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It started with an Unexpected Journey that was supposed to take Bilbo Baggins on an adventure There and Back Again. But a creative – or financial – decision was made that meant Bilbo’s expedition instead led to The Desolation of Smaug, and finally, to this moment: The Battle of the Five Armies.
It’s been an amazing effort by co-writer and director Peter Jackson, making his own surprising return to Middle-earth to finish what he started some 16 years ago. And this final movie may be his greatest challenge yet as it has to succeed on three distinct fronts – as the finale to one trilogy, as the connection to another, and as an amusing effort in its own right. Ambitious doesn’t begin to cover it.
The Battle of the Five Armies film commences in brilliant or bizarre fashion, depending on your opinion of the limited source material being divided into three lengthy movies.
“What have we done?” said Bilbo during The Desolation of Smaug’s climatic point. The dwarves beat the fire-breathing dragon and claimed back their gold. But they failed to kill the beast, and as the credits rolled Smaug was winging his way to Lake-town to wreak havoc.
The Battle of the Five Armies, hence, starts with a genuinely spectacular set-piece, the stunningly-rendered creature swooping over and around the island raining flames on all below. The Master of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) flees in fear, while Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) steps into the fray, climbing a watchtower and firing his every arrow at Smaug in a desperate attempt to save his people.
It’s a gorgeous pre-credit scene, but looks more like the end of the last installment than the beginning of this one, lending the movie a very odd kind of imbalance from the off.
Proceedings then briefly calm down, as we observe the relationship between dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) develop, and witness Bard become more King-like as he takes charge of what’s left of his town. The cowardly Alfrid (played by Ryan Gage) even brings some relief as he endeavors to worm his way into Bard’s good graces. But that’s largely it for comedy this time around, with both the stakes higher and the tone graver as the journey nears its end.
There are still loose ends to be tied up from the previous film, however, most notably Gandalf’s plight, the wizard having been imprisoned by Sauron at the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur. It’s a chance to glimpse the horrifying extent of Galadriel’s power, as the White Council spring into action and the Lady of Lothlorien kicks all sorts of ass, ably helped by Elrond and a splendidly sprightly Sauruman.
But what of Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit at the heart of this tale? Although he plays a pivotal role in the book’s final third – committing an incredibly brave act of defiance – it’s also quite a small one. Instead, The Battle of the Five Armies is very much Thorin Oakenshield’s story, and he’s a changed dwarf at the start of this installment. The reclamation of his ancestor’s gold has stirred ‘Dragon Sickness’ in his courageous heart, with greed poisoning the dwarf’s head so that he loses sight of all that’s noble and good.
Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the highly valued ‘Arkenstone’, which he believes to be somewhere in the Lonely Mountain. And so the Company of Dwarves protect themselves from within as they seek the gem, giving the group little to do in this outing, and frustrating both the elves and the people of Lake-town, both of whom think they are owed a share of the treasure.
The scene is set for the three parties to wage war with each other, but this being The Battle of the Five Armies, they’re a little low on numbers, forcing Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (as well as Guillermo Del Toro) to painstakingly and sometimes rather tediously maneuver all the pieces into place so said confrontation can commence.
But it’s worth the wait, the battle involving the kind of large-scale conflict that Jackson is so good at setting. Not for him shaky camerawork and confusing quick-fire cuts – Jackson meticulously sets out the geography of the battle-ground then guides you through it, as man, dwarf and elf encounter hordes of Orcs, who in turn are helped and abetted by many beasts of war, including giant bats and gargantuan worms.
Trouble is, it all gets a little CGI-heavy, with the film at times looking less like live-action and more like animation. This problem is most noticeable during the arrival of Dwarf General Dain Ironfoot – portrayed with charming gusto by Billy Connolly. Sporting a ginger Mohawk and delivering Glasweigan kisses as he rides into battle atop a huge boar, he’s a larger-than-life character, but fights in such a blur of superhuman speed that it’s hard to believe he’s flesh and blood. Legolas is similarly over-animated during a couple of brawls, while fully computer-generated Orcs Azog and Bolg seldom convince, which is a problem when they are ultimately the villains of the piece.
The escalation of war is certainly impressive, while Jackson ensures that there are small, personal altercations so that each character gets their moment to shine. But the fighting is relentless and lasts for what feels like an age, with battle fatigue eventually setting in as much for the audience as it does the troops.
Jackson knows what he has to do in these situations though, the war building up on a powerful and poignant note; one that’s not about huge armies battering each other, but rather friendship, loyalty, and the close connection that formed between 13 dwarves, a wizard and a hobbit at the start of this tale.
Predictably the movie then segues into various endings, but thankfully not as many as those that ruined the finale of The Return of the King. There’s a slightly jarring tonal shift, and some somewhat clumsy forewarnings of the darkness to come. But overall it’s a satisfying and ultimately moving ending to this trilogy.
Yet, as a standalone entry The Battle of the Five Armies has its fair share of shortcomings, most conspicuously the fact that the movie’s most compelling scene is that opening salvo, with Smaug casting his huge shadow over the rest of proceedings. But there’s also a bit too much filler that appears designed to pad things out, so much so that at times it seems like characters are being reintroduced merely so they can then be bid farewell.
As ever, Martin Freeman delivers a masterclass in understatement as Bilbo, so much so that you wish the character spent more time onscreen. And once again Richard Armitage is an impressive presence, with Thorin’s quest both touching and heartbreaking.
But their combined efforts can’t quite elevate the movie, with The Battle of the Five Armies an impressive achievement when taken as the bridge in a six-film series, but somewhat less successful as a stand-alone feature, with the best material either having gone before, or yet to come.