After 17 hours and 12 minutes, (not counting the extra extended edition minutes!) this is where our cinematic experience of Middle Earth finally ends. We went there with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and then we’ve been back again with The Hobbit films. Christmas may never be the same again. Even if you’ve been thoroughly underwhelmed by Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy up to this point, you’ve got to admit that these films are at least better than the Star Wars prequels.
Before we get into the story of the concluding chapter (formerly titled There and Back Again, now The Battle of the Five Armies) a word of warning. For those who haven’t seen The Desolation of Smaug since last Christmas, either make a point of digging out the DVD or prepare to be thrown straight back into the action without so much as the briefest of recaps. No doubt you will remember that the big bad dragon is on his way to roasting the residents of Laketown, but as to the smaller details such as why Bard is imprisoned, why Gandalf is encaged and what exactly the rest of the ensemble are up to might be more elusive if your last trip to Middle Earth was this time last year. This is the shortest film of the entire Tolkien franchise so far and Jackson isn’t wasting any time in diving straight back into the action. Even before the title appears on screen, a major is character is dead, Laketown is toast and things are swiftly moving towards the big battle.
And as for the story of this sixth instalment, that title pretty much sums it up. Original subtitle ‘There and Back Again’ just wouldn’t have had the same sense of scale that Jackson envisaged for this almighty punch-up so it’s all there in the new title. There is one hell of a battle that lasts almost the entire running time. And by the end, there are five armies smashing their way through each other. Snuck into the mix, there is also the rise of Sauron as Jackson delivers on his promise to tie the trilogies together with a neat little knot.
What is worthwhile noting is that even with the breathless set pieces of the dragon slaying and final battle, Jackson rarely loses sight of his central characters. Unfortunately, despite almost eight hours spent with them, most of the dwarves are still indistinguishable from one another, but the relationship between Bilbo and Thorin provides frequent high points in this film. It’s a constantly developing connection and even though Bilbo often gets completely lost for large sections when the battle is in full swing, when he does get time to shine, Martin Freeman delivers a perfectly judged performance.
It’s another huge achievement from Peter Jackson, particularly in his juggling of countless characters within the endless mayhem. The standoffs between the elves and dwarves are tense, the fight scenes epic, and Jackson’s love of a good old beheading is still intact. Many problems are largely unavoidable in adapting Tolkien’s book, which doesn’t hold a candle to the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, Jackson hasn’t helped himself by drawing everything out to this length either. The battle goes on and on and on and while it dwells on Legolas’ acrobatics (with increasingly questionable CGI), Tauriel and Kili’s emotional connection and Thorin’s redemption, the mass slaughter gets sidelined by the end until it seems that the battle just fizzles out in the background.
Fundamentally, The Battle of the Five Armies suffers from a bit of prequelitis in that we all know that several of our favourite characters are in no jeopardy due to their appearance in The Lord of the Rings. By relentlessly milking his Hobbit cash cow and drawing it out into three films, Jackson also invites comparisons with his own superior Tolkien trilogy and The Battle of the Five Armies inevitably fails to live up to the towering emotional payoff of The Return of the King. It also has no character even remotely as brilliant as Gollum, no matter how much Jackson tries to make us care about Thorin’s tragic descent into greed and madness.
The Battle of the Five Armies is very far from a perfect film and it’s difficult not to wonder how much better The Hobbit could have been if it had not been so prolonged. Like its two predecessors, it stomps roughly all over Tolkien’s story and bashes the audience over the head with Jackson’s typically (and increasingly) OTT action sequences. However, after all this time spent in Middle Earth, you have to admire the director’s achievement. By the time the credits roll on The Battle of the Five Armies and no matter what you think of this final film, you’re bound to want to dig out those Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVDs for another round of Middle Earth magic.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10