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Non-Review Review: The Hobbit – Battle of the Five Armies

It has become a stock criticism to suggest that Peter Jackson did not need a full trilogy to adapt The Hobbit for the big screen. That said, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was an unexpected pleasure – a movie not all hindered by the pacing concerns of the trilogy and instead interested in its own central narrative. You could cut the opening scene from The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies onto the end of The Desolation of Smaug and you would have pretty much everything that you need.

While this approach benefited The Desolation of Smaug, it puts Battle of the Five Armies at something of a disadvantage. It is debatable whether there was enough material to support three full films based on The Hobbit – even drawing from other sources in the Tolkien canon – but this is clearly not the best way of structuring those three films. There is a sense that Battle of the Five Armies suffers from the decision to extend the planned duology into a full-blown trilogy.

The not-so-magic dragon...

The not-so-magic dragon…

To be fair to Peter Jackson, he does avoid the ending issues that haunted The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. However, he does that by editing Battle of the Five Armies as a brief epilogue to the previous two films, following by a massive battle sequence. This is quite impressive from a technical standpoint, but there is a sense of fatigue to it all. As the title implies, this is a five-way battle involving thousands of participants; both organic and computer-generated. A lot gets lost in the shuffle, and the plot – as it stands – could be explained in two sentences.

More than that, Battle of the Five Armies is hindered by its status as a prequel. The fact that everybody in the audience has likely seen The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring means that they know all this spectacle is really for nothing. The first two films in the trilogy largely avoided the problem by pitching the story as a working-class version of The Lord of the Rings, allowing characters to engage in quests that are deeply personal even as they ripple to larger events.

A messed-up character orc...

A messed-up character orc…

Bilbo’s journey with the company of dwarves may change the course of Middle Earth history, but it is something that means a lot to him and to the dwarves. The immediate outcome of the story affects characters who had ended their journey before the opening sequences of The Fellowship of the Ring on a much smaller scale. So it is possible to engage with the story of Bard the Bowman because he is not the king of men; he is a guy whose job it is to fire a crossbow at a dragon. The audience doesn’t know him; he doesn’t play into the events of the later trilogy.

Bard’s personal saga has no bearing on The Fellowship of the Ring, even if it has consequences that affect the way that it plays out. The problem with Battle of the Five Armies is that it is more fixated on the consequences than on the characters. Bard completes his character arc in the first ten minutes of the film. Bilbo finishes affecting the plot at around the thirty-to-forty minute mark. The only major character in Battle of the Five Armies whose arc stretches across the film is Thorin, king of the dwarvish people.

Bilbo spends most of the movie on the sidelines...

Bilbo spends most of the movie on the sidelines…

However, the story of Thorin is too thin to stretch over two hours and twenty minutes. It is quite clear how his arc will flow, and the decisions that he will inevitably made. Thorin is the only character in Battle of the Five Armies who has any real agency or choice, and his arc would feel like a background detail in any other movie of the saga. Instead, the big narrative thrust of the film follows the battle for the Lonely Mountain, the dwarvish kingdom that Thorin has claimed as his own; his birthright and point of strategic value in Middle Earth.

There is some interesting material here. For the first half-hour or so, Battle of the Five Armies is fascinating. Picking up directly following the cliffhanger ending to The Desolation of Smaug, everything is resolved quite quickly. It is a very strange structural choice – The Desolation of Smaug would be a much stronger film if it had the first ten minutes of Battle of the Five Armies grafted on. Nevertheless, this provides Battle of the Five Armies with an interesting hook. What happens after the big epic quest? How do people deal with those consequences?

Elf-control...

Elf-control…

After all, fantasy epics tend to climax with big battles against epic evils. There is little attention paid to the aftermath of such conflicts. Battle of the Five Armies broaches these sorts of questions. The refugees from the devastated Laketown march towards the Lonely Mountain, seeking shelter. Thorin’s decision to reclaim his birthright has serious consequences for the balance of power in Middle Earth. Not everything wraps up neatly, and it is interesting to see what happens when the dust settles.

It is a slightly deconstructive look at the fantasy epic, and it seems in line with the strongest aspects of The Hobbit trilogy. The success of The Lord of the Rings reignited an interest in epic fantasy, and the audience is so familiar with the language of those epics that they can be subverted and explored. A large part of Game of Thrones is distorting and playing with the rules of a larger fantasy epic – catching the audience off-guard by refusing to follow the expected formula or lingering on the consequences of these story elements.

If ever a wizard a wiz there was...

If ever a wizard a wiz there was…

The Hobbit trilogy seems keenly aware of the impact of Game of Thrones. In fact, early in the film, Bard the Bowman declares, “Winter has come.” It is a clever riff on one of the many catchphrases from Game of Thrones, but it also acknowledges that the rules of epic fantasy have changed in the years since the release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. At its best, The Hobbit has played with these ideas. Bilbo and Thorin might be on a traditional epic quest, but it is just one minor aspect of the realpolitik of Middle Earth.

So Battle of the Five Armies seems like it might be playing with these ideas. It invites the audience to wonder what happens after the epic quest and the hero’s journey. Lives have been destroyed by Thorin’s decisions, and that will have very real consequences. The status quo of Middle Earth has been dramatically altered. The battle might have been won, but the peace is precarious at best. This isn’t the multiple endings that plagued The Return of the King. This is very much the opposite; it seems like an anti-ending.

Taking a bow...

Taking a bow…

The first act of Battle of the Five Armies seems to hint that there is no ending to a fantasy epic; that the wheels must keep turning. War begets war; blood begets blood. It’s a very clever and very powerful point, one that seems particularly self-aware once the audience realises that all of this will eventually lead to The Lord of the Rings. The story is certainly not over. It is only just beginning. This would seem to be a very clever way to end a trilogy, and it is a shame that the movie lacks the courage to stick with it.

Instead, Battle of the Five Armies devolves into a massive brawl between the eponymous cinquette of interested parties over the fate of the Lonely Mountain. Gandalf (as yet) the Grey insists that the mountain is the key to Middle Earth, and that it must not be surrendered to the orcs, leading to a sprawling conflict. However, this also immediate cuts away any dramatic tension that Battle of the Five Armies might have. After all, viewers already know the fate of the Lonely Mountain in The Lord of the Rings, in that it is not important enough to feature heavily.

"You know what the camera crews never stick around for? The Middle Earth refugee camps."

“You know what the camera crews never stick around for? The Middle Earth refugee camps.”

In fact, the Lonely Mountain barely registers in The Lord of the Rings. It obviously is not crucially important to the war effort, in that Gandalf is not too concerned about Sauron claiming it during the War of the Rings, despite his concerns here. If the first two movies in The Hobbit trilogy offered glimpses of little events that would have huge ripples, Battle of the Five Armies is built around what we are told is a major event that ultimately feels rather pointless in the grand scheme of things.

The battle against the orcs for control of the mountain is obviously a different kettle of fish from the attempts to reclaim it from Smaug. The defeat of Smaug is presented as a very indirect victory for Gandalf, depriving Sauron of a piece that he might hope to use in the future. First and foremost, the defeat of Smaug matters to Thorin as a king trying to reclaim his birthright. It matters to Bilbo as a part of his big adventure in the wide open world. It matters to Bard as an opportunity to redeem himself.

He is coming.

He is coming.

In contrast, denying the orcs control of the Lonely Mountain is painted as a hugely important battle against the same forces of darkness the heroes will spend the next three movies fighting. Since this victory wasn’t even important enough to mention or discuss in that context, it feels rather superficial. It is a detail that could be dealt with in a footnote or a coda. Devoting the entire film to the battle feels like an exercise in futility. It means that Battle of the Five Armies spends most of its runtime spinning its wheels.

However, there are even more fundamental problems with the film. The Lord of the Rings was pioneering in its use of computer-generated technology, blending computer-generated imagery with practical effects to create wonderful results. Here, it feels like Battle of the Five Armies is over-reliant on clumsy special effects. This is most obvious when it comes to digitally altering the faces of actors. The most distracting special effects shots have little to do with huge marching armies, and more to do with close-ups on Orlando Bloom or Billy Connolly.

Here there be dragons...

Here there be dragons…

Battle of the Five Armies often feels like a video game, and not in a good way. Major characters posture and pose in front of one another, but there are always goons to be dispatched before the big “boss” battle can take place. Theron squares off against the lead orc, only for the orc to summon in wave after wave of foot soldiers to fight Theron on a wide open ice pain. “Finish him!” the head orc instructs his goons, having clearly played a little too much Mortal Kombat. Sadly, he never brazenly declares “fatality!” in orc-ish.

Similarly, plot beats feel like video game cut scenes – playing out between waves of enemy attacks. A reasonably prominent character is executed as a spectacle as our hero is forced to watch; having provided this personal motivation, the villain retreats into the shadows so more waves of bad guys can attack in his stead. Similarly, Saruman explains that Galadriel used a lot of “her power” in an epic finishing move, as if her health bar is depleted. At one point, Legolas springs across falling blocks like the protagonist in a Super Mario game.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

It is frustrating, because there is some interesting material here. This is perhaps the most concentrated movie set in Middle Earth. While there is an early sequence set on the other side of the map, and Legolas takes a rather pointless circular journey that ultimately brings him back to where he started, the vast majority of Battle of the Five Armies unfolds over a relatively small area, during a single battle. The other movies tended to feature journeys and diverse locations. Even the Battle of Helm’s Deep was just one facet of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

The rest of the movies in the series cast a pretty wide net and cover a large area of this fantastical geography. Instead, Battle of the Five Armies is very much anchored in one particular place and one particular conflict. Sure, there are multiple feuds and dynamics contained in that field of battle, but the geography is clear enough that none of the characters are ever more than a ten-minute jog from each other for most of the film. As such, this is perhaps the smallest focus that any movie in the entire saga will ever have. It feels a shame to waste it trying to enlarge it.

Bodies of proof...

Bodies of proof…

Battle of the Five Armies also wastes name with a number of distracting winks and nods to the original trilogy. Obviously, The Hobbit was always going to tie into The Lord of the Rings, but there is a clumsiness to the execution. Early on, Sarumon vows to take care of Sauron himself, with a sinister music cue and a tight camera angle that make sure the audience gets the connection. It is a moment so gloriously unsubtle that even a viewer unfamiliar with The Lord of the Rings could probably figure out how that plays out.

Towards the end of the film, Thranduil advises Legolas to seek out the son of Arathorn. They call him Strider, Thranduil advises Legolas. “But that is not his true name. That you must discover for yourself.” The scene is shot with Lee Pace staring directly out of the camera. The scene ends before he can add, “That goes for you at home as well.” It seems like Battle of the Five Armies stops just short of having Thanduil present Legolas with a poster or blu ray set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Battle of the Five Armies is a disappointment. Unlike The Return of the King, it is not hampered by a surplus of endings. Indeed, Battle of the Five Armies actually ends quite early, devolving into a big showy spectacle that feels like it loses sight of what worked about the first two films in the trilogy. The Hobbit promised to be smaller in scale in than The Lord of the Rings, as best reflects its protagonists and their fairly straightforward journey. Trying so desperately to make it bigger would seem to miss the point.

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10 Responses

  1. Great reading as always, Darren. I think the second film was a lot stronger in the trilogy, but it’s hard to not think about what kind of work Jackson could have done if he’d taken a lighter and more straightforward take, closer to the original material I guess.
    His strengths are in the quest type adventure and the dynamics between characters, and that just seemed to be lacking here. The characters seemed quite different from the company that met in the first movie and not in an arc kind of way – personalities of dwarves thinned over the course of the movies, and it all ends up feeling a bit sterile and forced. Your last paragraph there really defines the problem overall.

    • Thanks Derek. I’m surprised at all the positivity around Battle of the Five Kingdom, but each’s own – different tastes and all that. I do think the first two films turned out better than I expected, but the third just left me a little cold.

  2. Good day to you sir, great review, very descriptive and accurate review. I have seen some people say that this film is the best in the trilogy and that is something I cannot agree with at all. I would say that Battle of the Five Armies is a satisfactory ending to this new trilogy but like you said it suffers from being a prequel to a much better trilogy, the film’s first 10 mins could have been added to the end of the last film and I’m glad I’m not the only one who sensed a bit of fatigue with this film. In addition to that I felt like pacing was on the slower side, there were several characters who just didn’t matter in terms of the plot and the use of CGI in the big action sequences at times felt very fake and unengaging (like some people’s arguments about the Star Wars prequels).

    That being said I still had a lot of film, the best moments for me was the first 10 mins and the character moments with Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf.

  3. Well are you a film critic or the one that bashes adaptations ? I don’t think you are a film critic.. All your reviews of the hobbit has the same common expression of 1 book to 3 movies.. Get over it.. Try to create a script and then talk

    • It’s a valid criticism, as much as criticism is a subjective form.

      Extending a book across multiple films is not inherently bad. Look at Godfather II, which took a large chunk of the book for itself. In this case, I think the first and third (and, to a lesser extent, second) films suffered from the extension.

      That’s my opinion. Yours differs. Both are valid. Feel free to tell me why you think the extension helped here.

  4. As you commented the Desolation of Smaug was fantastic, but otherwise there was nothing really significant to add.

    I do not know define what it is, but for me the end of the Battle of Five Armies is distinct feeling that you are missing something very important to be seen.

    It is a inquientante sense of frustration because Hollywood sought only earn millions more for postage.

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