After something like eleventy-one hours in Middle-earth, Peter Jackson at last staggers over the finish line with a roar of triumph before collapsing, not without a touch of dignity and feeling in the end.
Or maybe that was me I’m thinking of. It’s hard to say at this point.
What I can say is that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (a title strangely stuffed with too many the’s, at a time when movie titles often dispense with articles) includes — amid overinflated spectacle and cynical fan service — some of the best stuff of any of this prequel trilogy.
I’m reminded that The Lord of the Rings film trilogy offered occasional flashes of inspiration that, for me, actually improved on what J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, or at least offered a more satisfying cinematic vision than a straightforward visualization of Tolkien would have. (Such moments include, for example, the quasi-sacramental power of Aragorn’s reforged sword over the oath-breaking Dead in The Return of the King, symbolically representing the binding power of their oaths.)
The Hobbit threequel (I’m mildly surprised no one is calling it The Ho33it) opens with a key set piece that I prefer to what Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit: the slaying of Smaug. As much as I love The Hobbit, I confess that I do not love the way Tolkien chose to dispose of his most delicious villain, shot down unknowing by a character introduced out of the blue a few paragraphs earlier, using his special good-luck black arrow introduced immediately before it was used.
In the movies, grim-faced Bard (Luke Evans) was naturally established by the previous film, The Desolation of Smaug, along with his young son, Bain (John Bell), and a Jacksonized version of the fateful black arrow: a big iron poker designed for a weapon called a windlance, a sort of scaled-up, mounted crossbow. This is a sound corollary of Anton Chekhov’s rule: Not only must a gun introduced in the first chapter go off in a later chapter, a gun that goes off in the end needs to be established earlier on.
Even better, Jackson shows that he remembers a lesson learned from the latter two Rings movies: Draconian monsters are scarier on the ground (à la Return of the King) than in the air (à la Two Towers).
Best of all, it’s a nice character moment, not only between Bard and Bain, but with Smaug being Smaugish to the end, preening and taunting and threatening (a decision probably motivated as much as anything by the desire to maximize the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch). Of course, the scene’s power is undercut by coming at the beginning of this movie instead of the climax of the previous one, but what are you going to do?
So, that’s like five minutes or so down. Then comes the subtitle. So, what, two and a quarter hours or so to go?
There’s some good stuff in what follows. A tense parley between Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Bard is strikingly shot through a diamond-shaped gap in a stone wall. The Nazgûl appear in a new, frightening form; and for once Jackson lets a wizard (92-year-old Christopher Lee — and his synthespian stunt double) really cut loose with some magical kung fu. Cate Blanchett has a nice Galadriel moment, weirdly offset by an ill-advised callback to one of the original trilogy’s worst miscalculations.
More substantially, Thorin’s slow descent into obsession, avarice and paranoia offers some moral and emotional heft entirely lacking in the middle chapter. In a deft touch, the filmmakers evoke Thorin’s “dragon sickness” — the pernicious effect on a dwarvish heart of treasure over which a dragon has long brooded — with an initially subtle effect recalling the moment in The Fellowship of the Ring where Bilbo at Rivendell manifested a flash of Gollum-like rage at the sight of the Ring.
But Jackson can’t stick the landing, and continues to extend and ratchet up the effect, like the guy who can’t stop nudging you in the ribs with his elbow, because, get it, get it, you see?
Alas, Bilbo’s key moral decision in this final crisis isn’t given its due weight. Partly that’s because of Martin Freeman’s unassuming but uncomplicated performance, which remains so much less interesting than any two minutes of Ian Holm in Fellowship. And partly it’s because Jackson is in a hurry to get to the stuff that really matters: the battle, the five armies, the five armies battling, the battle of the five armies.
Also, broody, Twilight-ish love triangle stuff with Legolas, Tauriel and Kili (Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner), and the epic bone-crunching smackdown between Thorin and Azog the Defiler. Also, bizarrely, increasingly grating camp from the Master of Laketown’s craven lackey (Ryan Gage).
Also, Legolas being ever more awesome, continuing in each film to one-up the most outrageous stunt of the previous film. For his last performance ever, Legolas pulls a move I never thought to see in a film less cartoony than Kung Fu Panda (which included a slightly more outrageous form of the same concept during Tai Lung’s prison break). Of course, all this ramping up is only going to give an odd sense of anticlimax to the comparative restraint of Fellowship when the films are watched in chronological order. Like why is Legolas suddenly much less awesome?
At this point I was more or less braced for all the forgoing, so in a way anything more is gravy. I would have hoped that Jackson and company, who had been sensitive to Tolkien’s spiritually inflected language in the original trilogy (e.g., the “grey rain-curtain” speech in Return of the King), might include either of The Hobbit’s most overt religious references: a dying character’s speech about going “to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed,” and Bilbo and Gandalf’s parting exchange about prophecy and Providence in lived experience. No such luck. The former is simply omitted, while isolated phrases from the latter are clumsily reworked to avoid the spiritual resonances.
And yet there is enough skill on display and, in the end, a sufficient vestige of real feeling that, as the credits roll to the plaintive strains of The Last Goodbye by Pippin himself, Billy Boyd (whose Edge of Night song was a highlight in Return of the King), the film goes out on a note of melancholy nostalgia. The sketchy end-credit imagery often feels more Tolkienesque than anything in the preceding two-plus hours, leaving one wistfully contemplating: what might have been, what might have been.
Caveat Spectator: Intense fantasy-action violence and battle sequences; scary images and creature menace; some rude humor. Teens and up.