Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth finale is every bit as good as its predecessors – but it’s unlikely to win over new fans with its title fight. The Battle of the Five Armies picks up immediately from The Desolation of Smaug’s cliffhanger ending. There’s no time to regroup and come back up to speed, so if you haven’t seen the previous outings or simply can’t remember what happened when the company of Thorin Oakenshield entered Erebor then you may want to hold off on Battle.
The story begins with the dragon Smaug laying waste to Laketown. It’s a spectacular sequence and one of the film’s highlights – Smaug is every bit as magnificent as he was before, further cementing himself as the best cinematic dragon around, bar none. The business with the firedrake however is all done and dusted before the film’s subtitle appears; the desolation of Laketown takes the place of the typical flashback prologue sequence that occurs at the beginning of all of Jackson’s other Middle-earth features.
Some may malign the decision to begin Battle with what is essentially the climax of the dragon storyline – which many argue should have been at the end of the previous film. I understand these criticisms, but I feel that Battle benefits from the inclusion of this sequence (and I loved the cliffhanger ending in part two). Smaug’s attack on Laketown sets the stage for the titular battle in film three, so it’s great to have the key catalyst of the story in this film. When watching Battle straight after The Desolation of Smaug, the dragon’s attack also acts as connective tissue that reinforces the fact that The Hobbit is really one big movie in three parts – and this is the final act.
What we’re left with is a story heavy on action but light on character moments, as most of those have come before. Still, Thorin (Richard Armitage) has a compelling character arc where he’s afflicted by ‘dragon sickness’ – a lust for treasure that drives him to madness. Armitage plays Thorin’s decent perfectly, and there are some clever story beats here where Thorin mimics lines once spoken by Smaug. The treasure hoard of Erebor effectively becomes the ‘One Ring’ of the story; instead of calling for his ‘precious’, Thorin begins to echo the dragon that he so despises. With The Hobbit, Tolkien sent a strong message that greed was definitely not good, and that theme is most pronounced in this final film of the trilogy.
Indeed, following the destruction of Laketown it seems that everyone wants a share of Erebor’s treasure. There’s Thorin and his company of dwarves to whom the treasure belongs by birthright, there are the men and women of Laketown who feel they are owed fair compensation for the fire Smaug brought upon them due to the actions of the dwarves and there are also the elves of Mirkwood who seek to reclaim a precious heirloom of theirs in the vast treasure hoard.
Of course, there’s also the little matter of the orc army from Dol Guldur lead by the pale orc, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), which is marching on the Lonely Mountain to claim it for its tactical position. And let’s not forget Azog’s spawn and second-in-command, Bolg (John Tui), who leads his own army of vicious orcs, goblins and giant bats. Azog and Bolg serve the Necromancer, who we now know is series baddie Sauron. Sauron has a relatively minor role in this story though, as he remains a growing, formless darkness that doesn’t coalesce until The Fellowship of the Ring. Azog is the main villain here, but there’s a fun scene early on where a few old favourites face the ‘shadow in the east’ – paving the way for Sauron’s return in The Lord of the Rings.
Somewhere in amongst all this is Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) – the title character. Admittedly, Bilbo is sidelined a little this time around. Freeman is fantastic in the role and does get some nice moments, but Battle is really Thorin’s story – and it’s Thorin and Bilbo’s relationship which anchors the film. I would be remiss however to not mention the rest of the cast, who are all terrific in their roles – Ian McKellen is as wizardly as ever as Gandalf, Luke Evans and Lee Pace are surprise standouts as Bard the Bowman and the elven king Thranduil respectively, Orlando Bloom continues to perform gravity-defying stunts as Legolas and Ryan Gage as Alfrid adds some much needed levity by feeling like he’s stepped right off of the stage of Monty Python (which is a big plus in my book).
The star-crossed lovers story of elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) continues to be a weak point in the proceedings, but it’s never the focus and so remains a harmless diversion. Tauriel, an invented character, at least adds a feminine touch to the otherwise male-dominated source material. In this vein, Jackson continues to draw on Tolkien’s appendices to flesh out the plot, although some core elements have been left on the cutting room floor. Given the amount of flak that The Return of the King received for its many endings, it’s no surprise then that Battle doesn’t waste time coming to its conclusion when the carnage is said and done.
The result is that some characters and plot points perhaps don’t receive the closure that you want – but if you’ve only seen the theatrical versions of these movies it should be enough. Jackson has already announced that the extended version of Battle will be half an hour or so longer, which will help to clear any perceived plot holes (such as why armoured rams appear out of nowhere in the middle of the film’s otherwise expertly helmed five-way clash). The astute will notice many scenes in the trailers which are not in the final product, and consequently there’s a slight sense that Battle in its current form is somewhat incomplete (certainly so if you’ve seen the extended versions of the previous films as Battle’s theatrical release drops any plotlines introduced in those longer, superior experiences).
Battle is therefore the shortest of the Middle-earth movies, but it nevertheless succeeds in both concluding the story of The Hobbit while linking in with The Lord of the Rings. Jackson has said that The Hobbit films have been designed so that you can watch them and then The Lord of the Rings for one seamless six-part story – and I would say that he’s succeeded. The final moments of Battle beautifully segue into the opening scenes of Fellowship, with a final shot that mirrors one of the opening shots of our first foray into Middle-earth. Billy Boyd’s poignant ‘The Last Goodbye’ plays over the closing credits – a final reminder that this is our last journey into Jackson’s Middle-earth… and what a ride it has been.