Peter Jackson’s decision to revisit Middle Earth has been, at best, one of mixed fortunes. With the gargantuan burden of his previous Tolkien trilogy hanging over him, the director has made a few questionable choices in bringing The Hobbit to the screen. Chief among them, the tactic of splicing the brief source material into three movies the length of which David Lean would be proud of. A common complaint regarding the first Hobbit movie, and to some extent its follow-up, was an unshakeable sense that Jackson was padding, adding utterly superfluous storylines, in an attempt to justify the film’s status as a trilogy. Then of course there was the higher frame rate experiment which seems to have been quietly swept under the rug.
So what of The Battle of the Five Armies, somewhat pompously sold as “the defining chapter” in Jackson’s elongated and unruly return to Middle Earth? As its running time of 144 minutes consists almost entirely of battle scenes, it’s a finale that provides ample payoff in terms of action. Like its predecessors, it’s still a muddled and flabby mess; but at least this time Jackson has the chance to bring his sweeping, operatic visual mayhem to the party.
Five Armies resumes right where Desolation of Smaug finished, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s gratifyingly articulate dragon laying waste to Laketown in a whirlwind of fire and impeccably pronounced threats of further physical violence. It’s exactly the kind of rip-roaring opening gambit the Hobbit films have so far failed to deliver. We’re then granted the briefest of pauses before the violence resumes and never really eases off until the film’s conclusion.
Peter Jackson’s chaotic imagination is working overtime here, as he riotously throws everything and anything at the screen. He’s been hiding his grandest set-piece battles up his sleeve and is taking obvious pleasure unleashing some of the most eye-opening, hair-brained moments of wonderful madness seen across the entire Middle Earth cycle of films. Goblins riding trolls carrying catapults assault the walls of the ruined city Dale, supported by armless, legless monsters with wrecking-balls for hands and feet; meanwhile Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot rides into battle astride a magnificent, armoured warthog.
There are casualties, of course. Martin Freeman, the standout performance across the first two films and the irrefutable heart of the series with his effortless charm and pitch perfect comedic flair, finds himself relegated to little more than an observer for the second half of the drama. Thorin Oakenshield’s (Richard Armitage) descent into gold-inspired madness walks in the footsteps of Lear, but his “dragon-sickness” appears much too suddenly to feel as nuanced even as Sean Bean’s similar affliction in Fellowship of the Ring.
And once again there’s the frankly baffling presence of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, whose scenes continue to feel like an altogether different, additional film, running alongside the main one. It’s a shame when many of the book’s “proper” characters, particularly the dwarves, got little enough screen time as it is.
But the overall feeling is one of substantial, if not total, satisfaction. Jackson slathers mischief upon excitement upon grandiose absurdity and the final product is unquestionably fun. In tackling The Hobbit, Peter Jackson has never reached the great heights of his Rings opus, sure to be his career-defining work; but with this closing episode, he has just about pulled off something pretty extraordinary.
Genre:Adventure, Fantasy Distributor: Warner Bros Release Date: 12th December (UK) 17th December 2014 (USA)Rating: 12A Director:Peter Jackson Cast: Martin Freeman, Peter Armitage, Ian McKellan, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lily, Lee Pace, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom