Once again we have arrived at the end of a remarkable cinematic journey that has taken us to the far reaches of the fictional land of Middle Earth. The place dreamed up in the mind of J.R.R. Tolkein and brought to cinematic life by New Zealand-born director Peter Jackson has become one of the most fully realized worlds ever put on the big screen, giving us all great entertainment as we explore deeper with every new adventure. When Jackson undertook the adaptation of Tolkein’s novels in the late 90’s, he was heading into an unexpected journey that would not only redefine his career, but cinema as a whole. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a monumental cinematic achievement, earning a whole bunch of acclaim and Oscar gold, as well as influencing a whole new generation of tech savvy filmmakers who were blown away by the groundbreaking visual effects in those films. Given the success of the movies, it seemed logical that a film adaptation of Tolkein’s other works would follow. Unfortunately, years of legal tie ups with competing studios and with Tolkein’s estate prevented a quick follow up from happening. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that we would see the world of Middle Earth back on the big screen. And of course, the most natural way to follow up the story of The Lord of the Rings is to adapt it’s predecessor, The Hobbit. Tolkein’s grand vision actually began with this modest sized fantasy tale of Bilbo Baggins, only to be expanded upon in one of the grandest sequels ever concocted with Rings. And though The Hobbit is smaller in size and scale on the page, expectations were high for a cinematic retelling that could match the grandeur of Rings, and even surpass it. It was a daunting challenge that director Peter Jackson faced, and in the end, it was one that really showed his best qualities as a filmmaker.
Though originally planned as a two parter, The Hobbit became such an overwhelming project that the decision was later made to expand it out into a trilogy just like The Lord of the Rings. What’s most interesting about these Hobbit movies is that unlike Rings (which was already structured as a three part story from the beginning) they didn’t have the blueprint for exactly how to split the story. It was largely determined by Peter Jackson as to how the story should be taken apart and spread out over three separate release dates. For some, this was a terrible decision, because they saw The Hobbit as just a standalone story, and not something that had to follow the same formula as Lord of the Rings. But, there were many others, like myself, who found this to be an interesting experiment. Like Rings, every film in the trilogy has it’s own character and the expanded story-line actually helps to improve upon some things that were missing from the books; namely extra development for some of the secondary characters. And there is textual basis for many of the additions that Jackson put into his movie. Tolkein himself was always rewriting and expanding on his previous works, even years after they had first been published. The Hobbit utilizes many of the extra notes that Tolkein had added over the years to help make this story feel more complete as well as more true to the larger world that the author had created. And as a result, Tolkein’s original Hobbit has now become a great cinematic epic on it’s own, becoming a worthy follow-up to the enormous success of the Rings trilogy. Following the success of An Unexpected Journey (2012) and The Desolation of Smaug (2013), we are now treated with the closing chapter, and it may very well be the final tale of this series as a whole; The Battle of the Five Armies (2014).
Five Armies is an interesting entry into this series, because unlike the other movies, it was titled something else for the longest time; being renamed only a few short months ago. Up until this summer, the movie went under the name There and Back Again, which given the restructuring of the trilogy, really no longer made any sense. As we learned at the conclusion of Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the band of Dwarves he has traveled with have already made it “there,” so the title no longer had the same significance. The “there” in question of course is the great Lonely Mountain of Erebor, home of the greatest Dwarf kingdom in Middle Earth. At the end of the previous film, the Dwarves successfully expel the evil dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), only to lead him towards destroying the nearby human settlement of Lake-Town. There Smaug levels the city and leaves thousands homeless, until he is brought down by the skilled bowman Bard (Luke Evans). Seeking restitution for the loss of their home, the men of Lake-Town travel to Erebor in hopes that the Dwarves would honor their promise of riches. However, once there, the men are shut out by King Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) who has become consumed by greed after returning to the mountain. Matters are made even worse when Elven King Thandruil (Lee Pace) arrives to stake his own claim on the mountain’s riches. And unbeknownst to all is another army of killer orcs coming down from the north, led by the fierce Azog (Manu Bennett). Caught up in all the fierce fighting is an overwhlemed Bilbo, who only seeks to ease the tension between those who should join together. Meanwhile, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) learns of an even greater danger that he knows could lead to even worse problems for Middle Earth in the future. All of this sets up for the titular Battle of the Five Armies, which serves as the climatic completion of this epic story, as well as the bridge into what happens next in The Lord of the Rings.
In the last couple of years, I have enjoyed this series immensely. The Hobbit may not hit the same cinematic highs as The Lord of the Rings, but I don’t believe it was ever intended to. Rings is the bigger story, and always has been. It was colossal by design and was meant to take what was set up in the Hobbit to the next level. Yes, Peter Jackson spread the story out into a trilogy, but story wise it still captures the same narrow focus of the original book, which is where it should be. In The Hobbit, we don’t cut back and forth between different factions and different points of view; everything still ties together into Bilbo’s story, and comes to a climatic skirmish that resolves everything together nicely. What worked in Rings doesn’t work the same way in Hobbit, and I’m glad that Peter Jackson found an effective medium to tell the story in a way that helped this trilogy work on it’s own. Not only that, but the movies also work well as standalone films in addition to being part of a larger narrative. I especially found that to be true with last year’s Desolation of Smaug, which had probably the most interesting story structure of the entire series, being the middle chapter. The Battle of the Five Armies takes everything that the other movies were leading up to and gives us a spectacular finish that hopes to resolve all the loose ends of this grand epic. And did Peter Jackson manage to stick the landing? On the whole, I would say that he absolutely did. Armies is a spectacular closing chapter to this series that should satisfy anyone who’s been a fan of the series.
But, I should stress that even though the movie is a rousing adventure that will keep you at the edge of your seat, it is also the one movie in the series that has the most structural problems. Not that they ruin the film by any means, but this movie unfortunately feels the least defined of the entire trilogy. My gripe about the structure is mainly due to the fact that unlike the other Hobbit films, this one doesn’t quite stand alone as well. With Journey and Desolation, you could easily come into those two features with little knowledge of what comes before or after and still get swept up in the overall flow of the story. With Battle of the Five Armies, I think the movie unfortunately becomes the only victim of Peter Jackson’s restructuring of the narrative. While still engaging, Armies unfortunately feels more like an extended epilogue than a fully realized three act structured film. Not to mention, the movie leaves nothing left for the viewers other than to see what amounts to one single climatic finale, which of course is the “Battle,” which makes up the majority of the film’s run-time. This leaves little room for character development and world-building, which the previous films did so well leading up to this. So, if you’re a casual viewer who has never seen one of these Middle Earth set films before and you go into this one cold, this movie more than the others will leave you confused as to what’s going on. But, if you’re like me, and you’ve followed the movies from the very beginning, then you’ll still come away satisfied, as this movie works best when combined with the others. I’ll be interested to see how this movie plays with the other five “Middle Earth Saga” films. My guess is that it will serve as a perfect conclusion to Bilbo Baggins’ story line, as well as a great introduction into the beginning of the Lord of the Rings. I just wish the restructuring hadn’t stolen away some of the movie’s identity as a singular piece.
But, even if the story is lacking in some of the elements that made the previous films so engaging, there is still a lot to enjoy in this movie overall. Namely the performances by the actors, who have really made this series work splendidly over the years. I actually hold a controversial opinion about this, in that I believe that the performances in The Hobbit trilogy have been stronger and more consistent on the whole than those in The Lord of the Rings. I know some of you might think different, but there’s no denying that this series has been perfectly cast all around. This is especially true with actor Martin Freeman, who has been pitch perfect in the role of Bilbo Baggins. The greatness in his performance comes from the little gestures he adds to character during the quieter moments, showing just how great an improvisational performer he is. Here he shows even more brilliance as Bilbo stands out as the voice of reason in a growing chaotic world. And while his performance is great, it is actually overshadowed in this movie by Richard Armitage’s work as Thorin. Armitage has been good in the series up to now, but here in Armies is where he really shines. He brilliantly captures the tragic elements of the character, almost to Shakespearean levels, as Thorin falls deeper into madness once he’s gained his crown. If a character benefits from more development in the crowded film, it’s definitely Thorin, and Richard Armitage utilizes his screen-time to full advantage. The supporting cast also lends strong support, especially Luke Evens and Lee Pace as the opposing kings in the story. Returning Rings stars Ian McKellan and Orlando Bloom also shine as Gandalf and Legolas respectively. If there are any parts of the cast that don’t work, it probably be the underdeveloped Lake-Town characters, like comic relief character Alfrid (Ryan Gage) who feels a bit out of place in this film. Apart form that, it’s another superbly acted film in the series from a very praise-worthy cast.
Of course, under the direction of Peter Jackson, we expect this movie to feature a lot of eye candy, and it doesn’t disappoint. However, unlike the last films, this movie doesn’t take us anywhere new, and instead just retreads already familiar ground. This may be disappointing for fans of the series who were hoping to see more of this amazing world explored, but Jackson still manages to use what he has effectively. The titular Battle takes place at the very door step of the Lonely Mountain, and while it may not have the same scale as the Battle of Pelannor Fields from The Return of the King (2003) or the tension of the Battle of Helm’s Deep fro The Two Towers (2002), it still is an impressively choreographed scene that keeps you invested throughout What Peter Jackson does very well here is to break up the huge army clashes with more intimate moments within the battle, like with smaller fights happening within the ruins of the human city of Dale, or the one on one battles between heroes and villains. Fans of Legolas in particular will be pleased to know that the character once again delivers some more amazingly acrobatic combat tricks in his fight scenes here. The films prologue, which picks up right where the previous film left off, is also stunning to look at, and gives the character Smaug an impressive sendoff as a perfect starting point for the rest of the movie. Peter Jackson may not be hitting the same heights as he did with Lord of the Rings, but he’s not trying to either. Here, I think he accomplished a respectful adaptation of Tolkein’s story by telling it to it’s fullest extant while at the same time improving on it’s potential. It also helps that he’s maintained the same production team all these years later who also bring their A-game material to the crafting of this picture. Whether it’s the wizards at Weta Workshop and Digital or Howard Shore’s rousing score, everything works together to create a rousing and beautiful picture.
So, in the end, The Battle of the Five Armies completes what I believe to be a very satisfying trilogy of fantasy films. It may not be up to the level of Lord of the Rings splendor, but what else is? The last decade has been full of plenty of failed franchises that have tried to capitalize on Rings success, so I think Peter Jackson deserves a lot of praise for even trying to go there and back again into Middle Earth and get it done right. But, even though the series comes to a pleasing end, there is also the unfortunate feeling of knowing that this will be the end of it all. We will never see this version of Middle Earth realized on film ever again. I know there are people out there that believe that Tolkein’s further writings about Middle Earth in The Simirillion will make it to the big screen someday, but if it does, it won’t come under the direction of Peter Jackson. Jackson even wanted to stop his input on the series after Lord of the Rings, instead handing the reigns over to director Guillermo del Toro at one point in development. But, once del Toro dropped out, Jackson took it upon himself to see this thing through and I’m so very happy he did. I think these Hobbit movies, along with The Lord of the Rings, make up a remarkable 6 part story-line that will be unparalleled in all of cinematic history. But, even with all this, I can understand if Jackson chooses to leave Middle Earth behind now. Sadly, it appears that our journey into this remarkable world comes to a close with Battle of Five Armies, which in the end makes for a stunning final chapter and a great seg-way into what comes later in Lord of the Rings. Is it the be all and end all of the entire series? Not quite; The Return of the King is a much stronger climax and of course is the end point for the story chronologically. Still, it is a superbly crafted film and one of the best experiences at the movies I’ve had this year. But, if this is where we leave this version of Middle Earth for good, than I view it as a journey well taken.