It Is Accomplished
By Keith Uhlich

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Dir. Peter Jackson, New Zealand-U.S., New Line Cinema-MGM-Warner Bros.

What a difference a decade makes. In 2003, writer-producer-director Peter Jackson was certified royalty, capping off his three film Lord of the Rings series with the ultra-lengthy (nearly four hours in its theatrical cut) best-picture-Oscar-winner The Return of the King. It was no small feat transposing Professor J. R. R. Tolkien’s hefty fantasy novel (more of a philological tome, really, a way for Tolkien to explore and exercise his fascinations with history and linguistics) to the blockbusting big screen. Action tends to be described glancingly in the book, but Jackson brought it to the fore in suitably epic, if still intimate and character-driven fashion—and always with the trickster’s glee that leant his earlier productions, like Meet the Feebles (1989), Dead Alive (1992), and The Frighteners (1996), such anarchic giddiness. One doubts Professor Tolkien gave much thought to the numerous ways to behead an orc.

You can trace a lot to the Lord of the Rings films, for better and for worse: they’re pinnacles of live-action/CGI spectacle with impressive, immersive sights both real (those sweeping New Zealand vistas, standing in for Tolkien’s Middle Earth) and unreal (Andy Serkis’s thieving, motion-captured imp Gollum). These were the movies, I think, that cemented the place of computers as a fundamental filmmaking tool, in large part because Jackson didn’t rely on them exclusively but as another type of paint on the palette—model work, forced perspective, and good old-fashioned point-and-shoot photography were as essential. And the current vogue for ever-expanding franchise fantasy (witness Marvel Studios’ distended slate, HBO’s massively popular Game of Thrones, and the two-part split finales of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games) is unthinkable without Jackson and company’s example. Jackson created an empire, but like George Lucas with Star Wars before him, his Lord of the Rings movies had a scrappy personality that mitigated (for many) their place as product.

Now, as Jackson’s second Middle Earth trilogy winds to a close, the monarch is much less beloved. Though this prequel series still makes barrels of money, the aura around them has curdled. In the current cinema landscape (one which Jackson helped foster) they seem, at a surface glance, more ordinary. The fact that another three long movies were crafted from Tolkien’s slim 1937 children’s novel, The Hobbit, has had the air of a cash-grab since the first Hobbit installment, An Unexpected Journey, premiered to irritable critical reaction in 2012. In Jackson’s defense, he’s been upfront in interviews about the fact that he drew on not only The Hobbit but also Tolkien’s Middle Earth appendices to craft this second trilogy—those and the fertile imaginations of his collaborators Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens (both Lord of the Rings alumni), and Guillermo del Toro.

Jackson’s devotion to shooting and exhibiting the movies in 48fps high frame rate 3D really backfired: after myriad complaints about the motion-smoothed “soap opera” effect of the first movie there’s been a lot less P.T. Barnum–like carnival barking about the format, and the second and third films, in what felt like a backpedaling move, were screened for press in 3D, but at the typical speed of 24fps. Even the multiplexes seem to downplay high frame rate, noting it as one choice among many as opposed to a cinematic second coming. Speaking personally, the 48fps struck me as an interesting experiment more than an eyesore. I prefer the 24fps look in this case because it better syncs up with that of the previous trilogy, but I’m interested to see how the technology develops and is utilized in future productions.

So, then: the final Hobbit—subtitled The Battle of the Five Armies. There are indeed five armies and, hoo-boy, is there a battle, taking up almost an hour of the comparatively trim running time of two hours and fifteen minutes minus credits. But for all the bigness on display, it’s clear by the end that Jackson and his cohorts intend these three films (some might say perversely) to be a kind of $700 million footnote to the Lord of the Rings series. Recall that An Unexpected Journey opened with old hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm)—moments from reconnecting with the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) in The Fellowship of the Ring—beginning a lengthy reminiscence about the days of the dragon Smaug (brilliantly voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch), the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and the precious golden ring that made its way as if by fate to the younger Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) hands after he reluctantly embarked on an eventful quest. Has all his (and the trilogy’s) resultant wandering and rambling been worth it? For me, yes—and I think it’s here we get into matters of taste. Jackson’s at once digressive and bombastic style clearly grates for some. But there’s a singular earnestness and enthusiasm to these movies (as, too, to the Lord of the Rings films) that sets them apart from their many soulless imitators.

Battle begins where the second installment (The Desolation of Smaug) ended, with Smaug, loosed from the mountain kingdom of Erebor, descending on Lake-town. It’s all fire-and-brimstone Sturm und Drang, with Bilbo and his dwarf companions watching helplessly from afar while the beast sets the city spectacularly aflame, until Bard (Luke Evans), the crack shot bowman with the Shakespeare-invoking moniker, finally fells him via a well-placed arrow through the heart. With the scaly villain dispatched, Jackson leisurely sets the stage for the titular assault, crosscutting between the many characters as they come ever closer to convergence. There’s a fun bit of business with Gandalf, imprisoned by the shadowy Necromancer (who those in the know will recognize as Lord of the Rings’ primary antagonist Sauron) and eventually rescued by elf-lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee, whose stunt double gets plenty of staff-wielding, hair-whipping stuff to do). Back at Erebor, Thorin slowly succumbs to “dragon-sickness,” aggravating his dozen dwarf companions with his suddenly power-hungry demeanor and refusing to assist the homeless survivors of the Lake-town massacre. Then there’s the Elf army massing nearby under the stewardship of the regal, elk-riding Thranduil (Lee Pace), to say nothing of the swelling battalion of bats that, as elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) notes, are “bred for war.” Throw into the mix the hook-handed and blood-hungry orc chieftan Azog (Manu Bennett), a dwarf army led by Thorin’s blustery cousin Dain (Billy Connolly), and some lumbering creatures called “War Beasts” (I’m pretty certain there’s a character who actually says, “Unleash the War Beasts!”) and this big-budget stew’s pretty much at overflow.

It’s all too much, and, for me, just enough. The battle itself begins at a fever pitch on a massive playing field in the shadow of Erebor, and Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie cleanly, enthrallingly delineate the varying sides and the ebbs and flows of combat. If the Smaug havoc recalls Fritz Lang’s fantastical Die Nibelungen diptych, this grandiose blitzkrieg seems like a riff on Akira Kurosawa’s Ran with its symmetrical attack formations, stirring forward charges, and sobering body count. As both antagonists and protagonists are winnowed, so does the focus narrow, until we’re left with a handful of characters—Thorin and Azog, Legolas, Gandalf, and female elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), invented for the films—fighting a massive campaign for very intimate stakes. Of course, Jackson’s a low-gagman at heart, and there are plenty of slapstick setups and punchlines (especially during Thorin and Azog’s one-on-one on a cracking sheet of ice) that give what could easily be pompous, self-serious pageantry a leavening, Looney Tunes goose.

Where is Bilbo in all this? He’s more of a passive character in the skirmish; unlike his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) in Lord of the Rings, he has no chosen task other than to bear witness, and to act as a measured voice of reason within the chaos. That he unwittingly accomplishes all this with the assistance of the One Ring (its cloaking powers allow him to deliver a crucial message to Thorin in the heat of the assault) is a tragic irony that Jackson doesn’t overemphasize, but lets linger and fester. (An exhausted Bilbo’s wordless post-battle reunion with Gandalf is one of the finest sequences in any of Jackson’s Middle Earth movies.) Battle of the Five Armies eventually winds its way back to the elder Bilbo, in a scene that lends the entire filmed Hobbit saga a wispy, melancholic air and justifies Jackson’s story-within-a-bigger-story approach: Bilbo’s tale has only been stretched out on an unconscious level; in reality (in the framework of the larger Lord of the Rings mythos), mere minutes have elapsed. History has become memory, and we know where all of this has led—with the battle won, but the war still raging, passed on unawares from one generation to the next.