The Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies promises to be the New Zealand director’s last excursion into Tolkien land, and for that some praise is due, for staying the course if nothing else.
The first Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released almost exactly 13 years ago, in 2001, and the six instalments of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies make up a remarkably homogenous body of work. Like Agatha Christie’s detective novels, there would appear little in the way of aesthetic – as opposed to technological – progression; having set the tone so definitively at the outset, each film delivered exactly what it promised.
Shortly after the huge battle sequence of this final installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit saga gets underway, a huge troll-like monstrosity with a pointed stone headpiece runs full tilt into a fortress wall, making a breach through which a bunch of orcs and some malevolent nasty creatures can pour through. The troll, or whatever they call, lies throughout on the ground, stunned; largely disregarded as its compadres swarm past. Well, I can sympathise entirely; I reeled out of the cinema in bit of a daze myself after this extended dose of Jackson’s patented ye olde Middle Earth cranium-smashing.
That’s not to say Jackson’s achievement hasn’t been impressive: the epic potential of The Lord of the Rings was perhaps simple enough to spot, but a monumental effort to pull off. Applying the same thunderous template to the chirpy Hobbit, however, required adroit footwork to avoid the feeling that the whole thing had been padded out. Well, the pace doesn’t flag in this final section, even if it’s shorter by almost 20 minutes than either of its two predecessors; however, the late-breaking change of title (from the considerably more fey There and Back Again) tells you that heading towards some sort of monumental showdown is this film’s central preoccupation.
The Battle of the Five Armies picks up where Desolation of Smaug leaves off, practically in mid-sentence. The dragon is hurtling down towards the watery hovels of Laketown, Thorin Oakenshield is getting a little twitchy down in the treasure hoard, and Gandalf is swinging gently in the breeze in an iron cage in Sauron’s ruined castle.
Almost instantly, we are plunged into a hellstorm of grandiose proportions, as Smaug lays down a greatly methodical carpet-fire-breathing attack, laying waste to Laketown and forcing the inhabitants to run, until taken out by iron-arrowed Bard the Bowman (played by Luke Evans). Thorin (played by Richard Armitage), meanwhile, is succumbing to what is fetchingly termed “dragon sickness” – a saucer-eyed hunger for gold that causes him to lose his Braveheart-ish dignity and sense of honour.
Another of the myriad concurrent plot strands finds Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving show up like some sort of smocked-and-gowned superhero team to see off Sauron, with director Jackson indulging in surprisingly trippy Doctor Who-esque visuals.
As for Bilbo Baggins – well, he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Martin Freeman is as lovable careworn as ever before, but as Jackson shuffles and prods events towards the gargantuan encounter signed from the outset, it is clear that Thorin is the movie’s pivotal character, and the one with the most repeatedly inspected “journey”. Bilbo has a couple of errands to run, a ring to fiddle about with, but not much else – and certainly not much in the way of fighting. Jackson, for understandable reasons, has concentrated his cinematic fire on the clang of swordplay and the roar of battle; this consigns Bilbo to a peripheral role throughout. Sure, and I don’t think this is a huge spoiler, his return to the Shire is calibrated for maximum heartstring-tugging, as well as one or two pieces of business to end the loop to the Lord of the Rings films.
Be that as it might, this movie is a fitting cap to an expanded franchise that, if nothing else, has transformed Tolkien’s place in the bigger culture. His novels were once strictly for spotty nerdy teens (I think we’ve all been there), and while The Battle of the Five Armies is unlikely to repeat the Oscar sweep that met the conclusion of Jackson’s first Tolkien trilogy; frankly it is just as enjoyable as each of the five movies that came before it. Jackson may or may not be resigned to the fact that, unless something very dramatic emerges, they will be his principal cinematic legacy – his pre-Rings eccentricity having been thoroughly eclipsed – but at least he can take a bit of time off. He’s earned it.