Lake-town is burning!
The final installment in the heretofore uneven Hobbit trilogy begins with a bang, keeps a powerful pacing throughout its surprisingly short running time, and for the most part makes for a highly, unexpectedly satisfying conclusion to both its own story and to Peter Jackson’s overall journey through Middle-earth.
A much more mature atmosphere and concept
The Battle of the Five Armies opens by resolving the cliffhanger its predecessor ended on: the dragon Smaug has begun slaughtering the people of a port village and leaving their town in ashes. The town’s hierarchs are more concerned about the preservation of gold than of people, leaving the young, old, and weak to protect each other, or try. This fantasy story begins with an unsettling tragedy that can be easy to relate to, and watching the dozens of screaming, terrified individuals and families trying to scramble to safety is intense and nerve-wracking. Many efforts fail.
The Elf Tauriel does part of the leading for these evacuations, and if you liked her in The Desolation of Smaug, you may want to know that she remains noble and selfless; if you did not, her character is not heavily emphasized, nor is her budding romance with the Dwarf Kili. (There’s no cheesy, sugary ending. I did like the way actress Evangeline Lilly took to this side story’s resolution, as I felt she’d been too stoic elsewhere in the movie.)
It’s difficult to look on as the wandering emigrants from Lake-town struggle desperately to make shelters for their people, some of whom have to be carried for medical assistance on makeshift stretchers. Moreover, they have little in the way of material help–their authority figures don’t lift a finger to offer aid, and neither does the Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield, who is reveling in the mountains of gold he’s found in the halls of Erebor, which Smaug had been jealously guarding. The people ask only for enough coin to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, but Thorin firmly refuses to spare even one coin. One of his speaking lines subtly evokes one of the dialogue motifs used in The Lord of the Rings films themselves, which is a nice touch.
The film’s system of action and consequence means that selfishness is often paid for with influence. The people of Lake-town lose faith in their civil protectors, and Thorin’s consummate greed and heartlessness toward the poor costs him much of the trust of his fellows, let alone the rest of the people, who are simply demanding the aid they were promised. All sides have more pressing concerns–beyond Thorin and Lake-town, the Elves are also pressing their claim to the treasure (evidently partially consisting of their heirlooms), all of whom make for quite the target.
Many die in war. Life is cheap.
The Defiler, as menacing now as he was in An Unexpected Journey, has readied a vast army of Orcs for an assault on Elves, Men, and the Dwarves brought by one of Thorin’s relatives. As suggested in its name, nearly all of the film consists of fight scenes and lead-ups to more of them. There’s not a lot of story, but what’s present is good, including would-be king Thorin having quite the moment of introspection, making him a much more likable individual over the course of a few moments than he had bothered to be for two films.
At its best moments, Five Armies does recall the grandeur of Jackson’s previous Middle-earth trilogy, with sweeping displays of scenery often being filled with masses of troops from all sides. The fight scenes themselves, which take up a very large part of the movie, vindicate its narrow focus and are exciting, up-close, and brutal. The heroes rarely have the advantage, the violence rarely seems “fun” or goofy (there are no silly Goblin-town or barrel-bouncing scenes to be found here), and victories come from hard work and endurance, not stylishness. I wouldn’t recommend bringing young children, viewers who don’t like seeing decapitation, or those who are sensitive to rapidly flashing lights or images, particularly in the case of one old character who happens to emanate flames. Though there’s no torture or inordinate emotional trauma, some scenes were nonetheless hard to watch, and it’s worth knowing going in that Tauriel especially takes a beating in full view of the camera, complete with blood running down her face. At least it generally cuts away when several others receive impalements.
The movie does an excellent job of maintaining a dark mood throughout, even with occasional moments of humor, which never feel inappropriately timed or aimed and often come across as black comedy. There are no jokes about golf or genitals or toilets this time around, even if there is a little bit of language (“b-tards,” “bloody,” “b-ggers”). Instead, we receive grisly shots of streets and countrysides littered with dozens of dead soldiers and civilians, including children if I recall, and from the one-on-one fights to the small skirmishes and the openly warring armies, the fights themselves do a good job of maintaining variety so the viewer shouldn’t have to feel like the movie is simply repeating content. The lack of a strong central story can make the action tend to blur together a bit, though.
The devil’s in the details
The movie is a huge technical success. The God-made and man-made environments are as beautiful as ever, and the soundtrack from composer Howard Shore serves as an incredible and quite possibly flawless complement. Some of his battle themes make me wonder if he’s been comparing notes with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor composer Garry Schyman. The writing and role assignments have likewise improved: Bilbo Baggins at long last sort of feels like the star of the film named for him, and even though his naiveté is more heartbreaking than adorable (he continually speaks of Thorin as a “friend” when the latter has treated him horribly), he does make up a good part of the film’s moral compass. Several of the other Dwarves also hold Thorin accountable for his actions, and much of the film’s best drama comes when Elves are angry not at Orcs but at other Elves or Dwarves, or vice versa. These conflicts accomplish the twin purposes of making the characters and races feel nuanced while also holding them to a moral standard above that of the Orcs and monsters.
Said monsters generally look pretty good, and likewise the Elven soldiers are given just enough irregularities in how they stand or hold their weapons so as to not look like an endless swarm of clones. The environmental destruction, and there is a lot, is impressive up close (a collapsing bridge) or at a long distance (a burning city). There is one psychological hallucination that, while not extremely scary, is especially compelling thanks to its role in a character’s maturation and is like little else I’ve ever seen from a Middle-earth tale.
The movie’s battle scenes wind down right at the two-hour mark or so, and from there, the leisurely fifteen-minute epilogue kind of limps a little, as the story follows Bilbo in dealing with one last Shire-related pickle while deciding whether or not it actually wants to end. There is no grand series of conclusions chain-following each other, and indeed, several characters and the specific details of their fates feel unaccounted for. That being stated, the story wraps into The Fellowship of the Ring in the most perfectly delightful way. And really, since I walked in with no expectations, that’s a far greater thing than I could ever have asked for.
Conclusion: There and back again
I am pleased.
It’s been eleven years to the day since The Return of the King made its theatrical debut in America. Eleven years. I was still in school, and to this day I remember seeing a friend of mine come in the morning after the midnight release and immediately collapse his head onto a table. Our world has changed so much since then, and The Hobbit trilogy made many choices that clashed with my expectation of what a Lord of the Rings story should be or feel like. But if this is a salvaging of a sometimes wayward trilogy, then it’s quite possibly the greatest and most successful salvaging of a movie series I’ve witnessed.
“The Last Goodbye,” sung by Billy Boyd [Peregrin ‘Pippin’ Took], is a beautiful credits song, and it does right in evoking the melody and song structure of Annie Lennox’s Oscar-winning “Into the West,” intentionally or not. Regarding the movie as a whole, The Battle of the Five Armies is not quite the sprawling success that The Return of the King was (in part due to the former’s simple lack of content), but I think it’s another kind of movie miracle. It shows, whether a story starts out as great or not, that with enough love and effort, it’s not impossible to make it so.