“WHAT have we done?” Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) asks at the end of The Desolation of Smaug, the second of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “I do believe the worst is behind us,” he concludes in the first, An Unexpected Journey.
He was wrong on at least one count. The Battle of the Five Armies, the final, “defining chapter” of Jackson’s now 20 hour saga is easily his worst, cashing in on visual callbacks and repetitive, drawn out war scenes to pad out a desperately insubstantial picture.
Five Armies sets the tone within the first five minutes when Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), catalyst for the last six hours of plot and one of Weta Digital’s finest creations, almost immediately bites the Laketown dust to Bard’s (Luke Evans) pimped-out Black Arrow.
This panicked introductory sequence, with Laketown swathed in dragon-fire and Bard making a final stand, is burdened by the inter-cutting inclusion of dwarves and men making a slow gondola escape while the Master (Stephen Fry) gathers up his gold and makes for the hills. The parallel to Jackson himself is almost eerie.
As stunning as this sequence is, it’s also summative of the problems that plague the film. Jackson seems desperate to cram in as many exorbitant details and unnecessary plot threads as possible to pad out its 140+ minute runtime. The result is a film that, despite being the shortest of all these Jackson-Tolkien films, proves to be the most bloated. Torn between concluding a dozen disparate character arcs and the cataclysmic conflict of the title, Five Armies never successfully addresses either.
Even more dubious are the film’s attempts to bridge the yawning gap between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett briefly reprise their Saruman, Elrond and Galadriel roles to swing staffs, swords and swoon. Thranduil (Lee Pace) mentions a “son of Arathorn” for Legolas (Orlando Bloom) to go and find. Unfortunately, the stylistic, visual and tonal gulf between the two trilogies is far too great to cross with a few pallid references to Sauron.
It’s, frankly, hard to believe Jackson is still in charge. This is partially down to the unwieldy nature of the Hobbit being split into three parts, but it’s also down to a vested over-reliance on CGI. Though Azog the Bionic Orcommando (mo-capped by Manu Bennett) may look and sound intimidating, snarling about the “Age of the Orc”, he simply doesn’t possess the menace of the flesh-and-blood Uruk-Hai from Rings. This fact is only exacerbated by his absurd final showdown with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) atop a frozen waterfall.
The action sequences elsewhere are similarly cartoonish. The clash of splintering shields seems to ring hollow in Five Armies, with endless shots of undeveloped characters and redshirts dropping to their knees in slow-motion, dragging the pace and thwarting our engagement; it’s hard to invest in slow-mo skyward screams when we’ve seen it happen a dozen times already. To compare the titular battle to Two Towers’ Helm’s Deep seems laughable, but it only highlights how masterfully that sequence dictated rhythm, tension and raw, emotional impact.
It also tethered Legolas’ preternatural elf-ninja skills to something resembling the laws of physics. In Five Armies, however, you can almost see the button prompts for the quick-time event as he leaps up falling rocks like Mario. Though this was certainly an issue in The Desolation of Smaug, here it’s taken to the nth degree. There’s no sense of threat even beyond Legolas; greeted with “at least” 100 advancing goblins, Thorin and his three chums quip, “We’ll take care of them.”
Oakenshield and his company of interchangeable dwarves receive even less of the spotlight than usual. Confined inside a walled-up Erebor by Thorin’s tyrannical “dragon sickness”, Bilbo and the dwarves are largely inactive; all but Thorin are inconsequential. Armitage is, by turns, brutish and vulnerable, but cannot bring much depth to a character that is entirely defined by “greed is bad” (perhaps nodding at the irony).
Of the other dwarves, Dwalin (Graham McTavish) and Kili (Aidan Turner) get the most to do, the latter concluding his ill-conceived love triangle with original-character-do-not-steal Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and Legolas. Wise old Balin (Ken Stott) wisely sits out for most of it; I’m fairly certain six or seven of the other dwarves don’t even get a line.
Precious minutes of screentime are inexplicably dedicated to the Master’s limey subordinate, Alfrid Lickspill (Ryan Gage). Despite proving, on repeated occasions, his manifest incompetence and cowardice, Lickspill is given tasks of unutterable importance by Bard and Gandalf (a tired Ian McKellen), all of which he fails in obvious and spectacular fashion. Gage is certainly game, but these broadly slapstick swipes quickly wear out their welcome.
And then there’s the Hobbit himself. Freeman gives us his trademark tics and perfect comic timing as Bilbo but, even in the final instalment, he’s treated as a sideshow, window dressing to an overburdened plot. A small scene he shares with Gandalf is one of the best because it dispenses with the empty bombast, settling instead for a simple, poignant moment between two exceptional actors.
Said actors deserve better than a film whose interminable battle – that takes forever to get to and lasts a little longer – almost made me long for the tinnitus of Michael Bay. It’s a whole lot of banging and crashing and noise, and it all adds up to a Tolkien-shaped fart that no amount of Sindarin can mask.
The powers that be expressed some tact in changing the title from the more humble There and Back Again; such a title would have been an outright lie, and it’s good that they recognised that fact before it was too late. There’s no whimsy, joy or humility to be found in this lumbering colossus, driven exclusively by brazen box office greed. Thank Eru it’s over.