The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

There and back again…

First, a confession: I am a massive LOTR fan.  The Fellowship of the Ring was one of the first films I ever saw at the cinema, and I cannot fully convey the impact it had on me.  I can still remember watching that opening scene: the swooping shots of massive armies clashing together and the raw, elemental power that seemed to radiate from the land itself.  It all felt so important, so epic. I had never seen anything like it.  Like the Potter films, these movies are part of my childhood, and I could never be entirely unbiased towards them.  As such, I was already well- disposed towards the Hobbit films before the first scene was shot.

Even so, after almost 6 hours of Bilbo’s adventures, did I still care enough to follow them through ‘til the end?

Of course I did.

After the cliff-hanger ending of Desolation of Smaug, how could anyone not? We rejoin the action with Smaug powering towards Laketown to bring down fiery ruin on the people who dared defy him.  His destruction of Laketown is brilliantly realised, if a little short.  Still, Bard gets to make up for his ancestors failure by killing the dragon with a Black Arrow, and inadvertently puts paid to the greedy Master while doing it.  As word of Smaug’s death spreads, the Five Armies of the title converge on Erebor, to claim the mountain and the treasures within.

Like Bard, most of the characters are influenced by the actions of their ancestors: the Dwarves want their ancestral home returned, and haughty Thranduil wants to reclaim jewels that belonged to his family.  Others too are concerned with the return of Sauron, and a past that won’t stay buried.  History weighs on us all it would seem, which is a nice bit of foreshadowing for the events of the Ring and Bilbo passing on his own, unexpected inheritance.

I did enjoy the skirmish with the Nine at Dol Guldur, even if poor Gandalf wasn’t looking his best.  Elrond’s entrance definitely raised a grin, and Galadriel’s slightly trippy banishing of Sauron was both impressive and pleasingly strange.  Also enjoyed the image of Thorin drowning in gold as his ‘dragon sickness’ almost gets the better of him.  The natural beauty of New Zealand, I mean, Middle Earth, is also on occasional display, and as stunning as ever.

There are flaws, of course.

Pacing is a bit of an issue.  At 144mins, this is the shortest Hobbit film, but it’s still a long movie, and it does occasionally feel like it.  Smaug’s demise is a pretty perfunctory affair, with him being dispatched mere minutes into the film.  Given the time taken to establish him as an impressive foe, and the fact he looked bloody marvellous whenever he was on screen, it seems a bit of a waste.  Understandable, perhaps, if there was plenty of plot to get on with, but the whole film is essentially one long fight scene.  Not necessarily a problem- most of the action is engaging enough- but did we really need Thorin fighting Azog for what felt like an hour?

The CGI is patchy as well.  When there are actors on screen, it seems to work best when it’s augmenting a physical set, rather than functioning as the whole setting.  The Erebor scenes, for example, work well.  But when Legolas starts doing his fancy fighting, it all goes a bit pear-shaped.  His fight with Bolg on a stone tower/bridge looks woefully bad.  Thorin’s battle with Azog looks like it was done entirely on green screen, and Dain looks distinctly odd as well.  Lovely voicework from Billy Connelly, but the character doesn’t look real at all.  It’s odd that some of the effects in these Hobbit films are so unconvincing, when the effects in the much earlier LOTR films were so successful.   It’s not a deal breaker, but I fear these films won’t age as well as their cousins have.

Final moan- the tone is a bit uneven. This is most obvious any time Alfrid is on screen.  I can only imagine he was meant to provide some comic relief, but the character simply isn’t funny, and his presence just slows everything down.  I don’t recall any resolution for him either.  Does he get his comeuppance?  Actually, I don’t care.

Grumbles aside, the film has plenty going for it, including more heart than the previous two.  The line of Durin sadly ends with the death of Thorin and his nephews.  Legolas, Tauriel and Thranduil also make peace.  But it’s Bilbo who, despite not having much to do, is the real emotional core of the film.  For all the grandeur, it’s his small exchanges with Thorin that are the most touching.  Bilbo bookends the films, his final scene melting into the start of Fellowship, bringing the films full circle.

And that’s it, really.  You can’t talk about these films as individuals.  They are each part of a wider tale, and while they do stand-up alone, they deserve to be considered as a whole.  If you’re not sold on Middle-Earth, this film won’t convince you.  But if you have any love for Tolkien’s world and the characters within, this is a decent final flourish to finish the tale.

What did you think?  Would you have preferred just two films, or does three movies feel right to you?  Am I being fussy about the CGI?  Let me know what you think.