REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” represents the grand finale of Peter Jackson’s sprawling adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy tales.
As is his wont, Jackson assumes that everyone is well-versed with the convoluted antecedent narrative, the interrelationships of the extensive cast of characters, and the arcane nomenclature. He does not deign to provide any transitional prologue. Instead, Jackson abruptly plunges the viewer into the midst of new plot developments.
There is an old adage in sports, which contends that you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. The same might be said of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and Jackson’s prior Middle-earth vehicles.
So, for the benefit of those who are not obsessively consumed with the franchise, allow me to recapitulate an overview. The back story involves the predations of a fire-breathing dragon, Smaug (voiced chillingly by Benedict Cumberbatch). A century and a half before , he had attacked Erebor, the Kingdom of the Dwarves. Smaug displaced the dwarves from their traditional homeland, situated in Lonely Mountain. They were forced to flee and abandon their extensive treasures behind.
As depicted in the first episode of the film series, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) became the reluctant host to an unwelcome band of thirteen unruly dwarves. They descend upon his humble home and wreck havoc.
With Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) at their head, the dwarves have set off on a grand adventure. They are intent upon reacquiring the gold and other treasures, which were left behind at the castle fortress in Lonely Mountain.
Thorin is particularly keen on obtaining the Arkenstone, a heart-shaped white jewel which is illuminated by its own inner light. It was discovered by Thorin’s ancestor, Thrain the Old. He regards it as a family heirloom and a symbol of their divine right to rule. If he possesses it, he will have authority to reunite all the dwarven clans and launch a full-scale assault to retake Erebor.
On the advice of the wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan), Thorin seeks the assistance of Bilbo, who is a master burglar. He convinces Bilbo to join the dwarves on their journey and help him reacquire the Arkenstone . For his services, Bilbo will receive a share of the booty.
At the outset of this third film, “The Battle of the Five Armies,” the dwarves have already reached the castle fortress at Lonely Mountain. They are scouring the site for the elusive Arkenstone. Eventually, the crafty Bilbo finds it, but keeps the discovery a carefully-guarded secret.
As the action kicks off, the ferocious Smaug leaves his lair en route to destroy Lake-town. He is enraged that its human populace assisted the dwarves. Smaug levels the town with his fiery wrath. Eventually, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) manages to escape jail and shoots a perfectly-aimed, fatal arrow at Smaug.
Meanwhile, the Dark Lord, Sauron the Necromancer (also voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, doing double duty), has dispatched a vast army of ferocious Orcs, under Azog the Defiler (voiced by Manu Bennett), to attack Lonely Mountain.
Bard and the humans head to Dale, a town near Lonely Mountain. When an elf army under Thranduil (Lee Pace) arrives, the two groups forge an alliance. Thranduil entreaties Thorin for the promised share of the treasures of Lonely Mountain. Driven mad by his pursuit of the Arkenstone, Thorin reneges on his prior agreement.
Responding to Thorin’s call for assistance in the effort to restore Erebor, his second cousin Dain II (Billy Connolly), arrives with an army of dwarf reinforcements. They are poised, ready to attack the joint forces of the elves and humans at Thorin’s command.
Will this impasse trigger war between the dwarves and their potential allies? To avert this gratuitous bloodshed, Bilbo sneaks out of the fortress and conveys the Arkenstone, which he had found, to Thranduil. In exchange for the coveted Arkenstone, Thorin begrudgingly relents and agrees to Thanduil’s demands.
It’s just in the nick of time. Upon learning of the new arrivals, Azog dispatches his son, Bolg (voiced by John Tui), back to the Orc headquarters at Gundabad to activate a second Orc army. This back-up brigade marches to Lonely Mountain, replete with hundreds of war-bred bats.
Do you have it all straight now? Trust me – I have not belabored the film’s myriad other subplots, which involve a bevy of other characters. This includes the craven mayor of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) fleeing for his life; town; the cross-species ardor of the love-struck dwarf, Kili (Aidan Turner) for the sylvan elf warrior, Tauriel (Evangeline Lily); the elf prince, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who also pines for Tauriel, despite her lowly social status; the capture of Gandalph (Ian McKellan) by Sauron and the arrival of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) to rescue him; a confrontation, in which the elf king, Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and the white wizard, Sauramon (a remarkably spry nonagenarian, Christopher Lee) battle Zazgul wraiths. Did I neglect to mention that Sir Ian Holm makes a cameo as the 111-year old Bilbo Baggins?
The film’s technical values are superb. Jackson again recruits cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, and composer, Howard Shore. Each of them has contributed their skill to all six of the Middle-earth films. The beautiful scenery of New Zealand, augmented by the production design by Dan Hennah and spectacular C.G.I. from Jackson’s own Weta workshop are important components of the film.
Unfortunately, at times Jackson succumbs to some of his worst proclivities. As a consequence, the film is subverted by a narrative, which is digressive, episodic, and unwieldy. The 44-minute battle scene is overbloated and at times difficult to follow. It lacks any sense of human scale. In hand to hand combat, Orcs, who appear invincible, seem incongruously vulnerable to the diminutive dwarves.
In 2005, Jackson interrupted his Middle-earth projects by helming a remake of “King Kong.” The film included a vignette, which pitted the giant gorilla protagonist against a trio of marauding Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs. During it, Kong protectively cradles Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in one paw, while he bashes his adversaries with the other. To me, this relatively short scene packs more of a visceral wallop than the entirety of “The Battle of the Five Armies.”
Tolkien purists will cavil about revisions in the plot. Azog is mentioned by Gandalf parenthetically in “The Lord of the Rings.” As he recounts, Azog was already been slain by Dain I before the events of “The Hobbit” commence. It is Azog’s son, Bolg, who leads the Orcs into battle. Unlike the film, in the literary version of “The Hobbit,” Sauron has not yet emerged as a powerful villain. It is not until the “The Lord of the Rings” books that he becomes a formidable force. Tauriel, who plays a pivotal role in this film, does not appear anywhere in Tolkien canon. Her creation increases the pulchritude quotient of the film. The same might be said of Legolas, another product of the screenwriters’ imagination.
For the cinematic sextet, Jackson has accrued a massive 1,031 minutes of running time. While “The Hobbit” films are an impressive accomplishment in their own right, this collective prequel is still eclipsed by the novelty and narrative superiority of “The Lord of the Rings.”
For anyone, who is contemplating seeing all six films again or anyone who wants to see them for the first time, I would offer a recommendation. You should reverse the release sequence of the two film trilogies and instead see them in the order that Tolkien wrote them. In other words, watch “The Hobbit” films before you embark on the “The Lord of the Rings” This will afford you a chronological continuum and a better narrative arc.
Just don’t forget your scorecard!
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” *** PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images) 161 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.