“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” (2014): Thorin Back Again (Review)

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.

Overall: 8.6/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.


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  • I skimmed it, V, as I like to await seeing the films you review myself first, but it looks like this is your most honest review of the Hobbit films. So for that, I appreciate it. Law school must be doing some good 😉

  • Great review, Vivek. Again, Australia is well behind the rest of planet Earth in that we’re getting this one on Boxing Day. F@ck you Warner Brothers. Did that same thing with Man of Steel too.

    Glad to hear this one is a worthy send-off.

  • Vivek

    Thanks, Rodney. But in hindsight, “Man of Steel” should probably never have been released in the first place. 🙁

  • Great review. I’m hesitant to see it, but this review helps make me actually want to go to the theater. That Billy Boyd song is truly amazing.

  • Vivek

    I hope you do see it, and I hope you enjoy the hell out of it.

  • Sverrir Sigfússon

    SPOILERS

    Jackson nails nothing in this film, it’s a huge blunder. Again. Nothing that Bilbo does in this film matters and the battles are too neat and clean, there’s no emotional connection or danger to any of it. The cinematography is also frequently amateurish and borderline terrible, with blatant disregard given to space and scale. The love story is a lifeless fish and the film continues to undercut the LOTR trilogy (four people literally saw Sauron and did jack all about it for almost a century, really?). The pacing is weird and the stakes don’t feel real. The most emotion I felt during the film was when Legolas lost his knife blade. Also, the thirteen dwarves joining the losing battle is played like Rohan joining the Battle of Gondor, there’s no way I’m buying that their effect would be so severe, the dwarves fighting had already been shown to rally behind a strong leader, Dáinn. Then they pretty much just drop that battle when Thorin and co. leave, it just stopped mattering. Alfred also didn’t need to be in the film beyond the burning of Laketown, by then we get the “greed is bad” shtick. Instead he pops up again and again and stinks up scene after scene, most often with completely out of place and tone deaf comic relief that isn’t funny. And don’t get me started on Thranduil telling Legolas to go to Aragon, that whole exchange had me viscerally cringing.

    I don’t see myself ever re-watching these films. I might give a fan-edit a chance but that won’t magically make meaningful character relationships appear, of which there are none in these films. When Bilbo says “He was my friend” my response is “really?” because there was never any sense that those dudes were friends or had any sort of meaningful relationship. Finally, the argument that it’s a kid’s adventure doesn’t hold water when the films try over and over again to be dark like LOTR, which is really one of the root causes of this trilogy’s problems; the tone is all over the place and they can’t commit to an identity. It would’ve done wonders if they could’ve been arsed to let these films stand on their own.

    I’ll give you that I liked the opening sequence and some of the Bard stuff. Freeman continues to be great in a film that doesn’t deserve him and undercuts him at every turn. Basically, its well cast but terribly written and directed.

    It’s actually very apt that Bilbo comes back to his house ransacked and ruined at the end, because that’s basically what Jackson did to Middle-Earth. If it’s between this adaptation and no adaptation, I’d rather these films hadn’t been made. And thus Jackson’s streak of not making a good film extends to 11 years.

  • Vivek

    Well I can’t really find fault with your complaints here, because I gave similar treatment to “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies, although I was far less charitable. I think “Battle” will be the most divisive, but I loved it. Then again, I was never expecting anything close to “The Lord of the Rings” with these films. It was never going to be that, and it was really just an excuse for Jackson to play with toys that the studio gave him a blank check for. Had I believed these movies were bad (as you do), I’d say that there’s a lesson there, but I had fun all the way through these films, flaws aside.

  • You also forgot one of the WORST lines of dialogue of 2014: “In the north, they call him Strider. His real name… you will have to find that out for yourself.” I laughed so loud at that that I had to look to make sure I wasn’t angering anybody. Then I felt insulted that Jackson thinks his audience is stupid enough to NOT know who fucking Aragorn is. Otherwise, you’re spot on and I don’t see Vivek’s viewpoints whatsoever. Sorry, V.

    PS. The opening sucks. They built up this HUGE fight with Smaug and then he lasts not even five minutes. Anticlimactic and poorly staged. I thought Godzilla might actually show up to fight him at one moment.

    PSS. The pacing is terrible. And the action is dull. Michael Bay could have entertained me more with the hour battle in the end. He kind of did, it was called “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and still manages to be a shorter title than “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.”

  • Vivek

    No worries, Colin. I disagree with the PS and the PSS, but when I mentioned the “excessive prequeldom” in my review, I was pretty much alluding to that and the “LEAVE SAURON TO ME!!!” line.

  • Sverrir Sigfússon

    I think the problem is that Jackson expected these movies to be Lord of the Rings again, and I honestly believe that he thinks that’s what he did, which is delusional.

  • Vivek

    I think, to the contrary, he knows he can make good movies out of this material, which (in my opinion) he did, but in doing so, he also thought, “…AND THEN THIS, THIS, AND THIS WOULD BE AWESOME!!!!!” It’s childish, but it’s Jackson.

  • Sverrir Sigfússon

    I stand by my assessment and bolster it with the fact that he chose to open it on the same day that RotK opened (December 17th) and flaunted the fact that they’d spent the exact same amount of shooting days on The Hobbit as they did Lord of the Rings (266).

    And I’m still baffled at how you can enjoy the action in these films, which is weightless and without any impact or excitement.

  • Vivek

    That’s more a nostalgia ploy in the marketing campaign than it is artistic attitude. There are plenty of dodgy decisions with these films, and I’ll acknowledge them all the same, but the development around them (and the acting, as far as I’m concerned) was good enough to put me at ease. I think “Battle” succeeds above the other two in the trilogy that way, just because we’re dealing with an impossibly gigantic setpiece action sequence that I thought Jackson composed well and that had an effective enough build, particularly with “The Thief in the Night” chapter, that I can overlook all the fan fiction elements. I think ultimately that’s what Jackson figured would happen with these, which is indicative of his attitude. This is a paid vacation where he gets to play with toys. And as long as I’m having fun, I have no problem with that.

  • Atli Sigurjónsson

    I just saw this and wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything Colin and Sverrir said. This movie is a tedious, uninvolving, unconvincing, confusing, overstuffed mess! It was too many characters I hardly knew and didn’t care for battling other characters I had no idea about for something vague and completely uninteresting. There’s no plot, no surprises and hardly any build-up. There’s also hardly any humor or playfulness and the tone is messy and the pacing is off and… I could go on and on…

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