Film Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (USA/New Zealand, 2014)

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One Last Time. It’s the hashtag that’s being used to promote the last film in the epic Lord of the Rings universe – a reference to a line in the film, but also a clever reminder about how we’re supposed to feel about the film. NOSTALGIC. This is (hopefully) the last time we’ll have the chance to see a Baggins, Gandalf The Grey, Saruman The White or Legolas on the big screen. It’s a journey that started some 13 years ago with the debut of The Fellowship of the Ring, and now ends with the third part of the drawn out Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies.

The film’s very title tells you what you’ll be getting from the finale: an epic battle. Of of the film’s two and a half hour length (which actually makes it the shortest of the six films), more than half the film is devoted to the penultimate battle. And while stunning to look at – really, really stunning at times – what is essentially our payoff for viewing the 7+ hours that have preceeded it, ends up feeling a bit like one of the bloated orcs we meet during the battle. Drawn out, overdone and unnecessary. Hell, there’s even a scene at the end of the battle that sees the great Sir Ian McKellan literally cleaning his pipe. All it was missing was the tumbleweed!

In a better paced film, one might have rewarded the scene for showing the strong connection between Gandalf and Bilbo, in the calm after the storm so to speak. But by the time it hits, it feels like Jackson is just doing whatever he can to bring the film to its expected length. He may as well have just had white noise up there given my patience level by that point. And don’t get me started on the Monty Python-esque Alfrid (Ryan Gage).

But these are complaints that have been made about the series since even before it began. Turning two films – which already felt more than necessary – into three, has seemed nothing but a money grab from day one. Jackson either giving into studio pressure, or assuming his audience loves the Middle Earth universe so much that they’ll give him the license to create films that are unnecessarily long. We did after all enjoy, to varying effect, his Extended Editions (and to think there are Extended Editions of these films!?)

The film sets off from the moment we left our characters in The Desolation of Smaug (sans Jackson cameo this time around), as the dragon threatens the nearby Lake-town and Gandalf remains imprisoned in a realm of darkness. The opening sequence with Smaug is marvellous, and as we go on to reunite with Blanchett (Galadriel), Weaving (Elrond) and the ever excellent Christopher Lee (Saruman), we’re given a true cinematic treat – as well as a nice link in to the origins of Sauron’s “Eye” and Saruman’s evil. This sequence is the highlight of the film, thanks to Blanchett and Lee’s brief but kick-ass routine. It also works well because it’s where we are able to jump between multiple locations – it’s hard for anything to feel overdone when we don’t sit in the one spot for too long.

As we return to the Dwarves, we begin our lead up to the battle, spending most of our time with Thorin (Armitage), who delivers a brilliant performance as he battles with the madness we start to see at the end of Desolation. Though even this chain of events is drawn out longer than it should be, the series has always been about characters, and when Jackson captures those moments well – and most of the time he does hit the mark – it is enjoyable. This is a universe we do love to be a part of, and even though we know we’re being taken advantage of by this trilogy, it’s impossible to hold that against Jackson (and box office numbers speak for themselves). Tolkien is just that good, and thankfully Fran Walsh, Jackson and company have always endeavored to be as faithful as possible, even if self indulgence has been encouraged along the way.

Billy Connolly proves a welcome addition to the cast, as Thorin’s foul mouthed cousin, and Sir Ian McKellen delivers his lines with that ever enjoyable dry wit. Stephen Fry’s brief continuation of his character reminds you of the splendid gluttony we enjoyed in the precious film and Orlando Bloom’s eyes continue to sparkle. Still confused by that. There is plenty to like about the film and really the problems that plague the film series are found in the repetitious action sequences, as was the case in An Unexpected Journey (that barrel roll sequence, anyone?). Where Lord of the Rings simply had too much to get through to let scenes hold on for too long, The Hobbit has allowed the filmmakers to make their scenes as long as they’d like – which doesn’t necessarily make for a better film.

When you compare the end of this trilogy to the incredible battle sequence that helps bring Return of the King to an end, in spite of the fact this is more a technically impressive endeavour (something of this scale really has never looked better), you can’t help but feel underwhelmed. It’s hard to put your finger on what it was, but the excitement of the resolution just wasn’t there. It’s possibly due to the fact we were stuck in the same location. There was no quest of the one ring to cut to, which made the Rings battle flow nicely. There was always something else going on. Here, it’s just one battle after another, as we witness characters die and others act heroically. We gradually witness the introduction of the armies and we see it all play out. In theory, a marvel, but in reality, simply too drawn out.

Tolkien scholars will have issue with the sneaky reference to Aragorn towards the end of the film – he would have been ten or eleven at the time of the battle and would have not yet been given the title of Strider – but we’ll have to grant them some cinematic license there, given they’ve already done that with other characters. Let’s just be thankful – as has been pointed out elsewhere – that Jackson didn’t pull a George Lucas and make us actually meet young versions of all of our loved characters from the original series. Alluding to them served enough of a respectful nod to fans to bring the series together.

We can also be thankful there was no Return of the King endless end sequence here. When the film ends, it’s done succinctly (to my own surprise), and though we can take issue with certain edit decisions, we knew what we were getting ourselves into from the minute three films were revealed amongst a storyline that was already the weaker of the two. And given that, Jackson has certainly met expectations. These have been wholly enjoyable – though bloated – films that have had some terrific moments.

As their own “#OneLastTime” promotional strategy seems to admit, this return to Middle Earth has been as much about nostalgia as it has been the desire to see the story through. But boy did they make it look good.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is released nationally on Boxing Day, as is tradition, December 26th.