Another epic saga has come to an end, or, perhaps, it has more aptly come full circle. This month saw the release of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”, the final movie in the Hobbit Trilogy. With six movies, it’s now possible to stage nearly a full day Middle-Earth Marathon, once they all make their way to DVD.
This installment picks up immediately after the end of “Desolation of Smaug”. The dragon is impressively animated. On the big screen, Smaug moves with heft. He’s graceful and unmistakably deadly, but, more importantly, there is real, physical presence to the character, which is tough to manage when the dragon is CGI. Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice work makes the character. He sounds sinister and reptilian without sounding passionless. Smaug is burning with fury by the time we reach the opening of “The Battle of the Five Armies”, after all, Dwarves have invaded the home he has rightfully stolen and they’re trying to take away his hoard, which he’s worked hard to steal. This dragon is one that is understandably feared.
Anyone who has read the books or seen or listened to any other adaptation of “The Hobbit” knows what ultimately happens to Smaug. While the events feel climactic and seem like they ought to be the centerpiece of their own film, the fate of Lake-town and its citizens just forwards the plot. The Dwarves have started to make themselves at home in the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the treasure of Erebor. All is not well with Thorin, however. The treasure hoard has taken hold of Thorin’s mind, making him as unwilling to part with any of it as Smaug was.
Neither the Dwarves nor Bilbo Baggins realizes that an army of orcs is marching towards the Lonely Mountain. They are lead by Azog the Defiler. The intent is not so much taking the treasure, but, instead, establishing a foothold in the territory leading towards Gondor, winning more land for evil to flourish.
An army of elves, lead by Thranduil are also marching to the Lonely Mountain. Their motives are slightly more charitable than the orcs, but not by much. Thorin’s band of dwarves, and the accompanying hobbit and wizard, soon find themselves surrounded by humans, elves, orcs, and more dwarves.
“The Battle of the Five Armies” is much more focused on both war and violence than the previous two Hobbit movies. That shouldn’t be any surprise, given the title. It also parallels fairly nicely with “Return of the King” in that aspect. This movie is darker in tone and themes throughout.
How many families are really going to be seeing this one? I think you’d be surprised. I saw “Battle of the Five” armies twice, and in both instances, at least a quarter of the audience was kids that clearly needed the presence of the adults with them to be admitted. Like it or not, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” have become family viewing. The books have been read by kids in elementary, middle, and high schools for years. Even if they weren’t the initial target audience, they’ve become increasingly familiar with Tolkien fantasy.
The movies are a spectacle. They’re big-budget blockbusters that are full of special effects and action, but since they’re based on beloved pieces of literature, audiences can consider them to be more cerebral fair that they can feel better about watching. Whether or not that’s actually true is irrelevant. Geekdom and mainstream pop culture have become so firmly intwined at this stage that it’s getting nearly impossible to have one without the other.
In the interest of story, or at least the marketable Hollywood ideal of story, things have been changed. Die-hard fans of the books will tell you that these are fundamental changes that warp the frame of the story itself. Less uptight fans will just shrug philosophically and say “Meh, it doesn’t matter that much. Movies got made, people watched them, we’ll be buying blu-rays or digital copies when they’re available.”
And, sure, there are some characters who were needlessly shoe-horned in. They added some pathos to the story, when they actually contribute to it, and occasionally throw in a little unneeded drama, but somewhere along the line, someone was sure that it would bring in a bigger audience. It probably did.
It’s still worth it to see Ian McKellen bring Gandalf’s mischevious smile back to life and Orlando Bloom wear that long, blonde wig. Cate Blanchett brings ethereal grace and strength to Galadriel and Hugo Weaving reminds us how fearsome Elrond can be. Lee Pace’s resonant voice adds stately authority to Thranduil. Plus, Billy Connolly is in this movie as Dain. If there has been a movie role that seemed more perfect for the man, I certainly can’t think of it.
Casting has never been an issue for Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth. Pacing may be, sometimes, but that’s a problem primarily with the second film. “Battle of the Five Armies” has more gore, though it’s not truly grotesque levels. Creatures of all types get stabbed and killed in this movie. They bleed. Some of them lose limbs. The battle scenes are extended and they take up a significant portion of the movie. It’s louder and more brutal than any of the other movies in the series.
If anything, I would caution families considering taking their children to “Battle of the Five Armies” to be well aware of each child’s tolerance for loud noises, especially screaming, blood, grotesque creatures (the orcs are not pretty), and things jumping out at them. There are scenes seasoned movie-goers will see coming long before they ever happen. The kids seeing a movie like this for the first time, probably won’t. During the first viewing, one kid in the audience started crying pretty hard and needed to leave the theater. During the second one, a kid of the same age had questions almost constantly, but wasn’t even the slightest bit frightened. So, I would say that it’s definitely a matter of individual tolerances.
While I’m still not entirely sure that “The Hobbit” needed to be split into three parts, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy watching the trilogy. I was frustrated that I had to wait so long for it to be completed. After all, the gap between the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” felt like an eternity. That’s the impatient, instant-gratification saturated Geek in me, which I recognize. After seeing “The Battle of the Five Armies” I can honestly say that I can’t wait for the DVD release so I can have that marathon already.