It is, of course, naïve and unrealistic to expect that this film will rectify and reverse everything wrong about two previous chapters. Indeed, The Battle of the Five Armies suffers from many of the sins these films were plagued by – choppy narrative, bloated running time, an unnecessarily excessive use of computer graphics, uneven pacing. However, what where it does exceed is in its increased focus on single narrative, probably for the very first time in The Hobbit trilogy. It feels less scattered around, largely due to it being set mostly in one location. The board for ensuing conflict was set already by The Desolation of Smaug and there is no exposition as such. And that is something quite new for Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations.
Another strong point is an emphasis on character development and interactions, an ingredient criminally absent from both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, save for a few cursory elements. In The Battle of the Five Armies, the execution of those elements might still be somewhat clunky but at least it’s there. Both Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman rise to the occasion and provide their characters with some emotion. Bilbo, curiously underused in a series of films revolved around his character, finally gets to fulfil a role in those and adding some necessary good-natured hobbit warmth into the grim plotline. At the same time, Armitage gets to expand upon both gloomy and warm aspects of Thorin Oakenshield as he’s battling his inherited greedy sickness. The usual suspects Ian McKellen is always a joy to watch on screen and his Gandalf definitely doesn’t disappoint, as expected.
What doesn’t work quite so well, however, is the battle spectacle itself. While all Tolkien-based films used CGI heavily to help enhance epic struggles portrayed on screen, there is a sense that The Battle of the Five Armies was filmed almost entirely in front of green screen. Gone are the breathtaking and lovely landscapes of New Zealand. It’s hard to care for an hour of swarming animated characters fighting other animated characters, with occasional shots of live actors swing a sword once or twice. There’s hardly any drama or tension in that and Middle-earth feels smaller than ever.
What’s even more frustrating, it turns out that many plot points and characters from previous two films were introduced for absolutely no reason. Sylvester McCoy, so prominently featured as Radagast in An Unexpected Journey, barely makes a cameo in both subsequent films. Same with Mikael Persbrandt’s Beorn. One has to wonder why Peter Jackson even bothered including those two, given their contribution to the overall story is quite minimal and could have been achieved in more efficient ways. On the other hand, the completely new Elven character of Tauriel, as played by Evangeline Lilly, could have used an expansion. Fortunately, Luke Evans’ Aragorn-inspired Bard the Bowman and Lee Pace’s Thranduil get a lot more screen time this time and this film is so much better for it.
Technically, The Battle of the Five Armies is adequate but strangely unpolished in some areas. Many of the effects seem unfinished and unconvincing, especially the opening fiery destruction of Lake-town and climactic confrontation between Thorin and pale orc Azog. The musical score by Howard Shore, such a crucial ingredient of The Lord of the Rings, is an accomplished and intelligent as ever but feels lost and neglected in overcrowded sound mix. Editorially, this film feels a bit awkward and uneven, as did the previous two. It will be interesting to see if the extended cut, due late next year, will change that.
The final chapter in Peter Jackson’s six-film series is ultimately successful in its basic entertainment factor but it falls short as a piece of epic fantasy cinema. The ultimate failure of The Hobbit trilogy is not as painful as the one suffered by Star Wars fans a decade ago but there’s an undeniable sense that something went terribly wrong in the development process. Still, strong performances from excellent cast and significantly tighter and focused narrative make up for many shortcomings.
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