Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

hobbit 5 armies(Alert: this review contains spoilers.)

I learned one lesson for certain during this holiday season: on the day after Christmas, going to see a movie at the mall is a really bad idea.

Unless, of course, you enjoy parking in the next county.

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies completes the film trilogy inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel.  You might want to review the second film before seeing this one; number three begins abruptly and without prelude where the number two left off.  Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) has left his lair in the Lonely Mountain to wreak havoc on the people of Laketown.  Would-be dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his company, together with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the titular hobbit who has joined them on their quest to retake the mountain kingdom, can only watch helplessly.

But the haughty Smaug is quickly dispatched by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans).  Under his new leadership, the people of Laketown salvage what they can of the city and seek shelter in the mountain.  Thorin, however, has fallen under the spell of “dragon sickness,” an all-consuming lust for treasure that casts a pall of paranoia over his judgment.  Bard and the elf-king Thranduil (Lee Pace) attempt to negotiate with Thorin over the dragon’s hoard.  But they are rebuffed, even with Thranduil’s massive army encamped at Thorin’s doorstep.

Thus the fight begins.  An army of dwarves, led by Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly), sweeps in and engages the elves.  Soon, however, the warring armies find themselves unlikely allies against the forces of Azog, the Pale Orc (Manu Bennett), who long ago killed Thorin’s grandfather, King Thror, and in return lost his left arm to an enraged Prince Thorin.  With that ancient grudge to settle, Azog has been hunting Thorin to destroy the bloodline.

The word “battle” dominates the movie’s subtitle, so we know what to expect.  On that score, Jackson delivers: as Lord of the Rings fans know, many a head will roll.  Literally.  Viewers are treated to long, complex sequences of computer-choreographed mayhem, albeit punctuated by private moments of humor or pathos.  That alone makes for an entertaining film, and a reasonably satisfying conclusion to the series.

Not surprisingly, however, the movie is much longer on action than on the kind of plot and character development that makes good movies great.  In part, the problem is in the handling of the source material.  Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as an episodic adventure story for children, a far less ambitious project than The Lord of the Rings, the more epic trilogy that followed.  It made sense for LOTR to be made into three movies, and even then, Jackson gave the battle scenes a disproportionate share of screen time.

But to make The Hobbit into a trilogy, new supporting storylines and characters had to be added which, to borrow a phrase, can feel as thin as butter scraped over too much bread.  Moreover, the script seems to work overtime on making tie-ins to the LOTR series, many of which come off more like product placement than plot necessities.  Still, if there’s one thing Jackson knows, it’s spectacle, and the clash of five armies — men (the ragged people of Laketown), elves, dwarves, eagles, and orcs — is spectacular indeed (despite the occasionally jerky insertions of CG stunt doubles).

Freeman’s Bilbo is an endearing combination of reluctance and virtue, and Armitage masterfully captures Thorin’s shifting moods.  The reliable Ian McKellan, of course, returns as the wizard Gandalf, as do several familiar characters from LOTR, including Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Ian Holm, in a brief cameo as the elder Bilbo.

The Hobbit lacks the gravitas of the more archetypal struggle between good and evil in LOTR (though there are scenes that help establish some background to the later conflict).  Much of the drama is driven by matters of pride, greed, and revenge, which seem petty by comparison.  There seems less at stake, and Bilbo’s heroism, accordingly, plays in a lower key than Frodo’s or Sam’s; thus the final installment to the Hobbit franchise lacks the narrative gut punch of The Return of the King.

I suspect that this is part of the reason for the insertion of a romantic subplot between Tauriel the elf (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner) — as if the writers were given an imperative to add emotional heft.  One might argue (somewhat rightly) that it lends nuance to the antipathy between dwarves and elves, and casts the later relationship between Legolas and Gimli in a new light.  At the same time, however, it feels contrived.  Somehow, it works, but at a cost: it reminds me of what else is missing from the story.

Out of sheer curiosity, if a director’s cut is released, I will probably watch it, just to see what ended up on the cutting room floor.  Whatever the result, watching Bilbo’s transformation from fussbudget to reluctant warrior still brings back one of Tolkien’s great themes: greatness is sometimes found in unexpected quarters, when even the most unlikely of heroes finds the courage to do what’s right.