“We came all this way, but now comes the day to bid you farewell.” So sings Billy Boyd during the end credits song “The Last Goodbye” from Peter Jackson’s final installment of The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies.
After having been witness to so many hardships alongside the characters of the Middle Earth saga, it’s quite bittersweet to finally say goodbye to this world. However, you could also argue that it’s just as appropriate to wish it good riddance.
Ever since the departure of original director, Guillermo Del Toro, and after the decision to extend the films to three rather than the originally envisioned two, this trilogy has received a non-negligible number of criticisms for its excessive context and bloated running times, a steep contrast to the simplicity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original book. Seen as a greedy attempt at recreating the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it’s one of numerous adaptations guilty of this sin. I once made a statement in my review of The Desolation of Smaug that my thoughts were so similar to An Unexpected Journey that I could copy and paste most of my original thoughts verbatim. With The Battle of the Five Armies, I feel like I could just as easily do so, for much of what worked and didn’t work in the previous films are also present here.
Picking up immediately after The Desolation of Smaug, where Bilbo and the Dwarves thirteen sent the dragon on a rampage on the village of Lake-Town, after Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) is killed during the attack, news quickly spreads all across Middle Earth. Desperate to keep the treasure hidden, Thorin (Richard Armitage) barricades the walls of his kingdom, which the Elf lord Thranduil (Lee Pace) wishes to enter to reclaim lost treasure. Thorin has gone mad with obsession, a stone that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) hides from him driving him to insanity, and all the while, the looming threat of an Orc invasion plagues the land, leading to an epic war that will shape the future of Middle Earth, and pave the way for the dire things yet to come.
Immediately letting you in on how overstuffed this movie is, it opens right off of the cliffhanger ending of Desolation. No time to breathe, no chance to recap, it thrusts you into the experience. In fact, the sequence is finished so quickly that there’s no reason it couldn’t have been attached to the last film. It exists to give the audience a major set piece while the titular battle is continually built up, and yet, it’s probably where the action sequences in this film hit their peak. It’s an impressively staged and paced sequence, simply fantastic to look at, and Cumberbatch is just as excellent In his performance here as in the previous film.
Beyond that, it’s a bit too bloated to justify, continuing with the love triangle between Evangelline Lilly’s Tauriel, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, and the dwarf Kili, as well as the resolution to the Necromancer subplot which makes you question why it was ever needed in the first place. Sure, it’s awesome to see Christopher Lee facing off against the forces of evil, but it’s not necessary. That’s been quite a problem with this whole trilogy, trying to capture the same epic scope of the Lord of the Rings films, yet not having the substance to justify it. This should have been two movies, each two and a half hours, and by expanding it beyond the breaking point, it instead feels greedy.
However, if there’s anything I can say to justify Peter Jackson’s (or the studio’s) decision, it’s this. At the very least, even if this movie is loaded with numerous elements that don’t need to be there, Peter Jackson is still a master of pacing. This isn’t a case of Michael Bay going overboard with the horrendous Transformers: Age of Extinction, because at least when Peter Jackson is loading films with 15 hours of filler, at least everything he puts in can still be entertaining to watch. This isn’t an lazy Ehren Kruger train wreck, because Jackson still has a clearly passionate love of being in the world of Middle Earth. He’s especially at his most playful during the film’s action sequences, and he has such a fine tuned creativity and seamless balance of weight and comicality, even if he goes too far in areas, such as one sequence with Legolas climbing crumbling tower walls like a game of Tetris that gives the laws of physics a beating.
To comment on the quality of Jackson’s attention to visual detail has practically become a cliché at this point. He proves to be as competent and narrowly focused as ever when it comes to the construction of his various technical qualities, boasting fantastic production design, sound, photography, costumes, makeup, and music. His visual effects are no less impressive… even if their seamlessness have ultimately slipped his grasp a bit. For the most part, the effects are of the same high quality you expect, but in other areas, they can also take you completely out of the experience. It’s here where you can unmistakably assess just how overboard Jackson has gone with these digital tools, some shots looking downright cartoonish and caricatured, and the less said about Billy Connolly as a dwarf army commander come to aid Thorin, the better.
The acting is as reliable as it ever has been in a Middle Earth film, Benedict Cumberbatch a total scene-stealer in the film’s first ten minutes alone, and Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman getting several standout bits. There’s a particularly engaging examination of how both Thorin and Bilbo are becoming burdened by their growing weakness to their pieces of gold, with Thorin falling victim to the treasure obsession that unraveled his father (to the point that he arrives on Smaug’s mental level), and Bilbo witness to all of this, and foreshadowing his own eventual descent into obsession with the ring he claimed from Gollum’s cavern. The whole film works in many nods to the Rings films that, while blatant fan-service moments, are still satisfying in how they bring this entire saga full circle.
How Del Toro would have approached this series is a fascinating mystery we’ll sadly never get to realize, but in spite of how unbalanced and long this series has been, I still can’t find myself hating these movies. I can understand why others would be so hostile against it, but much in the same way that I found myself drawn into the recent film adaptation of Les Miserables, I just love being in this world too much to have any heated hatred for it. Call it nostalgia goggles if you will, but even after thirteen years, I still find Middle Earth every bit as enchanting as it was when Jackson first embarked on this epic journey. The Battle of the Five Armies may not be quite as strong as its predecessors before it, but it is still a bittersweet finale, and I still find myself quite satisfied with its conclusion. Perhaps Jackson was setting himself up for failure by how high standards were after his defining fantasy trilogy, but no matter how low these films sank, his love and dedication to this world was never less apparent.
“I bid you all a very fond farewell…”
Film Grade: **** / *****
Trilogy Grade: **** / *****