Peter Jackson has followed up with the final installment in his rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, titled The Battle of the Five Armies. It’s a fitting title, because this time around the story is all about the thrill of war in Middle Earth. And perhaps not much else. A look at The Defining Chapter…
No part of this review is Spoiler Free. So… you been warned.
When I first heard Peter Jackson was making J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into a film, I was as geeked out as any other Haradrim. Sure I’m still disgruntled over that spat I’ll later be involved in over some mystical jewelry. But The Hobbit was more innocent than that. No “black men like half-trolls” at Pelennor Fields. Just Mirkwood, giant spiders and Sting!
Then I found out Jackson was turning it into a trilogy. And I said, “huh?” The Lord of the Rings was a trilogy. And that’s understandable. It was three whole books. But The Hobbit was one book. I specifically remember it being one book. If you did the same thing with LOTR we’d have sat through nine whole movies. What in the world was Jackson going to do with all that extra space? Then I got kind of excited. Maybe, I thought, he’d somehow do extended intros showing scenes from the Silmarillion to give us some background on Middle Earth. Just imagining seeing “Balrogs in [the] hundreds” riding atop dragons of iron at the storming of Gondolin almost makes me break every geek thing in my body!
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I got the first film in the series that seemed to take *forever* to get out of the Shire. Tolkien’s bumbling Dwarves got turned into fightin’, sexy Dwarves. There were entirely new villains with a convoluted Orc-Dwarf beef from way back. A reckless frightened dash through some caves got turned into a *ridiculous* childish game of roll-a-boulder-over-a-goblin. Oh, and a rabbit sled. That happened. And we let it happen. By the time it was all over, a hapless hobbit was turned into an angry fighter, attacking Orcs three times his size. The film was as far removed from Tolkien’s Hobbit as could be imagined. All the characters were there, but it seemed off. E is for Embellish.
The second film improved things. We got to see Beorn! The Dwarves finally got through Mirkwood. The giant spiders were actually impressive. We got introduced to Wood-Elves. And, best of all, we got to see the magnificent and terrible Smaug–voiced by he-of-the-perfect-diction, Bendedict Cumberbatch. Unfortunately, the film suffered from some of the same issues that ailed its predecessor. More childish, slapstick, “bash-an-orc” scenes, this time on a river. And with barrels. Smaug lost a touch of his terror and magnificence as he ran about clumsily chasing Dwarves while having heavy things dropped on his head. And, worst of all, was a ham-fisted, over-the-top prequel scene wherein Gandalf the Grey encounters the enduring spirit of Sauron as a rapid-fire flaming eye.
So it was with apprehension, lowered expectations and a glimmer of hope that I walked in to see Battle of the Five Armies. And I came out…feeling some kinda way.
The movie picks up exactly where we left off. Smaug is over Lake-town doing his “Smaug” thing. The made-for-movie-adaptation sniveling Grima Wormtongue type character Alfrid Lickspittle and the corrupt power-hungry Master of Lake-town are trying to get the heck out of dodge–pilfering all the gold and wealth and leaving the masses to fend for themselves. Meanwhile Bard the Bowman is locked in a jail cell, while his kids, a lovesick Tauriel the she-elf, Kili and the remaining Dwarves try to flee from dragonfire. In a scene kind of hard to explain (you just have to see it) Bard makes an escape and tries to take on Smaug with a quiver full of arrows. But you know, dragon scales being damn near like Mithril, its a fool’s cause. Lucky for him, his son shows all the pluck (his daughters mostly scream a lot. No for real. They squeal through the whole film.) and manages to wrest a super arrow harpoon and get it to his Da’ in the nick of time.
Smaug makes out Bard’s lone stance and tries to destroy him. Being Smaug the “Wordy” however, rather than just immolating the puny mortal in dragonfire, he lands to get in some smack-talking. Smaug gloats, and gloats, and taunts and gloats some more–allowing time for Bard to get his aim right, use the super arrow and pierce the talkative dragon’s fiery heart. Smaug the Terrible, the Mighty, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, falls to earth–to fly, burn and gloat no more. Let that be a lesson to you dragons out there on the lessons of hubris and smack-talking. Just barbecue the guy already.
Lake-town is left destroyed. Bard is made its de facto leader, as the Master got smushed by several tons of dead Smaug. His first act is to stop an angry crowd from lynching sniveling Alfrid–whose over-sized eyes, unibrow and rather unpleasant teeth make him a perfect cartoonish villain. His second act is to get everyone to some shelter, the closest of which is the ruined city of Dale–that sits in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain, and the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.
Kili and his kin decide they’d better hightail it back to see if everyone’s alright, which gives us some Tauriel-Kili “farewell” screen time. Basically Tauriel is love-torn about whether she can go out with a short dude. She will remain love-torn the entire flick. Had hoped the introduction of this movie-created character as a bad-ass, arrow shooting, she-elf, would be a welcome balance to Middle Earth’s usual dude quests. Unfortunately, in this sequel she’s just lovesick and actually turns into a damsel in need of rescue about once or twice. Probably doesn’t help that she has a jealous Legolas constantly over her shoulder, watching her every move. Legolas the stalker. Not a good look dude.
Speaking of Dwarves, back at Erebor everyone’s happy to hear that the dragon’s dead. Except for Thorin. Because he understands that once news travels that there’s no more Smaug, everyone will want a piece of that loot. By the time Kili and the others arrive to rejoin the company, they find Thorin decked out in Dwarf royal finery and overcome with “dragon sickness,” or as the rest of us call it: greed. He ain’t giving up the loot. Not one bit. He’s also obsessed with finding the Arkenstone, that giant bauble that kinda looks like a paramecium. Thorin becomes so covetous of the gem, he begins to suspect his Dwarf kin may have taken it for themselves. Unbeknownst to Thorin and the others however, Bilbo has it. He managed to pick it up during his initial encounter with Smaug–who warned of its poisonous influence. Given Thorin’s present disposition, Bilbo is understandably reluctant to hand it over. This bromance spat (an obvious nod to Samwise and Frodo) will continue throughout the flick.
“You’ve changed Thorin! No I haven’t! Bilbo! Yes you have! No I haven’t! Yes you have!”
Somewhere in a cage, Gandalf sits in captivity–being held by Orcs who we learned were working for the Necromancer, none other than a disembodied Sauron. For reasons known only to the Shadow, they don’t kill him outright but leave him alive long enough for him to summon up some aid. By the time one lone Orc takes it upon himself to get rid of the pesky wizard, Galadriel is there all barefoot and flinging white light. She manages to free Gandalf but not before the spirit of Sauron makes a reappearance and starts chanting “Three Rings for the Elven Kings under the sky…”
Ah. So we’re back to the prequel thing eh Jackson?
As Galadriel finishes the “Nine for mortal men doomed to die” bit, on cue, several Ring Wraiths arrive. And they’re really wraiths–all shadowy and flickery and non-corporeal. As luck would have it however, Galadriel didn’t travel alone. Turns out, the other members of the White Council have shown up–Saramun and Lord Elrond. A fight scene breaks out between the two of them and the Nazgul that is straight out of Dragon Age. Seriously. It looked like some kind of video game. Every time they hit a Ring Wraith numbers and coins should have appeared.
They manage to defeat the Nazgul but Sauron revives them and then does his fiery eye thing–also showing up in battle armor. There’s this very odd moment where he’s hovering there with the Nazgul arrayed before him, and you swear you’re in some kind of low-budget 1990s cheesey Japanimation live-action flick. All is saved however when Galadriel uses her ring to go into “treacherous as the seas” mode (yet another recycling moment from LOTR, as if the accompanying music wasn’t enough) and engages fiery eye Sauron, making him to that rapid flicker motion thing, before banishing him far to the East. Oh, in the middle of this Radagast the Brown shows up with his rabbit sled. So as it ends, Gandalf is ferried away. Lord Elrond takes charge of a weakened Galadriel. And Saramun assures everyone he’ll handle Sauron. And by handle, he means become Sauron’s pet monkey.
So is that enough prequel for you? No? Well how about this!
Gandalf warns there’s a whole Orc army on the march, led by Azog–the re-imagined baddie of the trilogy. The Orcs are under Sauron’s orders. They want the Lonely Mountain not just for its legendary wealth, but for its position. See with its position the Orcs can revive some long lost city (Angmar) and then lay siege to the kingdoms of men and elves. Somehow this secondary motive makes the Lonely Mountain all-important to Sauron’s plans. Oh wait, no, because Saramun already told them, “hey guys, quit yer worrying. Sauron needs his ring to be anything other than a non-corporeal nuisance.” But naaaah. Let’s just pretend the Lonely Mountain now has grand “strategic” value to Sauron’s global conquest scheme. Because somehow, since we already made Smaug part of those plans, why not? The Prequel demands it!
Back in Dale, the refugees of Lake-town are settling in. For reasons that aren’t explained, Bard puts the sniveling non-people-person Alfrid in charge of people–who he promptly abuses. As in Desolation of Smaug, we are greeted here and there to a few faces of color among the people of Dale–a black man or woman here, a Maori there. Not one of these figures has a speaking role. But, as I said last time, baby steps I guess. Of course, that’s still too much for some. In the theater, at sight of a close-up of an Asian woman someone actually gasped audibly. There were one or two snickers and some grumbling. Ya know, if you have no problems with dragons (not real) or Gandalf smoking tobacco (from the Americas and non-existent in medieval Europe), you really shouldn’t have a problem with PoC–who it turns out are quite real, and were in medieval Europe. Once more, check out medievalpoc for some enlightening.
Anyway, by morning Bard awakens to find out there’s a whole Elf army camped inside Dale. They’re led by the creepy Elf Supremacist King Thranduil, who riding about on his elk (because that’s not at all ridiculous) has come to force the Dwarves to give back some Elf jewelry. Elf Supremacists do not trifle with their people’s baubles it seems. Bard, hoping to avoid conflict, rides off to bargain with Thorin. But the Dwarf King has gone off the deep end and has his kingdom fortified and defended by his small company. As he treats with Bard, the bowman reminds Thorin he made an oath. He says he only wants a bit of the loot to help rebuild Lake-town–since it was them who took the dragon’s wrath (which the Dwarves awakened) and slew it. Thorin ain’t having it tho. Tells Bard to sod off. Bilbo later tries to reason with Thorin, who full-on in the “dragon sickness” starts slurring his speech and sounding like Smaug. Says he ain’t parting with one piece and outfits his small company for war.
In the middle of all this, Legolas and Tauriel have journeyed to the fell city of Angamar. This is part of the subplot: the stronghold the Orcs hope to revive (somehow) by capturing the Lonely Mountain. Also, in a sub-sub-plot that was both unexplored and held little meaning, Legolas’s Moms died fighting there. He and Tauriel watch as Bolg (Azog’s second) leads a whole army of Orcs and giant bats forward in battle. The two realize they have to get back in time to warn those gathered at the Lonely Mountain.
Gandalf finally makes it to Dale. He tries to warn Bard and the Elf King of an approaching Orc army because Lonely Mountain, strategic location, blah, blah. Obviously that sub-plot sounds as ridiculous to them, because they just don’t buy it. Just in the nick of time, Bilbo arrives. And he’s got the Arkenstone. He hands it over to the Elf King and Bard, hoping that they can use it to barter Thorin into some sense.
Yeah. That well-thought out plan right there? It backfires. When the assembled armies of Elves and Lake-town folk arrive at Erebor’s gates and show Thorin the jewel, he’s more enraged than submissive. When he finds out Bilbo (who has snuck back to Erebor) is the one who gave it to him, he orders the “Shire rat” to be thrown from the rampart. Luckily for Bilbo, the other Dwarves hold Thorin back and the hobbit manages to get the heck outta there. When Bard asks if Thorin will accept their terms or not, and whether there will be peace or war, a raven appears bearing a message. A gleeful Thorin declares WAR! And at that moment, an army of Dwarves appears on the horizon.
That’s three armies now if you’re keeping count.
The Dwarf army is led by Thorin’s cousin, Dáin II Ironfoot. And dude’s on a war hog. So much of this movie and series would be forgivable, if we just got to see more of that Dwarf on a hog. Ironfoot greets the gathered Elves and men with a charming Scottish accent, and then tells them to get the hell on before he bashes em’ with his war hammer. He trades some insults with the Elf supremacist and it looks like we’re about to have ourselves a good old fashioned Middle Earth Race War on our hands. Can’t we all just along?
And it’s about right then, that the Orcs show up.
One reason Gandalf couldn’t get anyone to listen to him was because no one could see this alleged Orc army. Turns out, it was because the Orcs were traveling underground–through tunnels bored by Earth-Eaters: giant ass worms that crush boulders in their teeth. When Ironfoot sees them he laments, “Oh come on!” And that’s what I was thinking. But for different reasons.
Orcs, you guys have done a great job assembling your armies for a sneak attack. Kudos. Where there’s a whip, there’s a way. But your “strategery” sucks. You got your man Azog up on a hill there directing his troops and he orders them to attack the assembled armies of men, Dwarves and Elves. No. No. No. They were about to beat each other senseless. Let it happen! Let them batter and hammer each other. Then, while they’re engaged, while they’re weak, you sweep in and bam! Smash em’ good! Or, what about those worms? You got giant worms dudes! And you just got them eating earth? You know what Paul Maud’Dib did with some giant worms? Let them loose on those armies! Hell, your forces would just be a mop up crew after that.
Or, you could not do either of those things, launch an assault right away and send the worms home. Going with the second thing huh? Okay then…
So what comes next in this flick? Fighting. Lots and lots of fighting. Even Bilbo–who in the book spends most of his time unconscious, because he’s a hobbit not a fighter–is out there swinging away. And that’s how the movie goes from here. But what did we expect? It was called The Battle of the Five Armies. After spending so much time drawing out this stand alone book into two movies, what was left in the third but a fight scene? And how do you draw out a fight scene? Make it long. Make it complicated. Pull out all the bells and whistles from LOTR. That means lots of Orcs and goblins. Give us lots of trolls too. Big trolls. Small trolls. Amputee trolls with prosthetic limbs that *make zero sense.* Give us fights against the odds. Give us one-on-one fights. Just keep the fighting coming. Turn it into one never-ending slug fest so that at the end, we’re pretty exhausted.
As the Orcs ravage the gathered Elves, Lake-men and Dwarves, Thorin shuts himself in Erebor–much to the disappointment of the rest of his kin. After Dwalin tells him off, Thorin actually threatens to kill him. Sometime after that, while wandering his palace, he has this moment of conscience–or he’d eaten some trippy mushrooms. Floor starts melting, he starts falling, hears all the foul sh*t he’s said the past few days and presto–he snaps out of it. Just like that. In your face therapy!
Cured, Thorin gathers the company up and in grand fashion they storm out of Erebor, rallying the battered Dwarves to their King. And it seems a good rally by 13 dudes was all that was needed, because suddenly giant ass Orcs are being tossed aside like rag dolls. In Dale, Bard (who just kinda drops out of the movie except to save his squealing daughters and look his nose down at a cross-dressing Alfrid) manages to rally his men as well. The women (locked away for their own safety) decide to pick up weapons and help their menfolk out. Seems good old fashioned gumption is all you need when outnumbered by teeming hordes of The Shadow. Things are going so well now, Thorin, Kili, Fili and Dwalin rustle up some riding rams (where did they come from??) and batter their way through throngs of armored Orcs to take on Azog.
Just about then Tauriel and Legolas get back. They warn about Bolg’s army (more Orcs!) set to sweep in from the North. Gandalf tries to get King Thranduil to send help, but he’s shed enough superior Elf blood for one day and is pulling his army out. When Tauriel tries to confront him, he tells her that miscegenation is not the Elf way and that whatever she feels for that Dwarf isn’t real! Elf segregation now! Elf segregation forever!
Against Gandalf’s wishes, Bilbo volunteers to go off and warn them. Secretly using his magic ring (had forgotten about that huh?) he manages to make it through the fighting and run all the way up a cliff in seeming moments–mind you, the Dwarves had to use giant rock-climbing riding rams! Bilbo gets there in time to warn Thorin, but not before Fili is captured, skewered and thrown to his death by Azog. Kili loses it at this, and goes off to avenge his brother. After that, it’s a free-for-all.
Azog and Thorin go at it, fighting all over the damn place. Bolg takes on Kili, Tauriel and Legolas. Meanwhile, that other Orc army is scrambling across the ice and bearing down on everyone. You had enough fighting? Buckle in, cuz you ain’t seen nothing yet!
Fortunately for our heroes, as we have seen in previous films, Orcs are their own worst enemies. What I learned about Orcs from watching Peter Jackson films: (1) Orc armor is basically worthless. I mean it looks all tough, but it can’t block a butter knife. (2) Orcs aren’t made of sturdy stuff. Yes, they’re bigger and menacing, and snarling with sharp teeth. But did you know Dwarf head-butts can render Orcs unconscious? Even Orcs wearing helmet armor? Did you also know Hobbits with great arms can hurl rocks at such velocity, they also manage to knock out giant Orcs. Other things that render Orcs unconscious include tripping, falling and getting punched (once). (3) Orc heads easily leave their bodies, like say if your giant Elk traps like about eight of them in their horns, one sword swipe will take their heads clean off. (4) Orcs are terrible fighters. I mean just awful. One good Dwarf or Elf can easily kill perhaps a good hundred. It’s so bad that many Orcs have suggested perhaps they should *give up* fighting, and go into a profession where their sadistic skills can be put to better use–like say, dentistry.
The only exception it seems to these easily felled Orcs are Azog and Bolg. These two actually make you *work* to kill them. Like Azog, Bolg even manages to kill one of the main characters–Kili. This is after he puts a smack down on Tauriel, turning her all damsel-in-distress like. Good old gravity-defying Elven magic manages to buy her some time, so that she can become a damsel-in-distress for Legolas. He and Bolg go at it forever, falling through buildings and what have you. It’s a pretty even match until Legolas turns on that gravity-defying Elven magic (why don’t they use that stuff all the time?) and manages to plunge a knife into his melon.
Thorin and Azog have an even wilder battle, that includes heavy stones on chains, Orcs slipping and sliding over a frozen lake like a Middle Earth Ice Capades. The two end up killing each other, concluding their long feud.
Somewhere in the middle of all this the Fifth Army shows up–the Eagles. With their arrival the Orc armies are sent into a rout. Because you know, it must be impossible to shoot down a giant eagle. Who says air power alone hasn’t ever won a war? Once more, the Eagles save the day. What would Middle Earth do without the Eagles? Seriously. They should be running the place by now. I hope they at least get medals.
Radagast has shown up on the back of the Eagles (without his rabbits, thank Eru Ilúvatar). And so has Beorn. He drops and goes full bear, wrecking shop on the Orcs. Of course, his big moment has been stolen from him in the flick. In the book, it’s Beorn who kills the Orc army leader (in the book, Bolg). But with the film adaptation elevation of a minor nobody Orc named Azog to the main baddie, that duty comes at Thorin’s hand. All of this begs the question–what purpose did Beorn even play in this flick? Why even bother to present him if he doesn’t even get to do his main Beorn thing?
Somewhere out on the ice, a distraught Bilbo watches Thorin take his last few breaths. In his final regrets the Dwarf king finally comes around, saying that if more people cherished books and the like over gold like Bilbo, the world would be a better place. Elsewhere, Tauriel holds a dead Kili in grief for what-could-have-been. (There go any chance of Dwelves) When the Elf King walks up on them she sobs and asks why she is in such emotional pain. Unlike his earlier dismissal, he tells her because her Dwarf love was real. Awww… love so strong it even melted an Elf Supremacists’s cold bigoted heart. Kili must be “one of the good ones.”
Things kind of wind down after that. Bard the Bowman’s face pops back in for a moment to say a word or two. Legolas tells his Pops he’s not going back home. His Pops tells him to seek out a mysterious human guy named Strider because… prequel. Bilbo takes his leave of the Dwarves and before you can say Shire–they’re back in the Shire. I suppose returning from the Lonely Mountain is nothing at all like going to the Lonely Mountain. No stone giants, giant spiders of Mirkwood or what-have-you. Just an idle stroll through the New Zealand countryside. It’s a well-known oddity that fantasy quests are vastly easier on the return trip.
Gandalf and Bilbo part company–but not before the wizard tells him that he’s aware the hobbit found a magic ring. Bilbo denies it and claims its lost. But we know that ain’t true. He returns to the Shire to find his house and goods up for sale, as everyone thought he was dead. He proves to the auctioneer that he is very much alive by showing him the contract he’d signed at the beginning with the Dwarf Company. When the auctioneer asks who is this Thorin person he signed up to work for, a choked up Bilbo replies, “he was my friend.” The Bromance is complete.
But Jackson’s prequel isn’t.
Bilbo returns to his pilfered comfy Hobbit hole home while the Shire music keeps playing. Standing there, taking it all in, he tries to resist but then gives into the urge, to pull out the ring. In a flash, he’s old Bilbo. We’re at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. And Gandalf is knocking at the door. We hear the familiar dialogue, but this time from different perspectives. The last thing we see is Bilbo’s book–“There and back again.”
And that’s it. The end of BOTFA and the end of Jackson’s Hobbit prequel. So What’s the final verdict?
Somewhere in the middle of the eighteenth fight scene, my wife leaned over to me wearily and said “too much.” Yeah. That about sums things up. Battle of the Five Armies was not a terrible movie. Perhaps it wasn’t even really a bad movie. It was just at times, *too much.* And we could apply that to Jackson’s Hobbit flicks overall. Since the beginning the franchise suffered from too many subplots, too many references to LOTR, too many attempts to turn a children’s book into the prequel to a sprawling epic. Trying to wrap all that up in one film, leaves you just exhausted.
The original intent was to make this film a duology. I wonder what that script was like? I wonder what could (and should) have been left on the editing floor? I don’t know how much of this was Jackson’s vision, or the studio’s vision–dreaming greedily of that extended 6-box DVD set they’ll be able to sell us. That way we can start off with The Hobbit and watch a seamless story into LOTR. But somebody, somewhere, should have staged an intervention. Because it’s just all TOO MUCH.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy parts of these films. I did. The casting I thought was superb. The re-imagined Dwarves as unique individuals both visually and in personality was a nice touch. Martin Freeman made a great Bilbo. Ian McKellan was born to play Gandalf. And Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug with perfect diction just…fit. It was great to see childhood characters and scenes played out on the big screen. For that I’m grateful. But I’m also disappointed. Because this could have been something so much truer to Tolkien’s original masterpiece. The phrase “less is more” never meant so much.
Of course I’m probably going to watch parts of this movie every time it comes on HBO. And I’m going to complain loudly about this that and the third. Just like I do with the other two flicks. That’s what we fan geeks do. But when I want to really reminisce on the story of The Hobbit as I remember it, I’ll pop in the Rankin Bass 1977 cartoon. Or, better yet, I’ll pick up the book.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort…