In the serialized world of cinema and continuity that we live in, opinions are finite.
That occasionally puts critics like myself in difficult positions, where a story being broken up into multiple parts, expanded, and released over a period of years now hangs the following qualifier, “but we’ll know if this was a good idea or not when we revisit this story for the next one” over everything we say about it. It’s the biggest reason above all else why I wait until the end of a full season to review a show instead of going episode by episode. It’s better to write this kind of thing when you have more to actually say about it.
Thus, while the conclusion remained a full year away from my last review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it was entirely possible that I’d eat my own words, that my defense of the series operating as a trilogy and faith in director Peter Jackson would prove misplaced in hindsight.
Now that we’re finally there…and back again, I can safely say: it was worth it.
Yes, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies rocks. It’s the leanest, most efficient member of its trilogy that manages to be appropriately dark without being dour. Occasionally too cartoonish and even ridiculous for its own good, Battle is more assured of itself than the other two combined. Its chief flaw lies in its few small moments that needlessly fall too deeply into prequeldom – that is, the need to tie its overall story thread and details therein back to the original masterpiece trilogy. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the film is that the thrust of its main story achieves its thematic climax and closure so well, it does all the work to make The Hobbit a prequel without those little details being necessary.
Wrapping up that cliffhanger ending of Desolation in the opening ten minutes of Smaug’s attack on Laketown, Battle starts moving all the pieces on the board quickly, but it also goes back to the drawing board with Bilbo, Thorin, and the company of dwarves. Bard and the surviving citizens of Laketown gather their supplies and move to seek shelter in the ruins of Dale, in the shadow of Erebor. Legolas returns for Tauriel, who is now banished from the Wood-Elf kingdom, to recruit her help for a scouting mission to the north. Help arrives to the ailing Gandalf back at Dol Guldur. The four dwarves who stayed back at Laketown, Kili, Fili, Óin, & Bofur head to rejoin the company, where they are greeted by a distraught Bilbo, now more nervous than ever over the health and sanity of Thorin. From there, the search continues for the Arkenstone.
Unbeknownst to all but Gandalf, Azog and his army are coming for them all.
A year ago, in my efforts not to spoil Desolation, I noted that there was a scene missing from what little there was of Bilbo’s character arc that, had it been included, would have illustrated perfectly what Jackson was going for. I also said that it was sure to be in this film. The scene I was referring to is a reveal Jackson deliberately kept for the third film to use as his launching point for Bilbo’s character arc. I’m still not sure I agree with previous omission, but I can’t argue with the fact that Jackson stages it brilliantly, in a small flashback sequence that both explains and exacerbates Bilbo’s anxiety while the clouds gather.
Battle pleasantly surprises in how far it’s willing to go in terms of the emotional paces of Thorin Oakenshield’s character arc. To the dwarves, Balin in particular, Thorin is now more like his grandfather than ever before, blinded by his quest for the jewel. Bilbo, however, is reminded of Smaug himself. As Bilbo was the only one to exchange meaningful dialogue with the great serpent, he is the only one who truly understands that Thorin is not merely corrupted, but sick. So Bilbo elects to do what only a true friend would do for a sick person. If Thorin has any hope of returning to himself, he’s going to get worse first.
True to the book, Bilbo’s most heroic and courageous act of the entire story, something the tea-drinking homebody of the first movie would never have dreamt of doing, is carried out in the name of loyalty. There was a reason Tolkien named the most important chapter of the book, “The Thief in the Night.” And with the help of some career best work from Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage, Jackson nails it.
All that adds up to about an hour and ten minutes; then comes the battle. I was surprised as to how fast it came, but the movie didn’t rush to get to it. A gripping forty-five minutes of grandiose spectacle, involving men, elves, dwarves, orcs, wargs, trolls, goblins, bats, and bosses, the Battle of the Five Armies juggles about eight different spinning plates at once with finesse. It works because of how it’s paced. It’s a three-part showcase, and it doesn’t mind letting some characters go for a while and leaving you to assume that they’re doing fine, even when they’re fighting hordes of monsters.
Unfortunately, there are moments where it really does prove the problem of “too awesome” true, particularly when Legolas joins the battle. If you thought his jumping and balancing on heads over a river was a bit much, the stuff he does in this movie is going to make you lose it. It’s awesome, but it really is too much.
Yet, The Hobbit is not about its details. It’s a kid’s story about adventure and greed. Battle’s virtue is in pulling the story back to that. When Bilbo returns to the Shire to find his house and all his belongings for sale, with everyone presuming him dead, all is right with the world again. The film pulls the neat trick of implying that Bilbo carried just a tiny dormant trace of dragon sickness back home with him – the One Ring. The lust for gold and the lure of the Ring are presented as two sides of the same coin in the currency of vice.
The Hobbit Trilogy is far from perfect, and it will never be The Lord of the Rings. It is, however, the best version of its story that has ever been put to screen and likely will ever be put to screen, and The Battle of the Five Armies is the best of the three. After a long and occasionally weary journey, I’m not tired, so much as I am relieved that it turned out as good as it did when all the odds were against it. Congratulations, Peter Jackson, on a road well-traveled. I look forward to the sequel to The Adventures of Tintin, and other movies in store for his future.
The Good: The pacing, the length, the battle, Bilbo, Thorin, the opening, the ending, Billy Boyd’s song, and the staging.
The Bad: Too much prequeldom, cartoonish absurdity, and fan indulgence. It’s also too clean.
The Hobbit: I’m going to plant it in my garden, watch it grow, and when I look at it, I’ll remember. I’ll remember everything that happened, the good, the bad, those who survived, and those who did not.