By Randy Myers
December 14, 2014
We can squabble about whether there was a valid reason to stretch J.R.R. Tolkien's trim "The Hobbit" out into three long-winded movies and grouse about how greed motivated Hollywood to cleave the final "The Hunger Games" book into two sections, a dubious trend cribbed from the "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" franchises.
But let's not. Instead, let's just agree to table the debate about whether padding a series is pointless and simply take Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" at face value. From that perspective, Jackson's final bit of Tolkien tinkering ends on a high enough note, giving fans of the author and director what they want: Middle-earth showdowns, sweeping spectacles and distressing deaths.
Unlike both predecessors, "Five Armies" doesn't sag in the storytelling. It starts with a thrilling opening, loads up the screen with a destructive dragon, evil Orcs, immortal elves, brave dwarves and concludes with a bravo ending. The parts in between aren't bad, either.
As a bonus, "Armies" is armed with one of the best performances in the entire Jackson Middle-earth series, and that's saying a lot when the cast includes Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen. As Dwarf Lord Thorin Oakenshield, Richard Armitage perfectly embodies one of Tolkien's steady themes about man's eternal war with his own inner demons. Even when the showy director can't restrain himself and allows that epic battle sequence to run on too long, Armitage's performance brings the film back to its classic literary firmament. He taps into his character's "dragon-sickness" -- coveting riches at the expense of the soul -- and does it with a mad glint in his eye one instance, a conflicted expression the next. His performance is a highlight, as is the presence of Martin Freeman, whose hobbit Bilbo Baggins feels the tug of his own dark side. And, yes, "Ring" veterans Blanchett, McKellen and Christopher Lee contribute as well.
"The Battle of the Five Armies" picks up right after the cliffhanger that ended "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," starting with the dragon Smaug pulverizing the waterlogged Lake-town. To recap, Bilbo and the dwarves of Erebor have awakened the dragon Smaug and taken back their homeland, Lonely Mountain, which was also the dragon's lair, where he protected his treasures, including the coveted Arkenstone.
Unwittingly, Thorin and company have played a part in Smaug's unleashing his fury on the residents of Lake-town. But Bard the Bowman (a heroic hunk played by Luke Evans) has a bone to pick with Smaug, and after Lake-town gets fried, "The Battle of the Five Armies" brings us up to date with the cliffhanger dilemmas of key players. That character gallery is huge and a part of why the film is nearly 2 1/2 hours long.
The real villain remains the shapeless evil entity Sauron (voiced, along with Smaug, by Benedict Cumberbatch). He eggs on the battle looming in the title. Seeking to dominate Middle-earth and plunge it into darkness, Sauron summons the ugly, fearsome Orcs and gives them marching orders to attack. Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) escapes from a cage, and an elf population that includes Elvenking Thranduil (Lee Pace), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Silvan Elf Warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) must decide what to do. Jackson earned jeers for adding Lilly's character to Tolkien's world in "Smaug," but in this mostly male-dominated landscape, she's a welcome addition.
And then there's Jackson's illustrious imagining of Tolkien's world, and one again, he gets it right. All of it plays well together: the otherworldly production design from Dan Hennah, the large-scale special effects and the gorgeous New Zealand scenery. The 3-D, however, adds nothing.
Some puritans might argue the entire three-film series adds nothing. And while it's true that none of the "Hobbit" films was as good as any in the "Rings" trilogy, "The Five Armies" at least comes closest to capturing Tolkein's essence. And in this instance, that is good enough.