One doesn’t simply see a Peter Jackson Middle Earth movie without making a huge commitment (LOTR fans, you get that joke, right?). We’re talking studying up on Tolkien (and not just the book on which the film in question is based but ALL the potential source material), watching previous movies, planning restroom trips and more. Seeing one of these movies can feel more like a responsibility than a pleasure.
That’s a fitting analogy for my overall reaction to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. I liked the first two installments of The Hobbit, (you can read my review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug HERE – I wasn’t blogging when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiered) didn’t love them. At times, they had an unnecessarily protracted feel, but that was to be expected when director Peter Jackson took a children’s book in The Hobbit and expanded it to an almost 9 hour trilogy. Subplots and characters and fan boy service were added liberally to these movies and, to Jackson’s credit, the additions mainly work. They feel like Tolkien’s original intention and, most importantly for Jackson himself, they tie nicely into the LOTR trilogy that is surely going to have many new watchers as a result of The Hobbit movies.
Focusing squarely on this last chapter means focusing squarely on Martin Freeman, who plays our title character, and that’s just fine because Freeman is terrific as Bilbo Baggins. He anchors this movie and, in the midst of five armies clashing, provides it its humanity. His small (no pun intended) counterpoint to the vast and important dealings going on around him gives the movie its soul. Freeman never loses his surprise and his shock at the events in which his Bilbo has been swept up but is able to understand them and their implications in a way in which the other characters do not. His performance grounds the audience and gives the sense that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is about more than elves and dwarves and fighting and slow-motion beheadings, though it’s about those things, too.
The cast of the film is uniformly good. It is difficult to distinguish one dwarf from the next, and, though Jackson does his best to make them distinct from one another, there are only a few standouts and, at that, they are only standouts because of what the film gives them to do. It is very hard to tell the dwarves apart because of this, though Richard Armitage as Thorin is excellent. He’s given a pretty good emotional arc during the movie and plays it very well. His friendship with Bilbo is one of the most fulfilling parts of the story. Likewise, Luke Evans is great as Bard, the defacto leader of the Lake People. The one scene Armitage and Evans have together crackles. The actors that one would expect to be compelling are (Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee) and Orlando Bloom is a welcome addition as Legolas. He doesn’t seem to have aged much in the decade since he first played the role. Evangline Lilly is good in her role but, of all the elements of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies that seem duct taped on, her Tauriel is the leading example. She takes part in a subplot, but the subplot itself feels superfluous. That’s no fault of hers because The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has much to do.
The movie has to wrap up the story of the Dragon under the Mountain, tell the tale of the Lake People, resolve a dwarf/elf love story, bring five armies together and make them fight, kill a number of main characters, get Bilbo home to the Shire and set up The Fellowship of the Ring to name only a handful of the subplots. It also tries to make the audience understand why the wizard Gandalf (wonderfully played by Sir Ian McKellan) would knowingly leave the One True Ring in the possession of Bilbo at the end of the movie. If Gandalf knows what’s coming – knows that Sauron the Terrible is coming back and that the ring is the key to his defeat, would he really leave it with Bilbo in the Shire?
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Stripping away all of the strum and drang, the movie tells the story of a simple person carried away (sometimes literally) by events the scope of which he cannot possibly comprehend only to find that his very humanity might well save the world.
That’s saying a lot for a hobbit and, as it turns out, it’s a lovely thing to say.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES receives THREE AND A HALF ARMIES out of a possible five.