At long last, our big-screen adventures in Middle-Earth guided by Peter Jackson have come to an end, and I’d be remiss to not admit that I feel a bit of sadness at the event. But first, the good news concerning the final cinematic chapter: The Battle of the Five Armies is a definite improvement over the endless running and orc-slashing of The Desolation of Smaug. The bad news? Battle improves only in degree, not in kind.
However, Battle does get off to a rip-roaring start, and its first half is easily its stronger half. After the cliff-hanger at the end of Desolation, the inevitable demise of Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the hands of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) is thrilling and emotionally involving. Immediately the audience is engaged by the two strongest elements of the otherwise disappointing Desolation: Smaug and Bard, with the dragon’s penchant for fiery destruction and the Bowman’s love for family placed in rousing and powerful contention. After the conflagration subsides, Bard must lead the now homeless people of Laketown towards the mountain halls and riches of Erebor, where they seek both shelter and the riches that Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his company had promised them.
But the humble survivors of Laketown are not alone in wanting something from Erebor, as elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) soon arrive, looking for their own heirlooms once stolen by Smaug, but both are foiled by the obstinate refusal of Thorin to share any of his recently reclaimed wealth. His tragic avarice is strengthened by the arrival of his cousin’s dawrven army, but all the diplomatic maneuvering is undone by the arrival of a massive force of orcs, with another group of those repulsive creatures hot on their tale, and the battle proper begins.
Up until the battle begins, and even in the opening minutes of the struggle itself, Peter Jackson seems to have regained the adventurous tone so wonderfully evidenced in the first Hobbit installment: An Unexpected Journey. The foolishness of both Thorin and Thranduil is handled well, emphasizing Thorin’s obsessive power-lust and Thranduil’s lofty arrogance, while drawing attention to the plight of the innocent Bard and his people caught in the crossfire. This pre-battle positioning also allows Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the unfortunately underutilized titular character, to play a significant role in events, struggling to balance loyalty to his stubborn dwarf companions on the one hand, and his keen sense of right and wrong on the other.
But once the opening salvos of the dwarf/elf/men/orc battle are over, the movie settles into Peter Jackson large-scale-action-autopilot-mode, and not in the positive sense. Wave upon wave of CGI foes are hurled at our heroes, who must combat the increasingly freakish and bizarre forces of evil with tactics that push the bounds of believability even for a children’s fantasy. But the fantastic nature of it all is not Battle’s chief sin. The issue with the climactic battle is that Jackson does not know when to rein himself in. Jackson fails to realize that a climax cannot perpetually sustain itself, no matter how well-orchestrated, for such a length of time. Action set-piece after action set-piece is stacked one upon the other, and while any individual sequence might be fun on its own, the cumulative effect is exhausting rather than exhilarating.
This is not helped by the preponderance of epic-scale duels and face-offs which provide resolution to characters and conflicts that were not very well established in the first place. The primary orc leaders, for example, Azog and Bolg, though sufficiently evil, were never developed as characters enough for an audience to care about seeing them both get nearly ten-minute long climactic duels. These battles drag on and on, and when tacked onto the end of an already lengthy full-scale war, their conclusion leaves not emotional catharsis, but simple gratitude that the sword-slashing is finally concluded. More time should have been spent developing emotional weight for characters, rather than showing off their renowned fighting abilities. For example, the relationship between the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner) takes center stage during the latter part of the battle. Setting the controversy concerning the addition of such a subplot aside, the relationship was so poorly developed over the course of both Desolation and Battle (hardly ever rising above the realm of flirting and vague pronouncements of love) that audiences will strain to find any true empathy for their plight. This is not to condemn the performances of either Lilly or Turner, who do the best with the material given.
In the end, The Battle of the Five Armies does provide resolution to our Middle-Earth adventures in a grand fashion, and is a definite improvement over Desolation’s vapid assault of clever decapitations, but it still fails to achieve the whimsical heights of An Unexpected Journey. This conclusive episode testifies strongly to the fact that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Somewhere along the line, Jackson got so caught up in the computer-generated spectacle of it all that he forgot that the most important thing about filming an adaptation of The Hobbit wasn’t about finding an excuse to see Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel engage Sauron and the Nazgul in a smackdown reminiscent of video game boss-fights. Rather, it was about seeing one hobbit go there and back again with a colorful cast of characters, and somehow, amidst the clash and clamor of combat, the living, beating hearts of good storytelling were lost along this unexpected journey.