Review of “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies”

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) have reclaimed the underground kingdom of Erebor. Smaug the dragon (voiced and motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) is using his fire breath to destroy Laketown in retaliation for some of their residents aiding the dwarves. Locked up in the jail, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) manages to break out in an imaginative way and heads to the tower to try and kill Smaug with a bow and arrow. His son has seen where Bard hid the last Black Arrow and brings it to his father. (Minor Spoiler Alert) Bard is able to kill Smaug with the last Black Arrow but Laketown is in ashes. Bard, who has become the de facto leader with the death of the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) upon whom Smaug landed in his death dive, leads the survivors to the nearby abandoned village of Dale. Also arriving there is an army of elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace). Thranduil wants access to Erebor’s treasure to reclaim a necklace of white gems while Bard wants a share of the dwarves gold that Thorin promised; however, Thorin has been afflicted with Dragon Sickness which causes Thorin to covet the treasure as much as Smaug did. He’s also obsessed with finding the Arkenstone, the symbol of leadership for the dwarves. Bilbo stole the Arkenstone during his encounter with Smaug and has snuck out of Erebor with the stone. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has rejoined the elves at Dale after being freed from Sauron’s prison by the White Council. Bilbo arrives with the Arkenstone and urges Bard and Thranduil to offer it in exchange for the necklace and share of the gold in hopes of avoiding a war. Unknown to all, an Orc army led by Azog the Defiler (motion capture by Manu Bennett) is headed to Dale while a second Orc army is coming from Gundabad in another direction to conquer Erebor and begin preparations for the return of Sauron.

Unless you have been keeping up with the events in “The Hobbit” trilogy, what I described above may as well be in Latin as it probably doesn’t make much sense. Both “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies are films that are unkind to casual fans that don’t choose to pay attention to every bit of plot in every film. Unlike “The Fast and Furious” and “Die Hard” movies, these films require you be aware of what has gone on before. If “The Hobbit” had come out first, to fully enjoy “The Lord of the Rings” movies you’d need a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Earth history just to keep up. For that reason, I suggest if you haven’t seen any of the previous “Hobbit” movies, stay away from “The Battle of the Five Armies” as you will be either completely lost or poking the person with whom you came asking constant questions.

Having given that warning, this will not be my usual review as I have always been a fan of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Purists may quibble about omitted or modified characters or story details; but one cannot argue that his films aren’t masterful achievements in merging special effects and colorful characters into epic stories of heroism and friendship. What this review will be is kind of a critique of the three films as a whole.

My first and biggest issue with the films is Jackson’s inability to cut anything. The number of long reaction shots (some lengthened via slow motion) and sweeping helicopter camera views of a line of characters walking through the New Zealand wilderness probably adds half an hour of time to films that total up to almost eight hours. The battle scenes in the last film also run on as they consume most of the last half of the film. Surely there are parts of the battle that could have been cut. Watching 75 year old Ian McKellen and 92 year old Christopher Lee battling with Orcs and demons and such also stretches credibility. While both appear to be in good health it’s obvious their action scenes were shot with stunt doubles and their faces digitally stitched on to their replacements. Suggesting they were involved in the battles would have been sufficient. Showing them at length swinging swords and at times performing acrobatic maneuvers should have provided a reaction of “oh wow” but instead I thought “yeah, right.”

For all of Jackson’s mastery and innovation in the field of special effects, “The Hobbit” films have a couple of really bad looking rear projection or green screen shots. These are exclusively close-ups of characters riding on a horse or driving a sled of some sort. It seems inexplicable that Jackson would slip up on something as simple as that. Perhaps he ran out of time or someone else was overseeing that day’s shooting but the fact they made it into the movie is mindboggling.

Taken together, these are minor quibbles when compared to the wonder and majesty of “The Hobbit” trilogy. The spectacular world Jackson built out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works is the kind of achievement that only comes along once in a while. Considering Jackson has done it twice in the last two decades is amazing. While I don’t think this third film in “The Hobbit” trilogy will meet with quite the kind of award season love the last “The Lord of the Rings” film did, it will probably win a lot of money at the box office. Considering that’s all that is necessary to get more jobs in the film business, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” will be considered a success.

The question is, where does this final film rank among the six Middle Earth movies? I would have to say in fifth place. My order goes as follow: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “LOTR: The Two Towers,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “TH: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “TH: An Unexpected Journey.” The difference from first to last isn’t enormous but the first “Hobbit” film is something of a slog with the aforementioned long helicopter shots of characters walking through the wilderness.

This brings me to my final point: “The Hobbit” should have been only two films as Peter Jackson first announced. The leaden pacing of “An Unexpected Journey” and the lack of any real movement in the story except near the end seems to make nearly the entire first film a huge waste of time and money. With a bit more surgical excision of unnecessary plot points and more economy of storytelling, “The Hobbit” could easily have fit into two films. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sword and sorcery films as much as the next person but only if they don’t waste my time.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is rated PG-13 for intense fantasy action, frightening images and intense fantasy violence. Numerous Orcs are separated from their heads during the lengthy battle scenes. A couple of characters are stabbed to death. We see goblin creatures menacing people during an attack and one is shown stabbed in the chest. Legolas kills several Orcs with his bow and arrow and he shoots a large bat in the head. There is a very violent fight between Tauriel and one of the larger Orcs. Much of the violence is aimed at imaginary creatures but a few of the human (or dwarf or elf) characters are killed in sometimes graphic but not gory ways. Foul language is not an issue.

Taken as a group, “The Hobbit” films are somewhat frustrating as they sometimes feel like overstuffed burritos: You know there’s good stuff in there but it takes too long to get to it. When they are hitting on all cylinders, “The Hobbit” films are as good as any of Peter Jackson’s work. When they stumble, the movies are a dull struggle. “The Hobbit” films are more inconsistent than “The Lord of the Rings” movies, probably due to the difference in the source material. All in all, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is a fitting end to the Middle Earth saga, giving us a rousing (if too long) battle between creatures from both fantasy and nightmare. With rights issues and a limited amount of material this is probably the last visit we will have with the residents of the Shire, Erebor, Rivendell and all the other lands of Middle Earth. It may not have been the best of the lot but “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” is still a fairly good time with Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin. I’ll miss them all.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” gets four stars out of five.

If you have questions, feel free to send an email to stanthemovieman@comcast.net. You can also follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

There are a bunch of movies coming out as Christmas arrives this week. Below are trailers for them and, if I have time, I’ll see and review one of them.

The Gambler—

The Imitation Game—

Into the Woods—

Unbroken—

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