After a combined running time of 1032 minutes, Peter Jackson’s six-part Middle-Earth saga draws to a close with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, rounding off the prequel Hobbit trilogy. Picking up directly where the second instalment left us, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the squad of not-so-merry dwarves look on in terror as the recently awoken dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) rains fiery hell over Lake-town. With the dwarf’s leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) back in his beloved Lonely Mountain in Erebor, will he maintain control of his kingdom or will he succumb to the greed that comes with the almighty power? Everyone and their army now feel a sense of entitlement to their share of the treasure that lies at the bottom of the mountain, so battle inevitably follows.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the recent Hobbit films haven’t achieved the same sense of spectacle as the Lord of the Rings and the same problems from Desolation of Smaug carry through into the final part. The continuation of the elf-dwarf-elf love triangle is an irritating subplot, with Legolas popping up now and again to do little more than hop across stones and have a little moan. The development of Thorin’s story arc is, to me, one of the highlights of the series, culminating effectively in an interesting character study that explores what can happen when you get everything that you’ve ever wanted. His friendship with Bilbo provides a few touching moments, and helps bring the hobbit himself into what is supposed to be his story after all.
In the midst of all the fighting and the questionable high frame-rate CGI, there are a few performances that deserve some credit. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee are as strong as ever as the all-conquering wizards Gandalf and Saruman, their story nodding towards what is ahead, making it increasingly tempting to dig out the Fellowship of the Ring DVD. Martin Freeman comes into his own finally as Bilbo, the portrayal bettering as the character grows in confidence and stature. Richard Armitage impresses the most as Thorin, powerfully conveying the swaying nature of the character’s inner conflict. In an all star cast, Ken Stott, Stephen Fry and Billy Connolly stand out from the supporting actors, though the latter’s appearance is nothing more than an amusing cameo.
By now, the sight of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth is comforting to fans of the series and the finale provides a solid, if slightly subdued conclusion. Taking an overview of the story, the Hobbit novel is aimed predominantly at a young audience and has a primitive plot at its heart. In its cinemakeover, Jackson’s vision has stretched and contorted it, turning Tolkien’s short book into a near ten hour epic, perhaps for monetary gain and to fulfil his own artistic ambition. Where some flourishes work and his flair for stunning set pieces is unfaltering, others sadly don’t. Despite its flaws, ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ is an enjoyable closing chapter to what is arguably one of the best cinematic franchises of all time.
Middle-earth motion pictures are quickly becoming as synonymous with Christmas as mulled cider and bad cracker jokes, and last year was no different. Peter Jackson is back with the second instalment in his trilogy of films adapted from J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy adventure novel. ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ picks up pretty much where Bilbo Baggin’s unexpected journey left off as he, along with Gandalf the Grey and a squad of merry dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, continue their trek to The Lonely Mountain to find the Arkenstone gem and reclaim the Kingdom of Erebor. On their travels, they encounter giant man-eating spiders, the Elves of Mirkwood, a horde of vicious orcs and of course, Smaug, the dragon. But now that Bilbo is in possession of the One Ring, he is an ever-changing hobbit and his character is severely tested, adding an extra dimension compared to the first film which was mainly an introduction exercise for the host of new characters.
The first instalment of the trilogy came under critical fire for its pacing issues and the lengthy pit stops used halting the proceedings to pad out the typically long running time associated with Peter Jackson’s works. This time around, there is a much more action packed start after and during the big set pieces, the high 48fps frame rate is handled more assuredly but it still unfortunately feels below average in terms of the 3D usage. Considering filmmakers such as Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuaron have made technical leaps forward in this field, the 3D effects here are unremarkable and distracting, failing to add an awful lot to the film.
In saying that, the visuals are mostly spectacular, particularly in one busy sequence when the dwarves are sent hurtling downstream whilst packed in wooden wine barrels as they flee from the elves in a wonderfully entertaining escapade. Talking of elves, we see Jackson employing some creative license when it comes to the pointy-eared clan, bringing Lord of the Ring’s favourite Legolas into the story despite the fact he wasn’t featured in the original book. Though more controversially he also initiates the feisty Tauriel, who has been plucked straight from his own imagination, and wedges in a cross-species love triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and boisterous dwarf Kili, who is the only dwarf aside from the courageous Thorin to receive further character development in this edition. The others follow suit and make up the numbers though a small group are separated from the bunch near the end which may allow for something more interesting in the final piece. The romance aspect of the storytelling feels very unnecessary and forced, completely deflecting from the origins of Tolkien’s beloved tale and serving merely as filler.
The performances are strong across the board, lifting the entertainment value somewhat, and Martin Freeman excels in developing Bilbo’s arc, becoming braver with a brooding darkness as the almighty affect of the ring takes control. He is sadly underused given that he is in the titular role but his two-hander scene with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug the Magnificent is magnificent and provides a memorable showdown, Cumberbatch achieving more than you can imagine in supplying a vocal performance as the deadly antagonist. This follows on from the two-hander in ‘An Unexpected Journey’ with Gollum which was the best scene of that film as well, but with less humour and more sense of threat. Ian McKellen is suitably solid as usual, having had plenty of practice in engulfing himself in the role of Gandalf, but is also used sparingly as he meets with the Necromancer in a subplot which acts as an exciting tension builder for the third film in the series.
It is difficult to give honourable mentions to all faces of this chapter as there are so many but Bard the Bowman and the Master of Lake-town are most notably impressive additions as the plot develops, the former giving the human element that Aragorn supplied in the Lord of the Rings franchise, and I am thoroughly enjoying the way that Thorin, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage, is utilised. He is proving himself as a worthy leader of the hearty dwarves. In being the middle film of a colossal trilogy, ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ manages to find its own identity, shrugging off the issues from the opener and assuming the vital function in bridging it with the anticipated finale which will be with us this Christmas. By then, Peter Jackson’s beard may be as grey as Gandalf’s which would be apt in delivering the last in his marathon collection.