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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy worked beautifully because it was based on a trilogy of books with the genuine depth of an epic fantasy drama. Turning the relatively shorter Hobbit into a trilogy was a much riskier move, however, as the length of the story doesn't really require a nearly nine hour long marathon. One of the biggest criticisms of this trilogy is that it's slower paced and filled with padding. Most of it is from footnotes of Tolkien's universe and attempts to tie it to Lord of the Rings. For the most part it works; the casting is uniformly excellent (Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage especially as Bilbo and the moody Thorin), the visuals realize the beauty of Middle Earth to a tee and the action sequences, although bordering on goofiness at times, are nonetheless thrilling. And as with the cliffhanger The Desolation of Smaug, the titular dragon makes a delightfully splendid villain, as voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are times, however, when Jackson does take some liberties with Tolkien, and add in scenes that feel more like, well, roller coaster rides and a few new characters who don't really add much to it. That said I still have enjoyed the first two Hobbit movies quite unreservedly despite any issues I had, and I was still anticipating this last one.

The first thing I should mention about The Battle of the Five Armies is that in order to truly enjoy this film you have to be prepared to come to terms that this is not meant to be a standalone movie, but the final act of a story. Because each of these movies are meant to be viewed together as a single unit, viewing The Battle of the Five Armies without seeing the first two parts is not recommended (unlike, say, the Star Wars prequels where one could disregard Episodes I and II if they choose and go with the superior if not spotless third episode). As mentioned, Tolkien purists will also find plenty to carp at for the occasional additions and liberties Jackson chooses to take. If it's a strictly word-for-word approach you want, this isn't it. If, however, you're prepared to accept all of that, then it's much easier to appreciate the movie at face value.

The Battle of the Five Armies starts off with a thunderously explosive bang as Smaug takes out his fiery rage on the village of Laketown. This spectacularly staged sequence is nothing short of visceral as we see buildings topple and others torched by the dragon's fiery breath. Everything about this scene all the way up to the climactic showdown between heroic Bard (Luke Evans) and Smaug (who gets to have several new lines) is magnificent, and arguably the highlight of the movie. The story takes a more slower but essentially darker turn, however, as the once proud Thorin Oakshield (Richard Armitage) becomes greedy and refuses to part with any share of the gold in his now reclaimed home. Naturally, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) doesn't take too kindly to this and, in an act of daring defiance, hands over the Arkenstone to the Elf King in order to prevent a bloodbath. This and Thorin's paranoia strain their friendship and ultimately build to what Jackson promised to be the longest battle ever committed to screen. And long the battle of the five armies itself truly is, taking up a good forty-five minutes of the film's 144-minute duration. (Ironically, this is the shortest of the Middle Earth movies!)

In between that and en route, there are other positives to this final chapter. The dynamic between Thorin and Bilbo is powerfully presented, with Freeman and Armitage both providing strong, emotionally charged performances. The chemistry between the two is very powerful, and arguably the real heart of the movie. Indeed, it makes the final parting scene between them all the more heartbreaking and misty-eyed. Armitage also does an expert job of portraying Thorin's conversion to an avaricious tyrant -- at some points his voice melds with that of Smaug's, providing for a rather chilling and frightening effect. This change of character culminates with Thorin having a nightmarish vision of being swallowed by the gold he craves; a somewhat surreal but nonetheless very effective scene.

The performances in general have always been among the strongest points of this trilogy. Aside from Freeman and Armitage, Evans is a very charismatic and instantly likable Bard, and the addition of him having a family of similar strength provides the character with an arguably greater dynamic both for taking down the beast. He is easily another hero to root for, as are returnees Ian MacKellen as the wizard Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as the elvish Lord Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Orlando Bloom as Legolas. Christopher Lee also gets to show off some real fighting stunts in his return as Saruman. Although his appearance is brief, Saruman's hint of becoming corrupt is also chillingly presented. Billy Connelly, although mostly seen on a CGI-rendered pig and wielding an unrealistically huge sledgehammer, is a pleasant new addition to the cast as Thorin's uncle.

For all its positives, though, The Battle of the Five Armies isn't without its faults. Although most of it is just excessive nitpicking on my part, there were several bits that I felt could have been handled differently. Although the battle between the armies itself is dramatically staged for the most part, there were times when I felt disconnected from it, not necessarily because of the onslaught of CGI characters. Legolas' heroic action stunts such as catching a ride on the talons of a bat, slaying said bat with his arrow, and dodging falling bricks like Super Mario also border on goofiness. Even his antics in the Lord of the Rings trilogy weren't as "cartoonish". The climactic showdown between Thorin and the nasty Orc Azgog is also too drawn out to have any major emotional impact one way or the other. (That said, the final parting from Bilbo and Thorin that follows this showdown takes the movie's emotional heart back on track.) I'm also unclear about the love triangle between the she-elf Tauriel, the young dwarf Kili, and Legolas. Although all three actors involved do what they can, it doesn't feel very necessary to the momentum of the story and I do question why Jackson thought to include it. Admittingly, Tauriel is a pretty cool character, but again, her presence feels extraneous at times, as if there needed to be a heroine. Probably the only really useless character is Alfrid, a corrupt town official who, aside from having a getaway disguised as a woman, is otherwise a fairly forgettable character. Luckily in the extended edition, he is mercifully bumped off.

Speaking of the Extended Edition, it's clear that Jackson wasn't particularly thrilled about how the theatrical cut turned out for this last chapter, and has stated on record that the extended edition is his preferred version. That's subjective, of course, but to me the best scene of the extended edition is a funeral scene for Thorin and a few more moments where the other dwarfs get moments to showcase themselves. However, it's rather curious that this extended edition is the only one of the Middle Earth movies to get an R rating, and most of that applies to one gruesome attack scene. I don't think such violence for the heck of it makes a story better.

Quibbles aside, everything else about The Battle of the Five Armies excels; the production values are as top notch as you'd expect from Jackson, Weta, and company, Howard Shore's score is, as usual, magnificent, and as mentioned, the casting and performances are all spot-on. Aside from the opening and the dynamic between Frodo and Thorin, the other major highlight of this last chapter is the ending. It is brilliantly done and faithful to the book, concluding with a very clever lead-in to The Fellowship of the Ring as the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) goes to greet Gandalf for the first time in years as the camera slowly trucks in on the map before the closing credits begin. For all that, The Battle of the Five Armies , although sketchier than one might expect, is still worth a good recommendation and ranks as a solid final chapter overall. It may be the least effective of the three (which is a slight disappointment considering that The Return of the King concluded Lord of the Rings magnificently), but when it delivers, it still does.

On the whole, if The Hobbit trilogy falls in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings, despite its sometimes draggy pace and occasional missteps (mostly from additions that sometimes work and sometimes don't), it's still good fantasy fun for adventure lovers at heart, and everyone involved still deserves to be commended for their efforts at bringing this tale to the screen.