The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The final Hobbit installment is called “Battle of the Five Armies,” so you can’t say you’ve been warned. It’s a lot of battling, between a lot of armies, and not quite enough of anything else to satisfy fans of things besides extended, exhausting combat sequences. ——————

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Ian McKellan, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)

The third Hobbit move is an extended—seriously extended—fight scene, a brutal, exhausting third act to the lengthy adaptation of the Tolkein novel. As a third act to a story, it works (it’s just that the whole story is too long). As a stand-alone film, it’s crap, unless you’re buying a ticket solely to explore the state of the art in CGI faux-medieval combat.

The movie picks up en media res, with no effort made for at least 20 minutes to explain anything. For those who might’ve missed the second installment, or simply don’t have all the details memorized a year after Number Two’s release, tough luck. (A smart move, then, would be to read a plot summary on Wikipedia before going. Mark of a good film—preparatory homework.)

The short review

This thing is called “Battle of the Five Armies,” and you get exactly what’s on the label:  Five armies, fighting, for a long time.  Which mostly works, except when it doesn’t, and at the expense of a more rounded and compelling movie experience.

Let’s talk about the fighting first, since that’s far and away the filmmakers’ main concern. It’s really well done. It includes, per the subtitle, five armies of mostly non-human types, from elves and dwarves to giants. The action is great, it’s inventive, the stakes are continually raised and that Jackson is a hell of an inventor. The color palette is flat and dull, but man, that’s a weak complaint, huh? There’s nothing wrong with the fighting except that it goes on forever, until the audience is numb, and finally jaded or bored. Toward the end, when Team Jackson has to give us specific climaxes to specific characters’ stories within the war, the action has to get even more incredible to top what has already come in the last, I’m guessing, 45 minutes. And at that point, the audience laughed at things meant to thrill, because those things were so far over the top, and we were all so … warred out … And that’s a mark of failure, if you’ve primed your audience to laugh at the silliness of the dazzling climax to your hardcore action set piece.

When all that crap isn’t going on, there’s an interesting film tucked in here, mostly between the thrilling opening action sequence and the start of the multi-army war. That story involves greed, an overpowering lust for gold so powerful, loyalties are shattered and people die for want of reasoned, principled leadership. That’s some good stuff, and watching Martin Freeman’s Bilbo navigate the escalating craziness of Richard Armitage’s Thorin is some pretty compelling cinema. Considering the weird costumes, makeup and hair on most of the actors, a lot of good work is done here.


But Jackson gives short shrift to anything that’s not fighting. Basic stuff—such as an action sequence in which Luke Evans’ character is motivated to rush through the chaos to save his children. His children haven’t even been named in the movie, and I’m not sure the full family had even in the same shot once at that point. In other words, there had been no effort to establish the relationship that was motivating this heart-pounding sequence.

Hobbit02When the movie ends, as it eventually does, there are some goodbyes, and the film does not get lost in an interminable cascade of repetitive closing scenes (apparently Jackson learned something from the nightmare that was the last hour of the last Lord of the Rings). But it seems really clear that Jackson is going for an emotional resonance that I, at least, didn’t feel at all. Bilbo says goodbye to some people, and goes home, and will commence getting older, as the Ian Holm version of the character is at the start of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s not much more to say than that, but the denouement lingers enough that you can see Jackson thinks it’s invested with more power.

(Straw man defense of this review: I’d expect a lot of fans to say that I’m not approaching this as a fan of the six-movie series in all its, what, 20-hour glory. Very true. And while I liked Tolkein’s books as a child, I shrug now. Been a long time. But a good movie does not require you to be a fan. Look at how many non-comics fans, are enjoying Marvel’s superhero flicks. How many of us got into espionage or action films because we watched our first James Bond movie, rather than vice versa? Did you have to be a fan of Westerns to appreciate Unforgiven, or High Noon, or Who Shot Liberty Valence? No, you did not. So we should expect this movie to stand on its own, not merely as part of a trilogy, and bridge to another trilogy, nor as part of a greater franchise called Middle Earth. And by those basic standards, this film has its moments, but it succeeds at little more than pleasing an existing, committed fanbase.)