Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Genre: Adventure/ Fantasy
After being awoken by the company of dwarves looking to take back Erebor, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) descends onto Lake Town, with the sole intention of bringing destruction and death onto its inhabitants. Meanwhile the company of dwarves lead by Thorin (Armitage), having reclaimed their home, are now forced to now defend it against a vast array of enemies all intent on now seizing it for themselves.
So, the final chapter in Peter Jackson’s middle-earth saga is finally here, and it is actually the shortest one so far. Of course many have been constantly complaining about the fact a relatively short book has become three relatively long films. Well, having never read the book, though I have a rough idea of what has been added to the film, I can only review the film solely on its own terms with no influence by any opinions on its source material (as it should be). I also hate to compare it to Lord of the Rings as that is slightly unfair, but for me the main problem with TBOTFA is that it is not as structurally sound as Return of the King and so lacks the emotional involvement and pay off of that trilogy closer with some slightly messy and clumsy character arcs, flat dialogue and a rather ill-disciplined handling of the huge battle scenes that dominate the film’s narrative.
I know it has already been said by many, but the best part of TBOTFA is the first 20 minutes or so in which Smaug attacks Lake Town. Yes, it may have CGI everywhere just like every other middle earth set piece, but it is a genuinely thrilling and stunning set piece. It also means that the cliff hanger of The Desolation of Smaug allows TBOTFA to be action packed right from the start.
Unfortunately the rest of the film never quite reaches the high and thrilling standards of its opening. What is ultimately most disappointing is that it should; the title refers to the five races that fight in the film (elf, man, dwarf, orc and goblin) and though the odds may not be quite as extreme as in The Return of the King, the scale and odds of the narrative in TBOTFA is still a big deal, but yet the whole things is ultimately a bloated and often uninvolving mess and a rather unsatisfying end to the cinematic middle-earth saga.
Of course TBOTFA is in no way a bad film; it has many great individual moments and is still an enjoyable film, but is just lacking compared to the high standards that Peter Jackson has previously set for himself.
At the heart of narrative are the three main characters of the trilogy; Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and Thorin. When the narrative focuses on Bilbo’s relationship with Gandalf or Thorin the film is at its most involving and satisfying, it is these more personal moments that remind that even when constantly throwing CGI at the screen, Jackson can give us characters to truly care about, which was one of the reasons The Lord of the Rings is such a cinematic masterpiece. Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen are still excellent and even Richard Armitage, who I found a little wooden in the previous two film’s is also excellent in what is the film’s most emotionally complex role as Thorin becomes mentally poisoned by his new wealth and power. All three actors give the film a real emotional backbone. The supporting performances are also excellent from all the actors; unfortunately it is ultimately the visual ill-discipline and clunky dialogue that cannot match. Also Jackson’s blatant attempts at providing solid links to The Fellowship of the Ring hit and miss in equal measure.
As the various armies turn up (comparisons to the famous moments in both Anchorman films are unfortunately deserved), instead of upping the stakes the film just feels increasingly silly and there is unintentional laughter at times (the Anchorman comparison again, as well as a bit that seems stolen from Tremors). Though there is the occasional moment that is beautifully shot, the CGI that has of course always dominated all of Jackson’s middle-earth films for some reason feels more intrusive than ever, whether the 3D has anything to do with it I cannot say until I see the film in glorious 2D, but this combined with the jarring character arcs and often clunky dialogue means there are so many moments in TBOTFA that are admittedly never anything less than watchable, but very forgettable. Some moments in particular are very jarring; the relationship between Tauriel and Kili simply does not work, a scene with Legolas and a collapsing tower makes the film look like a video game, the broken English of elfish characters that exchange dialogue seemingly with alternate sentences in both language (just pick one and stick with it Jackson!) and ‘comic relief’ casting (first Stephen Fry, now Billy Connolly) backfires.
Though still a film with some undeniably great moments, The Battle of the Five Armies is in context the worst of Jackson’s six middle earth films. It is marketed as ‘the defining chapter’; it is only defining in that it perhaps signifies that enough is enough!
Despite some great individual moments and Jackson’s undeniable passion, The Battle of the Five Armies is a film that despite its thrilling opening is ultimately over bloated, disjointed and ill-disciplined; Peter Jackson’s middle-earth swansong is still better than your average blockbuster, but should have been better.