Image: New Line Cinema

Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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Image: New Line Cinema
Image: New Line Cinema

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies marks Peter Jackson’s last foray into Middle Earth (for now at least), and it is clearly the best of the Hobbit trilogy, yet it remains a considerable distance behind any of the Lord of the Rings films in terms of quality of film and film making.

By now, most are acquainted with the criticisms that have followed the Hobbit trilogy over its three year roll-out; the 368 page book should never have been made into three films (8 hours in total), Peter Jackson should never have favoured an onslaught of CGI over practical effects, and the romance between the only ginger elf in Middle Earth and that handsome dwarf (take a guess at his name, there’s a 1 in 13 chance of getting it right) is weird. Creepy weird.

Even though fans of the new trilogy may be sick of hearing these same arguments regurgitated after the release of each film, there’s a reason why they persist, and they are all the more fitting for this new instalment. Clearly Peter Jackson was left with a lack of content to complete this final film which explains the lack of story and the abundance of armies. An abundance which inevitably leads to the big computer generated elephant in the room- the dominance of CGI, which in itself would not be a problem if only it were not soglaringly obvious. Rather than feeling immersed in the world of Middle Earth you can’t help but be reminded every five minutes that you are watching pure fantasy in a crowded theatre room. And that is a feeling that is made all the more worse and all the more disappointing by the towering awesomeness of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Resurrecting memories of the original trilogy is the equivalent of summoning the critics of the critics. The ones that say that The Hobbit is a completely different entity to The Lord of the Rings, that it is a more youthful affair aimed at children and as such should be expected to be more cartoonish than the previous trilogy and to have a much lighter tone. If that were true, then why is this film so grim? Why does it concern itself with the decimation of cityscapes, refugees, the politics of war, and the death and misery brought by it? In other words why does it feel so much like a rehashing of LOTR but at the same time so much less so?

The Battle of the Five Armies is just that; a battle between five armies, nothing else. What thin sinews of theme and character that have been strung throughout the previous two films are discarded early on in this final chapter in favour of an overlong, drawn out showdown that ends up looking like a preview for the next Total War game.  Don’t get me wrong, the battle, with its hordes of participants, is choreographed beautifully by Jackson and develops in such a way that the audience is never confused by who’s fighting who and why. It graciously manoeuvres past the incomprehensible train wreck that could have been and there are brief moments that inspire the same awe we felt when seeing the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers.

That being said, this final showdown, which is the undisputed centre piece of the film (rather than its climax) suffers from two big problems. The first is that every time the protagonists get into a situation that could spell their doom the audience need only count how many armies are on screen and if the number amounts to less than five you can pretty much guarantee that another one is about to show up and save the day. Secondly, the battle is structured in such a way that it feels like and looks like a video game; good guys vs bad guys, good guys vs stronger bad guys, good guys vs boss, each stage is fittingly accompanied by a change in map. Undoubtedly, fans of the previous two films as well those that feel that there has been a distinct lack of action will be more than satisfied by this conclusion but I feel that at most, satisfaction is all that is on offer.

The good things on display however are really good, and as mentioned this is by far the best Hobbit film. The opening scene depicting the destruction of Lake-town under Smaug’s bellowing flames is stunningly visceral. Additionally, Richard Armitage’s turn as a gold-mad Thorin is riveting to watch and allows Peter Jackson to indulge in some very surreal imagery as Thorin’s mind becomes increasingly malleable and psychedelically laced by his greed. Sadly this promising narrative strand becomes more or less abandoned once the titular battle begins. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo continues to be far and away the best thing about The Hobbit and he’s no less charming in his final outing but like the other redeeming features of the film he seems to fade away once the fighting starts.

In all, The Battle of the Five Armies, apart from swallowing up my word count every time I have to type out the title, ends up being a distinctly average affair but one that is still better than the two other average films that preceded it. One of its biggest problems is that it ends up being more about the final battle than it does about anything else, even the Hobbit that we’ve journeyed with these last three years. However, the most important problem, and one that extends to the whole trilogy perhaps, is its inability to escape from the enormous shadow cast by its bigger older brother, The Lord of the Rings, and to carve out a mountain of its own. While I’m glad Mr Jackson gave us one more adventure in Middle Earth, I am left hoping that he won’t go back again.

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