The Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom

That first time you travel to another country/state/province, it can be scary. Sights and sounds are unfamiliar. You could easily find yourself lost if you stray from your company.  But there’s also a lot that is exciting about distancing yourself away from the comforts of home, so much so that it makes your little corner of the world seem that much smaller upon your return. Granted, most of us who take this kind of trip are doing it for the entertainment value, though there are some for whom the voyage is far more perilous. In Middle-Earth, there was a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who never had any adventures taking him away from his home in the Shire until a wizard and a company of Dwarves came bursting through his front door. Bilbo had quite an adventure with this group of thirteen, the ulitmate goal of which was to retake the Dwarves’ home from a fire-breathing dragon. Even if you survive an odyssey like that, how do you possibly top it? (Answer: You can’t, but your cousin will!)

When we saw Bilbo last, he and the band of Dwarves had reached the mountain of Erebor, but had inadvertently awoken and angered the dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), who flew out to Laketown to lay waste to the city and its inhabitants. Luckily for the citizens of Laketown they have among them the bowman Bard (Luke Evans), who with a keen eye spots the one chink in Smaug’s armor of scales. The city in flames all around him, Bard strikes true, felling the foul beast with the last (and best) arrow left available to him. Witnessing Smaug’s defeat from afar, the company of Dwarves celebrates. Seemingly, all that they set out to accomplish has now been achieved. Victory is theirs.

Alas, the victory is short-lived, as forces from outside as well as within threaten to undo everything. Factions of men and Elves both lay claim to pieces of the vast treasure of gold that lay inside, treasure that until recently was being guarded/coveted by Smaug. Thorin (Richard Armitage) himself is becoming drunk with greed,  much as Smaug had been before him. “Dragon sickness,” it is called. Thorin has no intention of sharing one single piece, not even to be charitable to the people of Laketown. Inside the mountain also are white jewels in the form of a necklace which the elf Thranduil (Lee Pace) wishes to claim. As Thorin said, he’s not giving up any of the treasure, no matter how big/small/valuable. Not much of a negotiator, this one. With the three armies ready for war, they haven’t even noticed the legion of Orcs and Goblins marching in their direction. That’s four armies and, in case you’re wondering, the fifth is composed of Eagles who swoop in as our heroes need them. Oh, yes, there will be blood.

In many respects, “The Battle of the Five Armies” is Thorin’s story. So concentrated on winning back the Lonely Mountain AND keeping it was he that he hasn’t stopped to consider what affect his obsession could and will have on the rest of Middle-Earth. One of the film’s best scenes shows him looking down at his reflection in the floor and, in his delirium, imagines the ground beneath his feet opening up and swallowing him whole… a metaphor for his greed consuming him. When Ian McKellen isn’t on the screen, Richard Armitage is the best actor on the screen in this movie. Not to take anything away from Martin Freeman, who still does his job well as Bilbo. This Hobbit, a long way from home, is now confronted with a friend going mad and a war seemingly inevitable. Bilbo’s the one person who tries the hardest to keep this battle from happening, but even he’s just one halfling.

Another standout scene to watch for involves several familiar faces from “Lord of the Rings.” Weak from his experience with the Necromancer, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is rescued by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving). Knowing what Saruman will become in “Lord of the Rings,” it appears as though this scene is used to show the moment where he first turned to the dark side, but I argue that he could have already done so and that the aid he provides is simply just for show. The real treat though comes from Galadriel, who gave us a taste of her real power in “Fellowship of the Ring,” but really gets a chance to get her She-Hulk on here. You don’t mess with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

Since I seriously doubt anyone would be mad enough to try and make a series of movies out of “The Silmarillion,” I think it safe to say that we are truly and ultimately done with Middle-Earth. While that is not a happy notion, I can’t say that the same sadness which accompanied the end of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is recreated here. Part of that comes from the fact that after three movies I’m still unable to distinguish who most of the Dwarves are. I know which ones are Thorin, Balin, Fili (whose love story with Tauriel the Elf I acutally don’t mind) and Kili, but that still leaves eight others whose identities I have to Google just to keep straight in my head. They don’t stand out the way each member of the Fellowship did. The smaller scale of the adventure, a consequence of “The Hobbit” being filmed as a prequel, also has me underwhelmed. The conflict which represents the title of the film yearns to be an epic clash, but can only pale in comparison to the battle at Helm’s Deep from “The Two Towers,” or either of the two gigantic battles in “Return of the King.”

Overall, “The Battle of the Five Armies” is a decent conclusion, though I still find “The Desolation of Smaug” to be my favorite in the “Hobbit” trilogy. Speaking of which, this film serves as another reminder of why “The Hobbit” should never have been turned into a trilogy. There’s simply not a dense enough story here to warrant it. Two films, the original plan, would have been more than enough. While there’s never a chance for the plot to have any slow spots as with “An Unexpected Journey,” there is still a certain degree of filler, filler, rhythm killer. In particular, I could do without the cowardly human Alfrid (who was also in “The Desolation of Smaug”) entirely. He’s here exclusively for comic relief and he just doesn’t fit with the flow of the rest of the film. Luckily, “The Battle of the Five Armies” avoids becoming the wooden CGI explosion that another certain prequel trilogy was. What I was always hoping from this set was that it would recall the magic of our previous visit to Middle-Earth, a height it never quite reaches. My world doesn’t seem any smaller after it’s over.

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