Posted by: themoviecheese | December 21, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – review

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (review)

Plot: Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the dwarves have successfully reclaimed Erebor from the dragon Smaug, but in doing so they have unleashed the dragon’s fury onto the citizens of Lake Town. And if Smaug wasn’t enough trouble, they’ve also got to contend with elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), who wants to reclaim the white elven stones that are hidden within Erebor’s treasure. So begins an epic battle with five huge armies, bringing the Cinematic Middle-Earth saga to a close.

Beginning ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ with what should have been the climax of the last film is a bizarre move. Behemoth dragon Smaug, the main villain of the last film, is dispatched literally within the first ten minutes – before we even *see* the “Battle of the Five Armies” title card. Surely that’s not a spoiler. This is a prequel after all, so we at least know that Gandalf and Bilbo survive – they sure as hell weren’t going to accomplish that with Smaug still around.

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So a bizarre opening it may be, but somehow it works and definitely pays off. Whereas ‘An Unexpected Journey’ took over an hour before *anything* happened, and ‘Desolation of Smaug’ seemed somewhat anticlimatic; ‘Five Armies’ is a non-stop 2 and a half hour battle with only about 30 minutes of real down time. It’s a massive spectacle the likes of which you could only imagine Jackson and a few other directors delivering. We are met with the battle with Smaug right from the off – it’s our opening scene – and it’s bloody brilliant. Lake Town is engulfed in a fiery blaze with only Luke Evans’ Bard the Bowman the only one heroic enough to stand against the beast. Opening a third-parter like this is a huge gamble, because it means people will ultimately judge the ending of the previous film. But that if that gamble means we get a third film that is as breathless as this one, then I have to side with Jackson’s decision.

‘Five Armies’ is also the shortest of the three films, but that’s completely understandable with the film being essentially a 10 minute battle opening, 30 minutes of build up and dwarf politics, ending with a titanic hour-long battle. There’s also a short scene to reintroduce the White Council (Galadriel, Saruman & Elrond) in a superb sequence showcasing Christopher Lee displaying some serious Wizard-fu badassery. Alright, it was probably a stunt double, but that doesn’t make the scene any less awesome.

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The bulk of the story concerns Thorin Oakenshield and his dragon sickness. With Smaug vanquished, Thorin can reclaim the gold deep within Erebor’s mountain. However, the sheer beauty of this gold is said to drive a man mad. And drive Thorin mad, it does. Richard Armitage proves that he has the acting chops to stand against the best in the series. Scenes where he displays absolute madness and even forsakes his own kin are up there with the likes of Viggo Mortensen and Andy Serkis’ best scenes. The chemistry he has with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is the best here that it’s ever been. Speaking of Freeman, he is equally superb and excells at displaying both hilarity and heartbreaking emotion with real gusto. And lest we forget that Bilbo is indeed the title character of the film, he can at times seem second file to the bigger picture unfolding. He is still the heart of the film however, and part of his story (as well as that of his fellow dwarves) is absolutely heart breaking.

The best part of the story for me was the politics, with Thorin, elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the men of Lake Town each attempting to lay claim to Erebor’s haul. It’s a back and forth battle of wits that reminds you Jackson *can* direct something other than decapitations.

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The action (of which this film is 80% of) is pretty crazy – a film called ‘Battle of the FIVE Armies’ will do that. Sprawling field clashes, mountain-side swashbuckling, swooping airborne tussles, city-levelling sieges – it’s all here and in usual Jackson splendor. As with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, every single character is given ample opportunity to shine on the battlefield as well. The problem is (being some 20 years after Lord of the Rings was shot), it’s all a little CGI overload. LotR of course used extensive CGI, but the orcs themselves were at least real men in costumes and prosthetics. Here, even they are largely CGI. Whilst that’s not necessarily a fault (with Weta handling the VFX, everything looks great) it’s also annoying. Head orc baddie Azog is completely motion captured CGI and it makes no sense.

Another annoyance I have is one of the same issues I had with the second Hobbit film; the sound design. The first Hobbit film, ‘An Unexpected Journey’, followed the same trope as the Lord of the Rings trilogy of having some brilliant sound design and editing. The music was memorable, loud and empowering without drowning out the dialogue (I’m looking at you, Interstellar); and when somebody spoke during an epic battle, they spoke as if they were in the middle of a battle. In ‘Five Armies’, just like in ‘Desolation of Smaug’, the sound design is all over the place. Howard Shore’s score is muted to the point where it has next to no impact, and the ADR-recorded dialogue sounds like ADR-recorded dialogue, and not the dialogue of someone who’s on a battlefield with 10,000 other soldiers. There’s a Dwarf-centric scene half way through the film that should have been the most epic moment in the whole trilogy, but due largely to the muted score I just kind of shrugged and sipped my 7up.

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The fight sequences are mostly superbly choreographed. Characters like Thorin, Legolas and Tauriel seem to have such trouble against lead orcs Azog and Bolg that you can’t help but wonder how the likes of Aragorn would have fared. I keep bringing up the battles, but there really is not much else to this film. That’s both a strength and a weakness. There’s no denying Peter Jackson’s bravado when it  comes to formulating an epic battle sequence. It’s almost like a mathematical project to him; like a world class chess player creating a mental blueprint of how each piece needs to attack and how each opposing piece needs to defend. When watching the film’s gargantuan warzone, you can literally picture Jackson stood at a large table with an assortment of little green army men formulating each sequence and order.

Surprisingly, battle fatigue never set in, at least for me anyway. By the 90-minute mark I’d seen 3,000 orcs get decapitated, maimed and pinned with arrows and yet I was ready to see another 3,000 more.

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In Conclusion: People will ultimately compare ‘Five Armies’ to ‘Return of the King’, which is of course silly. The truth here is that whilst The Hobbit is in no way anywhere near as good as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, making that comparison is unfair. The Hobbit trilogy as a whole is a resounding success, and here’s why: The Hobbit novel that the films are based off… isn’t very good. Whereas the Lord of the Rings series of novels is a literary phenomenon, let’s face it, The Hobbit is merely a mildly entertaining children’s book that’s only good for one read and then it collects dust. The fact that Jackson and co. have taken this book and expanded it into a trilogy of (mostly) highly entertaining films is commendable. It is what it is, and it’s not as good as Lord of the Rings, but it was never going to be. If there is any trump card that ‘Battle of the Five Armies’ has over ‘Return of the King’, it’s that it has one singular ending as opposed to the sixteen endings that ‘Return’ had. Instead of indulging in itself by tying up every single loose thread (even the ones we don’t care about), it simply gives us a nice satisfying conclusion that ties directly into Fellowship of the Ring. Goodbye Middle-Earth, it’s been a blast.

Rating: 8/10

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