The Defining Chapter
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Hobbit trilogy came with an expectation of matching its masterpiece of a predecessor in The Lord of the Rings, an arguably insipid expectation considering how much lighter and smaller the source material was. Perhaps The Hobbit should have been a two-parter, streamlining the entire affair into more condensed, propulsive narratives. Yet in all honesty, upon completion of this trilogy there is a part of me that is extremely gratified at knowing that Galadriel’s voice over at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring has now become its own narrative. The Lord of the Rings had the advantage of a much darker story, with each book represented in one film, two luxuries The Hobbit did not have. A children’s tale, upon receiving orders from Warner Bros. for three films, became an ensemble piece to the original trilogy. Each film was given its own flavor, but if Peter Jackson hadn’t managed to land the final installment, everything would have crumbled apart. As noted above, The Hobbit trilogy is based primarily on the titular book by J. R. R. Tolkien, padded with material from Tolkien’s own notes, The Simarillion, and the filmmakers themselves. As such, each film, despite the efforts of its creative team, somewhat lacked the singular focus that the original trilogy had in each installment. It’s not as if each film didn’t have its own arc, but the characters and narrative depended heavily upon the ending working in order to provide the appropriate emotional catharsis that’s been laid out so carefully and slowly throughout the previous two installments. The ending does work thankfully and it works in a truly spectacular fashion. Clocking in at a small 144 minutes (this is Jackson we’re talking about), The Battle of the Five Armies is a bombastic final piece that does the most difficult job of a prequel ender spectacularly: tie up its own narrative while successfully leaving threads for the original storyline open in a germane fashion.
The final film in a trilogy has traditionally been the weakest. Return of the Jedi was in places cringe-inducing, considering the greatness of its predecessors. Revenge of the Sith seemed to be content with cramming everything and not really providing resolution to much of it. The Godfather: Part III is more often than not forgettable. Return of the King was a great film in its own right, bogged down in the end with no Scourge of the Shire and roughly seventeen endings (one could argue that the Oscar should have gone to either of its predecessors). The Battle of the Five Armies is the strongest of the three in its own series, even though the narrative arc in An Unexpected Journey was superior (I realize that I am in the relative minority here on that front). It’s the most action-packed, the most propulsive of the three, yet there is also the nagging feeling that it feels like an entire third act and not its own film. That is not to say the film is a bad one, far from it in fact. Yet that narrative stretch does hurt the film in places, leaving me for one wanting a few more of those quiet moments (perhaps in the extended addition, they will arrive). The opening sequence is indicative of that reality, setting in course a propulsive feature that really doesn’t stop and breathe until the final frames. If The Hobbit had to exist as a trilogy and not as a duology (which would have perhaps been preferable), the second film from should have begun at Mirkwood and ended at Smaug’s roasting of Laketown. That would’ve given the final film the opportunity to open quietly and rest in the midst of all the sword fighting to let the film breathe a little more. To make another quibble, there are certain portions of the film that simply become too embittered with CGI. It’s not nearly as awful as the recent catastrophe Exodus: Gods and Kings and certainly is more polished than the Star Wars prequels and for all intents and purposes it looks pretty great. There’s just a few sequences there that glimmer and gleam far more than they naturally should, to the point where it takes away any semblance of realism. It’s unfortunate that that is the case here because it becomes awfully distracting from the character work at hand. Thankfully it doesn’t dog the entire film but the sequences impacted do stand out in that regard.
That being said, this flawed but thrilling installment begins with a thunderous explosion. The action picks up right where the predecessor left it, in the treacherous firestorm left by the evil dragon Smaug. Within minutes he decimates Laketown, reveling in his absolute destruction as an overwhelming number of civilians perish in fiery deaths. The sheer catastrophe is horrifying and the Hobbit team is well aware of that. There’s no overwhelming carnage, as the terror wrought is evident enough. The title sequence appears on screen, and from there on it’s a split between several story lines until they all converge upon the dwarf mountain of Erebor. As it happens, the whispers of Dragon Sickness that had befallen Thorin Oakenshield when he entered his old home in The Desolation of Smaug have now become full fledged, the film drawing numerous parallels between the Dwarvish king and the dragon Smaug. A Shakespearean tragedy begins to unfold with Thorin quietly becoming unfazed with the sheer loss of life upon the town that had given him refuge. He instead retreats further and further into his mountain of gold, fortifying the gate to Erebor so that the refugees fleeing the dragon might not enter to claim any part of the treasure. There’s no reasoning with him, there’s no trying to make him realize that the gold wasn’t why he came back to reclaim his homeland. King Thranduil, never one to waste a moment to reclaim something of his and showing everyone else how superior his hair is, shows up with his army, determined to take what belonged to him from the dwarves if they did not part with it readily. Bard, initially hesitant, tries to reason with Thorin and implore on him the reality of the refugees. They have nothing and he had, after all, given his word that he would give them an exchange of the treasure so that they could rebuild their lives. There is no exchange. Bilbo takes the stolen Arkenstone to the forces below, sure that they could use it as a bargaining chip. Bard in desperation asks if Thorin would have the stone and peace or if he would have war. Thorin would have war.
The titular battle between the five armies is something to behold. The forty-five minute long battle sequence thankfully isn’t just one single slog of warfare. There’s a plethora of various ins and outs, various armies pulling back and forth, and a wide array of locales through which the battle sequence is staged. It never feels like there’s a constant droll in a specific fight, which is of the necessity. Say what you will about Jackson’s tendency to indulge in largesse, but the man knows how to direct an action sequence, or in this case, an action film. While other, lesser directors constantly keep their cameras on to focus in the action itself or the massive explosions everywhere, Jackson knows one key thing: the characters trump the action. His camera knows where to be at just the right moment, catching glimpses of our most well-known characters so the constant fighting doesn’t become overbearing. But perhaps the most thrilling fight sequence in the entire film happens early on, after the title credits open. Gandalf is still imprisoned within Dol Goldur, close to death. Yet a quiet string of music from the incredible Howard Shore raises our skin. Galadriel herself walks into the Necromancer’s holdout, Lord Elrond and Saruman the White following suit. The White Council attacks and fights the Nine with an incredible prowess, the veteran Lee especially showing off some serious chops as Saruman cuts through his adversaries as if they were largely made of paper. And then the shrouds of deception fall. Sauron himself comes to light and Galadriel proves that she is, indeed, the most powerful elf in all of Middle-Earth. With all of her strength, she tears apart Sauron’s henchmen (for lack of a better phrase), banishing the Dark Lord himself into the east. This takes all of her strength, however and the task of congaing Sauron becomes one of tense debate. “Leave Sauron to me,” Saruman thunders with a quiet gravitas, a dark omen of what was to shortly come.
The film comes to a beautiful close with what essentially ties into the opening sequence of Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf knocks on elderly Bilbo’s door. The camera pans over a map of The Hobbit’s journey and the screen fades away. Billy Boyd’s heartfelt “The Last Goodbye” echoes across the screen as gorgeous sketches of the characters are brought to life before our very eyes. And now, with the trilogy concluded (okay, not the extended, but still), the true intent behind The Hobbit comes to light. There is little doubt that Warner Brothers wanted a lucrative title on their hands and this film will certainly fulfill those ambitions, but Peter Jackson and team did their absolute to ensure that this trilogy not merely serve as a part of the world. They wanted to tie it together to The Lord of the Rings so this entire epic could be enjoyed as one great saga. On that front, they have largely succeeded. The visuals have been great, the script is largely stellar, and the performances are truly exceptional. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage alone could carry the entire production with their perfect Bilbo and Thorin, but everyone involved gives their full commitment to this lavish production and it shows. There’s a bond between all of the actors that provides a germane emotional heft to the entire procedure that manages to transcend its own boundaries. And the script has been intelligent in providing a few small touches that tie in the whole saga, from Thorin gifting Bilbo Mithril, to Bilbo keeping an acorn from Beorn’s garden to plant as a tree and Thranduil sending Legolas off to find Aragorn. That the team has managed to make those reveals largely organic and not feel thrown in just for the sake of connections is an achievement that truly serves the larger purpose of making a massive magnum opus. That magnum opus at least for me has been fully achieved. Time truly cannot move quickly enough for me to at last see it all in its chronological, extended glory: There and Back Again. Perhaps more than anything else, to whatever degree one has enjoyed each installment of this six-part journey, there’s the understanding that Peter Jackson and his team truly love the world created by Professor Tolkien’s magical words. There have been highs and there have been lows, but that magic never leaves and that’s an impressive accomplishment in and of itself. Everything else is a plethora of cherries on the proverbial top. Thank you, Peter Jackson and team. We will be forever grateful.
Title: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Produced by: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Screenplay by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Based On: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom
Music: Howard Shore
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie
Editing: Jabez Olssen
Production Company: New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running Time: 144 minutes
Release Dates: 1 December 2014 (London premiere), 11 December 2014 (New Zealand), 17 December 2014 (United States)
Image Courtesy: The One Ring