“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
So here we are, at the end of another journey into Middle-Earth. This one, though, feels different. And not just because it’s the last live-action sojourn into the Tolkienverse (unless that oft-rumored Tom Bombadil late night Cinemax series ultimately sees the light of day). No, it’s impossible to argue that Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy has met with noticeably less enthusiasm than the Lord of the Rings saga and its culmination, exited sans the pomp and teary-eyed circumstance that its big brother did (though it still made a dragon’s-hoard worth of gold during its box office run).
All you have to do is take a gander at your preferred ratings aggregator; these movies just haven’t been critical darlings. As someone who was at first not terribly interested in another return to Middle-earth I sit here with the final installment The Battle of Five Armies in the rear-view, extremely grateful that I was able to lose myself in this world again.
I know full well how saccharine that sounds, but this trilogy did it for me in a big way, and illustrated my long-held contention that few if any big-budget directors deliver more entertainment pound-for-pound than Peter Jackson. Indeed, sometimes it can be a bit too much fantasy mayhem (yo, gold forge sequence in Smaug), but I’ll take it every day of the week and twice on Durin’s Day.
Battle of the Five Armies opens with probably the best pre-credits sequence in any of the six movies. As we know, the second one ended with Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock) flying towards Laketown to drop fiery death on its inhabitants. The outcome of this small but thrilling battle will serve as a siren call to any creatures within earshot of the Lonely Mountain: the great dwarven treasure is up for grabs.
Soon enough, companies of elves, men and dwarves descend upon Erebor, looking to score a cut of the loot. Little do they know, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) has succumbed to dragon sickness, making him lethally protective of his gold and, frankly, a bit of an a-hole. While everyone bickers, Bilbo (Martin Freeman, Fargo) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen, X-Men: Days of Future Past) strive to make peace.
Before a truce can be struck, old friend Azog the Defiler shows up with a full force of Orcs, goblins, trolls and what appear to be the sandworms from Beetlejuice. And like that: it’s on.
And on and on and on. We’re talking a full hour of sustained action and spectacle, an absolutely unreal stretch of insanity. Now, if this had been Michael Bay behind the camera, that mayhem would have ended in migraines for everyone, but in the capable hands of Jackson, Battle of the Five Armies is high entertainment.
Much of that is because there are stakes at play, which have been laid over the course of the first two films. Though action may have been a light in the first installment and needlessly overwrought in the second, this grand culmination pays off in a big way. We know what Sauron is after in Erebor and we begin to see the enhanced role of men in the coming fate of Middle-earth and the valor and duty of Thorin’s company is finally put to the ultimate test…all that, and endless bodily violence perpetrated against Orcs? Jackpot.
From the build-up of the forces to the final, genuinely affecting death scene, the extravaganza that Jackson has crafted is remarkable and, somehow, never boring. I know that a prevailing criticism is there’s just too much and while there are bits of the action I would quibble with, those criticism are mechanical, not thematic. The gray armor of the dwarf army looks too similar to the Orcs, making their battles more or less a gun-metal smear; Beorn is a throwaway cameo; the Legolas stuff is just a bit too cute; and, while the CGI is quite good, I miss the organic, tactile feel of bodybuilders caked with Orc make-up doing battle versus the waves of digital marauders.
Most everything else worked for me. Martin Freeman, in my mind, is only second to McKellen for losing himself in a character and Bilbo remains the moral center of the conflict, even when he comes close to getting swept away in the havoc. Bard (Luke Evans, Dracula Untold) took on the role of human hero with aplomb and benefited from a solid paternal take on his character (far more that he was allotted in the source material). And Thorin did his redemption thing, though his self-intervention was a bit on the nose, as it were.
I did say most. Because as much as I enjoyed the film, there were definitely weak links in the Mithril. For example, I still fail to see the point of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly,Lost). She was okay and added a small jolt of (semi-awkward) inter-species romance, but in the end she just came across as an invention because Tolkien had a vanishingly small number of female characters in his works and goshdarnit, someone needs to give Legolas a kick in the tail. And speaking of characters with no point: the Master of Laketown and Alfrid. The former served no other purpose than to be a hateable slob who gets a playful comeuppance and the latter–well, I have no clue. Alfrid receives a hefty amount of screen time, despite his arc essentially being “act like a jerk with a unibrow.” Maybe he was designed to be comic relief? I hope not, because that one troll who ran headfirst into the city wall and died elicited more laughter than this tool in the entirety of his runtime. A baffling decision by Peter Jackson.
Still: The Battle of the Five Armies is grand entertainment and an all-out blast of action the likes of which I have never seen. I came to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey not expecting much and, frankly, I was in a shaken state. Sandy Hook had just happened and the last thing I wanted to do was grapple with real life those terrible days. I was grateful to disappear into another world, even if it was for a few hours. That these films proved to be entertainment of the highest order was an unexpected (so to speak) bonus.
And now with the complete picture in front of me, a set of six fantasy films that not only set the standard for sweeping fantasy action, but spoke to simple but powerful themes of friendship, loyalty, perseverance and goodness, all I can do is tip my cap to Peter Jackson, put some tea on, and settle in for another visit to Middle-earth, again and again and again.
The Blu-ray release is, as expected, a total knockout. The 2.40:1, 1080p transfer dazzles, rendering the insane action (CGI and otherwise) beautifully. The massive battle scenes, which take place in broad daylight, hold up throughout and the boosted resolution reveals terrific little gags that previously may have gone unnoticed (just watch the individuals soldiers react independently during the clashes). Sound is just as impressive, a boisterous DTS-HD 7.1 surround that creates a complete immersion experience. Also as expected is a lean selection of extras, the best no doubt being saved for the forthcoming extended edition. You get three featurettes: “Recruiting the Five Armies,” a look at the creation of each army, “Completing Middle-earth,” a retrospective from the cast and crew and the utterly disposable “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth: Part 3.” A music video wraps everything up.