If Armageddon (1998) was a 150-minute movie trailer, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is a 144-minute trailer of the trailer. The screenplay must have been no longer than 20 pages, I suspect, because I believe I sat through what felt like 120 minutes of relentless unscripted action, where armies clash, bodies fly, monsters growl, and all sorts of fauna gallop around and stampede. This movie’s title could not have been more succinct.
I say all this not as criticism — the action is wielded with great aplomb by director Peter Jackson — but as lamentation. We get lost in the battles. I was made aware, by the endless computer graphics and clinging and clanging of shields and swords, that some of the effects began to blend into each other, so much so I didn’t know who was a dwarf, an elf, an orc, or a whatever else. Only the main characters stood out. Thranduil (Lee Pace), lord of the Elves, with his towering gait and deep voice; Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the other Elves who find themselves trapped in the plot; Dain, a head-butting Dwarf leader; Bard (Luke Evans), the hero of Men; Gandalf (Ian McKellen), our evergreen companion; and of course Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his gang of 13 Dwarves. Every other worker, civilian, soldier was faceless, invented by the fantastical skill of computers.
There is a story here, to be sure — Jackson and his writing team have always developed a keen eye for swift adaptations of Tolkien’s grandest works — but where is it? I know where it is. It’s in the second film, The Desolation Of Smaug (2013), which treated us to Hollywood’s greatest dragon and exposition so exciting it felt like a carnival ride. If Five Armies does anything really well, it demonstrates how thinly Jackson has spread Tolkien’s novel; he’s run out of gas. Two things make this clear, and you don’t have to strain your eyes very hard to see them either: 1) The titular battle, which takes up one (that’s right, one) chapter in the novel, literally bulldozes over the entire film, and 2) Five Armies is the shortest of any of Jackson’s Middle-Earth films. It doesn’t add up, does it?
What we have here is not so much a dramatic story as an exercise in CGI madness and characterisation. The main guys get a lot to say, always in that grave manner that signals some sort of impending doom. I am constantly amused by Jackson’s structure of ominous sentences, as when Legolas says “These bats are bred for one thing” and Tauriel says “For what?”, and Legolas intones after a serious pause “WAR”. Why not just say “These bats are bred for war” and be done with it?
The main characters interact with each other just about as well as they ever have. Bilbo chokes up at the mention of Thorin, who becomes like a brother to him. Kíli (Aidan Turner), one of Thorin’s folk, falls for Tauriel the Elf and makes visions of physical love between them very perplexing. Gandalf does less shouting here and more counselling, which is always welcomed of him. Bard interacts with few, except for his children. And Thranduil walks around the place looking regal and important.
Pity then that all of them find themselves trapped in a battle that happens as an after thought, as an epilogue. I feel like what I’m about to say is a spoiler, but judging from the trailer, and from the novel, which I expect many of you to have read, I will say it anyway. Smaug is killed by Bard, and the gold that he once held dear is left open for the taking. So all the different races of Middle-Earth converge on the fields at the mountain’s foot to settle their claims. What with the Dwarves being pigheaded and the Elves being greedy and the Men being desperate and the Orcs being evil, all-out war ensues. That’s when the armies clash, the bodies fly, the monsters growl and the fauna gallops and stampedes.
I have made this review sound overwhelmingly negative, but the movie is not so bad. I am merely voicing my banal disappointments. Five Armies is stubbornly entertaining. The battle, as I mentioned earlier, is filmed and choreographed with the usual Jackson confidence, and Legolas receives his fair share of outlandish stunts (one sees him defying the laws of gravity by running up falling blocks of stone as if sprinting up an escalator). If the narrative fails due to exasperation, the characters succeed, particularly Thorin as the rightful Dwarf king, tormented by the avarice of his ancestors. Bilbo, however, our hero, is pushed to the background and adopts a supporting role, at least until the very end, when The Hobbit ends and The Lord Of The Rings can begin.
Note: I was fortunate to attend a preview screening of The Battle Of The Five Armies, courtesy of Roadshow Films. There was free popcorn and free water. It was a lovely night. The only thing that ruined it for me was the gratuitous 3D and the high frame rate, which made the entire movie look like those sample TV videos you find on repeat at electronics stores. If you can, avoid 3D at all costs.
Best Moment | Probably when the Eagles come, of course. Or the quietly fitting final scene.
Worst Moment | Every time a bad guy is about to land a killing blow, takes way too long to deliver the strike, and is stopped, in the nick of time, by an intervening good guy.