The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
“Will you follow me, one last time?”
Two years ago, Bilbo Baggins set off on an adventure with twelve dwarves and a wizard. The mission: take back the dwarves’ homeland by slaying the dragon inside. It sounded simple enough on paper, but the motley company’s journey has been a very long one indeed (five and a half hours by the start of this film). We last left Bilbo and co. in Erebor, as an extremely angry Smaug headed off to Lake-town, ready to burn pretty much everything.
The Battle of the Five Armies deals with the dangling cliffhanger from the previous movie very swiftly – and while it’s a well-directed, action-packed prologue that places the spotlight on Luke Evans’ Bard the Bowman, Smaug’s Lake-town attack doesn’t quite feel right as the prologue to the third film. Considering how quickly it’s dealt with, it doesn’t make too much of a mark on the film – but Smaug makes so little an impact here that his appearance feels like a hangover from The Desolation of Smaug; some unfinished business this film had to complete before getting on with the titular battle.
However, once Smaug is dealt with, Battle really kicks into gear. It’s a very different type of film to the first two Hobbits – there’s very little journeying, and the pace is a great deal more urgent than the previous two films; even if a large amount of the film is essentially build-up to the climatic battle. The table setting here, however, is surprisingly compelling – and that’s partially thanks to the great things that Battle does with the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin. Thorin’s been a fairly broody Aragorn-like figure for the first two films – but the character takes an interesting turn here as he becomes consumed by greed and madness. It’s a slightly sudden turn for the character, perhaps – but Thorin’s slightly less likeable side emerging allows Richard Armitage to give easily his best performance yet in the trilogy as Thorin alienates everyone around him and steers the dwarves on the path to war. Considering the relative lack of focus on Bilbo (a notable flaw we’ll get to later), Thorin ends up being in many ways the protagonist here – and Armitage ably pulls off the heavy lifting needed with the character’s added screen-time.
Gandalf also found himself in a bit of a predicament at the end of The Desolation of Smaug – caged up in the fortress of Dol Guldur, revealed to be Sauron’s (the name sounds familiar) hiding place. The Dol Guldur material is fairly brief – but it does give the Lord of the Rings veterans like Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving a chance to shine in a short but sweet battle scene; and Galadriel in particular has a very neat hero moment that brings back a side of her character we haven’t seen since her first ever Middle-Earth appearance. The Dol Guldur scenes are only really present as extended foreshadowing scenes for Lord of the Rings and are reasonably peripheral to the plot – but it’s nonetheless an entertaining subplot, which gives characters that would otherwise be absent here a fitting send-off.
The battle itself is suitably epic, showing off some great visual effects (and there are a lot of effects) – but a key strength of Battle is varying the action; it doesn’t overdose on the big battlefield action, nor does it focus solely on the smaller scale moments. There’s a satisfying balance of both, which allows the film to keep the focus on the characters while providing the massive cinematic moments you’d expect from a battle 300 minutes in the making. There’s an awful lot added to the battle itself from the book – there’s an entire, extended set-piece mostly containing characters not in the book – but the changes help to make the Battle of the Five Armies one of the stronger, more epic scraps in Middle-Earth history, even if it still lags a little behind Helm’s Deep. It’s not all perfectly executed, however – the unfortunate tradition of convenient last-minute creature entrances continues, and there’s a couple of scenes that end up being a little too silly to take seriously (including a bizarre scene that veers into Mario Bros territory), but there’s a scope to the battle that allows a great moment or two for almost all the trilogy’s main characters.
Unfortunately, despite the strong execution of the battle, there’s a problematic flaw running through Battle – its use of the titular hobbit, Bilbo. Martin Freeman is as warm and affable as ever, and there are a couple of scenes where Bilbo does take centre stage; but ultimately Bilbo is underused here. It would be excusable in a middle chapter, but for the final film in a trilogy named after him, it’s a little frustrating to see Bilbo become a glorified supporting character – influencing the plot here and there, but ultimately proving fairly inconsequential to much of the plot (though, to give credit to Peter Jackson and co, Bilbo’s non-existent role in the Battle of the Five Armies from the book is rightly expanded on). With dozens of characters involved, you’d expect some to get short shrift – but for the character the entire story began with to be sidelined very often in the final film is a glaring issue. It’s strange then, to see a surprisingly large amount of screentime handed over to Alfrid, the Lake-town Master’s deputy – a character whose sole purpose is to apparently to irritate everyone he sees. He adds nothing to the plot, and his character barely gets an ending, so it’s a fairly inexplicable decision that ends up bogging down a lot of the more compelling drama with silly, unnecessary comic relief.
The Return of the King famously dithered about a bit with its ending – with several fade-outs and fitting concluding moments; it’s fair to say that it probably outstayed its welcome a little. Battle, wisely, avoids this (mostly) with a cleaner, straightforward ending that wraps up the trilogy where it began and sets everything on the table for the following trilogy. It’s a surprisingly restrained coda for a trilogy made from one book (which I think qualifies as the antithesis of ‘restraint), but it’s a sweet and effective one nonetheless. The Battle of the Five Armies wastes Bilbo for a great deal of the film, and has some notable structuring issues – but it remains a mostly satisfying, thrilling conclusion to a trilogy that never quite met expectations but delivered some great moments along the way. Was it worth splitting The Hobbit into three films? Probably not – the films often felt bloated as three hundred pages were spread over eight hours of film: but despite all that, it’s still been a very fun ride.