Rings film, which I remember very vividly sitting down to see in theaters, almost 15 years ago, Peter Jackson has had me eating from the palm of his hand. From the fully realized world of Middle Earth, to the character design, to the bombastic and overwrought action, I’ve found so very few sore spots in what will be his enduring legacy, his magnum opus, his masterpiece. And the last entry in that saga, the “Defining Chapter” as it’s billed, continues that legacy in grandiose style.

The film acts as a Part 2 to last year’s Desolation of Smaug, and picks up exactly where that film left off: Laketown is attacked by Smaug while the Dwarves laud over their reclaimed wealth. However, after destruction is wrought by the wyrm, many swoop in to make claim on the Dwarven treasure, and the film focuses primarily on these characters, as the treasure itself serves as a distraction from a more pressing evil

Sounds nothing like the book, right? That’s because almost the entire film is built upon the extensive appendices Tolkien himself penned to fill out the story and to articulate who was where and when. The story is also supplemented heavily by original material the writing team created to add more color and drama, almost all of which is very effective, but the overarching tale itself has several unforgivable flaws, the most notable of which is that this story is not about its titular character anymore.

Bilbo

Bilbo is tormented, both by his place in the company and by the great power he unknowingly wields

Truly, despite it being called “The Hobbit,” this trilogy became less about Bilbo once the second film began and more about the players in the story trying to usurp power and make claims to the fantastic riches and glory befalling them. The film cleans up nicely and by the conclusion it’s focused in on our favorite Hobbit with laser-like precision, but it’s a shame it took so long for it to do so. Fortunately, however, it’s nearly the only thing wrong with the underlying story told in this trilogy.

Martin Freeman, as I stated in my review for Unexpected Journey, again turns in a tremendous performance as Bilbo, both wary and cautious but nonetheless hardened and certainly wiser than he was as the hobbit living comfortably in Bagend. As Gandalf promised, he will never be the same. It’s such a shame we’ll never see him as Bilbo again, because he embodies the character with such dry charm that he seems wasted here in only two and a half hours of film.

The supporting cast, as magnificent as ever, all return and deliver performances with which to remember them by. Gandalf, perhaps the most endearing character in Middle Earth, reminds us again and again why we fell in love with him in the first place, exuding the genuine affection and sincere wisdom that he’s known for. His work as the Grey Wizard is absolutely without flaw.

Heavy is the crown, indeed. We watch as Thorin slowly decays in his own Great Halls.

Heavy is the crown, indeed. We watch as Thorin slowly decays in his own Great Halls.

Richard Armitage gives a dichotomous performance as Thorin, Son of Thrain, King Under the Mountain, a now apocryphal King plagued by Dragon Sickness, the curse left by Smaug over his horde. Indeed, the lingering evil of the beast manifests when Thorin even speaks in the dragons voice, one of the most chilling moments in Middle Earth’s film history. The arc of his character, however, plays out beautifully and the masterful performance makes it easy to cheer for Thorin once again, when the time comes. Of equal effect is Bard, the Bowman, whose every man sense of tact is a welcome departure from the multitude of characters that seek glory and riches, and when he only wants what’s fair to those promised, he is easily empathic, relatable and, most importantly, immensely likable. Tauriel, the film’s nearly lone female lead, again fits perfectly into the world despite being a complete fabrication from the writing team, and her story is perhaps the emotionally impacting despite the scale of the films. And Azog the Defiler, one of the primary antagonists in this trilogy and one of the animated characters I’ve enjoyed most, is finally made easily loathsome, detestable and cruel. Bolg, the lesser Orc commander, falls just shy of Azog’s repulsiveness.

It’s worth taking a moment and devoting several hundred words to just how good the physical performances are, across the board, with notable exception to the CGI-enhanced action, which is also very good. Almost every single character is drawn into the great battle that gives the film its namesake, and every single one of those characters moves, behaves, and fights beautifully. Whether it’s Dwalin, fighting as the Berserker and brawling dwarf, or Thranduil whose fluid and graceful movements evoke the most best samurai films have ever offered, every physical performance is unbelievable and should be the new standard for fantasy battle epics. There are even a few welcome surprises from these portrayals, and without giving much away, we get to see some familiar characters go absolutely batshit crazy awesome in a notable sequence. You’ll know it when you see it.

One of the film's secret weapons is Lee Pace as Thranduil in a cool and collected, yet cold and calculated performance.

One of the film’s secret weapons is Lee Pace as Thranduil in a cool and collected, yet cold and calculated performance.

It feels so distasteful to have to pass over so many good performances… Kili and Fili, Galadriel, Thranduil… Lee Pace, who I’ve not been totally sold on lately, gives us perhaps the most nuanced performance in the film, where every movement and every minute twitch in his expression is, clearly, absolutely calculated, and gives his character a smoldering anger and slow-burning hatred that seethes through his thin, beautiful smile. A huge surprise of a performance for a character that could have been very perfunctory.

It is, however, the natural way of things that in a Peter Jackson directed Middle Earth film, Legolas Greenleaf stands head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of physical prowess, and that Orlando Bloom’s work as everyone’s favorite, bad-ass, pointy-eared warrior, is, without question, the best action in the film should come as a shock to no one. Even John Wick would find Legolas a handful to deal with. And that’s the best compliment you could give him.

Jackson’s work with WETA has long since solidified the both of them as contemporary powerhouses of modern cinema blockbusters, and the work they deliver here is nearly unequivocal. The conceptualization of Middle Earth is what has stood these films apart from their peers, and the work they’ve done to bring this world and these characters to life is absolutely without equal. The production from the sets, the costumes, the prosthetics, the sound design… Across the board, it’s home runs. The work of Howard Shore continues to evoke the wonder and foreboding tension in the story, while lulling us into submission as Peter Jackson prepares to pummel our senses with intense action. Action that was mostly absent from the book.

You do NOT. FUCK. WIT. DIS.

You do NOT. FUCK. WIT. DIS.

Remember I mentioned this film had “flaws?” Well, the action is certainly not one of them, in the sense of the quality of the action. However, the fact that the film has so much of it presents an interesting question: Are these films worthy adaptations of the book they’re based on? They’re unabashedly fleshed out using the appendices I mentioned earlier, even going so far as to introduce characters completely absent from the source material (i.e. there wasn’t a single orc in the book). Are these fantastic Middle Earth films? Yes. Are they entertaining? Absolutely. Are they faithful to the source material? Not at all. Is that ok? For me, yes. I found certain aspects of Desolation monumentally egregious, but PJ has assuaged my anger and calmed my fears here by delivering a stupendous work of fantasy action. It’s a clever and obvious nod from the director himself to give Thorin such a line as, “will you follow me, one last time?” Jackson offers us his hand, and gives us the chance to visit such a fantastic, wondrous place as Middle Earth, this one last time. It’s also fitting that he should see Middle Earth off with such a bang. And in typical Peter Jackson style, it could never have been just a bang. More of a 200-kiloton nuclear explosion.

But the Hobbit trilogy ends just as peacefully as it began, and on just the right note…

In a hole, in the ground…

PROs and CONs+ A huge, massively scaled send off for the saga
+ Emotionally tense and dramatically gripping
+ The series’ best action to date, but that means…

– The Middle Earth Saga is over… :(
– Bilbo feels left behind for too long

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