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There and Back Again: Josh Reviews The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies!

Endings are a difficult thing.  Sticking the landing of a long-form story is perilously challenging, and I’m sure we can all think of plenty of examples of failed endings, whether we’re talking about TV shows (Seinfeld and Lost both come to mind) or to movie trilogies (as the years pass, I become more and more disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises).

I am very pleased to report, then, that Peter Jackson’s third and final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is an excellent conclusion to his Hobbit trilogy.  This film isn’t going to make anyone who disliked the first two Hobbit films change their mind, but if you did enjoy those films I suspect you will love this one.  I feel pretty confident in stating that it is the strongest of the three Hobbit theatrical editions.  (Like Mr. Jackson’s LOTR films, the first two Hobbit films were both improved by their Extended Editions, so a complete comparison of all three films isn’t really possible until next year when we get to see the extended version of The Battle of the Five Armies.  But in terms of the theatrical experience of the three Hobbit films, I think this one wins by a fairly wide margin.)

One of the reasons why?  This is the shortest of the three Hobbit theatrical editions.  (It’s also, unless I am mistaken, the shortest of the theatrical editions of all six of Mr. Jackson’s Middle Earth films.)  This helps a lot, as the biggest problem of the first two Hobbit films was a sense of bloat.  I don’t condemn those first two films for that the way so many reviewers have, but I certainly think those films were far longer than they needed to be, especially in their theatrical form.

But this film moves, boy.  It’s got the best pacing of all three Hobbit films.  For all that I enjoyed those two films, they both felt LONG.  But this film roars by.

We begin with a great James Bond-like pre-credits action sequence in which ol’ Smaug is dealt with.  I’d wondered how much of a factor Smaug would wind up being in this film.  The answer is not much, as he’s dispatched with fairly quickly.  It works, but I will admit to having expected a but more.  I felt like this sequence was missing a little something.  Maybe more of Smaug’s dialogue?  Smaug was surprisingly silent for the first several minutes of this sequence.  I’d expected him to be gloating or boasting as he attacked Lake Town.  It’s remarkable how Smaug comes to life once he finally speaks.  Credit to Benedict Cumberbatch for how much his voice clearly was a critical element in creating this character.

It’s thrilling getting to see Bard finally get a win and become a hero in this sequence, and good lord to I love the way he aims his bow for that final shot.  Nice bit of invention there by Mr. Jackson and his team.  “Look at me, son.”

Things settle down a bit after that and we have a chance to breathe and catch our breath, but Mr. Jackson does a decent job keeping up the tension as pretty much all the different factions of Middle Earth that we’ve encountered so far in these Hobbit movies converge on the Lonely Mountain for the titular big battle that we know is coming.

When that battle arrives, it’s solid, even though there is an unavoidable sense of been there done that.  What was staggeringly impressive in The Two Towers and The Return of the King is, I have to admit, a bit old hat now, and the sight of fantasy armies colliding on the battlefield isn’t as thrilling as it once was.

But I’ll tell you what.  The first half-to-two-thirds of this film was solidly entertaining.  Very much of a piece with the first two Hobbit films.  Enjoyable to watch, but far less compelling than the Lord of the Rings films.  But the film kicked into a whole new gear from the moment Thorin finally throws off his madness and leads his Dwarf comrades out of Erebor.  The final hour of the film that follows that moment is magnificent, easily the finest work in this whole Hobbit trilogy and the best work Peter Jackson has done since he made me bawl my eyes out at the end of The Return of the King.  This is what the entire trilogy wanted to be, perhaps should have been.

What’s different about that final hour?  First of all, the action.  I was entertained but not gripped by all the sequences of big armies fighting it out in front of the gates of Erebor.  But after Thorin’s big charge, Mr. Jackson shifts from sequences of huge armies colliding to much smaller, much more personal combat.  Suddenly we’re back in the world of the dirty, violent, edge-of-your-seat fantasy combat that made such an impact on audiences back in The Fellowship of the Ring.  We’re not watching huge armies of nameless characters we don’t care about.  We’re watching Thorin and Bilbo and Legolas and Kili and Tauriel, characters we care about and are rooting for.  (And the villains are great too.  Suddenly Azog and Bolg both feel like real, dangerous characters and not just plastic CGI creations.  Azog in particular looks a universe better — way more realistic and scary — than he did in the first film.)  These fights are tough and also hugely, hugely creative and entertaining as each fight gets bigger and crazier.  The way these fights have been constructed and staged is marvelous, and we get a number of very memorable moments.  I am a little hazy as to how Thorin and co. suddenly found themselves in an arctic wasteland, but boy the settings were very unique and memorable, from the crumbling stone bridge to the frozen surface.  (If there’s a weakness here it’s how what was going on with all the armies was suddenly ignored for a half an hour — I wouldn’t have minded one or two quick cut-backs just to remind us what else was happening — but these fights were so good its hard to complain.)

Second, suddenly in this final hour we reached an emotional intensity that I’d felt throughout the LOTR films but that was entirely absent from the Hobbit films to that point.  There are a number of emotional beats that really landed for me in that final hour in the way that nothing else in the Hobbit films had.  Bilbo’s final scene with Thorin.  Thranduil’s final line of dialogue to Tauriel.  Bilbo’s goodbye to the company of Dwarves.  Suddenly everything came together and I was completely hooked in, emotionally, to what I was watching on screen.

I feel like I’m in danger of overselling things, but this last hour of the film goes a long way for me to redeeming the missteps this Hobbit trilogy had made on the way to that point.  This is great stuff, folks, and worth seeing big and loud.  (I watched the film in Imax 3-D, and holy cow was the presentation astounding.)

Other comments on the film:

A weakness of these three Hobbit films is the way that, after the first hour of the first film, Bilbo has occasionally felt like a supporting player in his own movies.  I was pleased that Bilbo is more of a presence here.  He does get knocked out at one point, just as in the book, but thankfully he doesn’t sleep through the whole final fight!  More importantly, Bilbo steps back into the fore as the moral compass of the story, taking issue with Thorin’s increasing gold-craziness and taking action to do what he thinks is right.

On the other hand, a victim of this film’s leaner run-time was the company of Dwarves.  Other than Thorin and Kili, many of the Dwarves had absolutely nothing to do.  I think about half of the Dwarves didn’t even have a single line of dialogue!!  I hope this gets addressed in the Extended Edition.  After spending three long movies with Thorin’s company, I was sad that many of the Dwarves I had come to love — like James Nesbitt’s Bofur — had absolutely zero role to play in this film.

On the other hand, there is Alfie.  In the special features for the Extended Edition of The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens talk about how much they loved Ryan Gage’s work as Alfie, the obsequious toadie of the Master of Lake Town.  They weren’t kidding because they really doubled down on Alfie in this film.  Too much.  It’s not that the Alfie stuff is that bad, it’s just that those are precious minutes of screen-time I wish had been given to the Dwarves.

I loved Bilbo and Gandalf’s last scene, and nice job by Peter Jackson & co. in incorporating Gandalf’s last line from the book.  But I didn’t love that the last thing Bilbo did in the film was lie to Gandalf (about the ring).  That felt wrong to me, as did the shift in tone of Gandalf’s last line to Bilbo from one of joking and praise (in the book) to mild disapproval (in the film).  That felt just a teensy bit off to me.

Gotta love a good Sackville-Baggins reference!

Lee Pace’s work as Thranduil was very weird and enjoyable throughout these Hobbit films, and the arc of his character really paid off nicely in this film.

I loved the big White Council versus the Necromancer fight early in the film.  Seeing Saruman kick ass was amazing.  But I was extremely surprised that, after Saruman says “Leave Sauron to me,” we never cut back to him or any of those characters ever again!  So what happened next?  What was Saruman planning to do?  What transpired between this scene and where we find him at the start of Fellowship of the Ring?

I was surprised by some of the character deaths in this film, but they all worked for me.

I didn’t love the opening sequence of An Unexpected Journey set right before the events of Fellowship, and I found the return to that time-line (and Ian Holm as Bilbo) equally unnecessary here.  It’s not bad at all, just unnecessary.  This story is strong enough to stand on its own.  (Also, if the intention now is for viewers to watch these six films in order from An Unexpected Journey through to The Return of the King, then those Ian Holm sequences in the Hobbit films become a bit repetitive.)  But what’s also interesting is that the continuity problem that was, and I swear this is true, the very first thing I thought of years ago when I first read that Martin Freeman had been cast as Bilbo for these Hobbit films, was not addressed.  When Gandalf opens the door and sees Bilbo in the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, he gasps: “you haven’t aged a day!”  And yet, Martin Freeman as Bilbo looks WAY younger than Ian Holm!  Bilbo has aged a LOT!!  So now, after these Hobbit films, that line in Fellowship doesn’t work at all.  Here at the end of this film, we hear a reprise of that Gandalf-Bilbo dialogue — but they drop that line!  That’s one way to get around it, I suppose, but to me it only emphasizes the discontinuity.  (And if we’re now going to watch these films in chronological order, as soon as Five Armies ends and you pop in your DVD of Fellowship, you’ll hear that line and realize the problem.)  This is a weird inconsistency considering the myriad other ways in which Mr. Jackson and his team worked to make these Hobbit films line up carefully with his Lord of the Rings films.  Oh well!

I loved hearing Bilbo say “the Eagles are coming!”  It’s one of the most memorable lines from the book, so I’m pleased it was in the film.

Loved seeing Beorn again (albeit super-briefly).

I smiled when Thorin gave Bilbo his mithril coat.

All right, I think this review has lasted long enough.  While this Hobbit trilogy might not have been everything I had hoped and dreamed it would be, I think these films have been dramatically under-appreciated.  It’s been an absolute delight getting to spend more time in this marvelously realized fantasy world.  The skill on display with every second of screen-time, the product of the incredible efforts of hundreds upon hundreds of artists and crafts-people and performers, is extraordinary.  This final film, The Battle of the Five Armies, though clumsily-titled, is a great finale for this trilogy and a nice farewell to Peter Jackson’s six-film Middle Earth adventure.  I am pleased by the quality of this final film.  It’s a film I look forward to watching again, and I can’t wait to see the Extended Edition next year.

To Peter Jackson and all of his collaborators: thank you for the ride.  The road goes ever on and one.

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