Tolkien Geek

Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


Review: “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

Heading into the theater I was a little disconcerted by the mixed reviews of this last installment in the Hobbit series from both critics and fans alike. I suppose a lot of one’s appreciation for (or lack thereof) this grandiose cinematic interpretation of such a small but beloved book depends primarily on the expectations that are brought to it. Personally, from the outset I’ve been very happy with what Peter Jackson and company have presented. And I know that I’m probably considered very much to be a Jackson homer/fanboy, blind to the mistakes, imperfections and downright presumptive liberties taken in the execution of turning “The Hobbit” from written word to visual media.

I can point, however, to several examples of my own criticism for both this project and the three-film “Lord of the Rings” saga. The difference I would say is that – as both a Tolkien fan and moviegoer in general – I’m not necessarily looking for things to criticize the way some are inclined to do. The film version of Tolkien’s magnum opus set the bar pretty high for what audiences expect on the big screen. So the simpler, lighter and less action-oriented story that is The Hobbit does need to be expanded and ratcheted up to meet those expectations. On the other hand, because The Hobbit is so much smaller in scale and less intense in its tone, any “over-the-top” moment is going to be met with some groans and eye-rolls from the peanut gallery. So, all in all, Peter Jackson had something of a thankless job. It’s no wonder he at first wanted to hand over the director’s chair to Guillermo Del Toro.

That being said, my review of this third film goes hand in hand with my overall take on this “trilogy”. And, as in the past, I will keep any spoilers confined to the “What’s New?” section. And I’m sure I will have plenty to add regarding these changes for the remaining posts where I revisit the chapters represented in this part.

The Story

Here it is most obvious that the entire sequence of Smaug going from the Lonely Mountain to Lake Town was originally intended to be seamless. Once the project went from two films to three it was necessary to create a breaking point that would also act as a cliffhanger. Smaug’s vengeful decent on the lonely city of Esgaroth in the middle of the Long Lake picks up precisely from the final scene of “The Desolation of Smaug”. The action then moves fairly quickly through the events that lead up to the big battle and, as expected, we find out Gandalf’s fate as a prisoner of Dol Guldur.

The loose ends like where did Legolas go and what becomes of the four Dwarves remaining in Lake Town, get quickly resolved and before we know it the word of Smaug’s destruction spreads. The Battle of the title is simplified from the book but is no less exciting and all of fates of the survivors and the fallen remain consistent with the original story written by Tolkien. Unlike the end of “The Return of the King”, the finale wraps itself up fairly quickly and there are no “multiple endings” to make the audience wonder if the next fade-to-black will finally be the last. The last scene brings us back full circle to the opening of “An Unexpected Journey” and even mirrors the beginning of “The Fellowship of the Ring” from a different perspective. All in all, a nice way to end it.

As with the other films, nothing is left out from the book though a considerable amount of material is added to give more breadth and depth to overall story. Though some might disagree, for me this is the film that moved the swiftest and felt the least like its official running time. I did, however, see lots of opportunities for scenes to be added back to the Extended Edition which is due for release next November. I can’t wait.

What’s New?

Again, this is where the spoilers can be found so your other option is to jump down to the section called “The Vision”. You have been warned.

-       Unlike the book, Bard uses a six-foot, metallic “black arrow” to take down Smaug. This implement was shown briefly in the last film and represents the last of its make available. So there’s no second shot. Though Bard does, at first, use a normal quiver full of arrows to try and pierce Smaug’s outer armor he is finally successful with this special weapon using a make-shift bow and his son Bain’s shoulder to steady it and line up the shot. This way proves to be a much more credible means of defeating a giant dragon.

-       The Master of Lake Town attempts to escape the fiery calamity engulfing the town by sneaking out on a boat with a load of hidden treasure. He even goes to far as to push poor Alfrid into the water when the weight of the gold seems to be impeding their progress. The Master, however, gets his comeuppance by being directly underneath the dragon when it falls and crashes into the Lake. Whoops.

-       The Battle of Dol Guldur showcases the powers of the White Council as they dispatch not only an incarnation of the Nine Ring Wraiths (though somewhat transparent, we do get to see them in all their evil detail) but Sauron himself who, admittedly, is not at full strength. Both Nenya and Narya can be seen on the hands of Galadriel and Gandalf, respectively. I expect we’ll see Elrond bearing Vilya in the Extended Edition. And if you thought Galadriel was scary when tempted by the Ring in “Fellowship” wait until you get a load of her going up against Sauron.

-       The mystery of Gandalf’s new staff in “The Lord of the Rings” goes unsolved as Radagast survives. Though, again, this may be addressed in the Extended Edition.

-       The strategy of the Orcs is a two-pronged attack – one is led by Azog while Bolg rustles up an army of goblins out of Mount Gundabad. We get to see this stronghold in the course of Legolas and Tauriel’s reconnaissance activity.

-       The dragon-sickness of Thorin is heavily emphasized – to the point where he confides in Bilbo that he believes one of the other Dwarves have stolen the Arkenstone. We have no trouble understanding why Bilbo withholds it from him and why he ultimately presents it to Bard and Thranduil. Possessing the Arkenstone would surely drive Thorin to the brink of madness.

-       Bilbo, when accused of hiding something in his hand by Thorin, shows an acorn that he took from Bard’s garden and tells of his plans to plant it when he gets back to the Shire. Observant fans will guess that this is likely the source of the Party Tree that becomes a major landmark at Bilbo’s “long-expected” 111th birthday party some sixty years later.

-       Though Ravenhill is presented as a strategic location of the battle it is not attached to the mountain as it is described in the book. Rather it is a separate rock formation that looks down on the valley in front of the mountain.

-       The deaths of Fili and Kili are not random casualties. Azog takes great pleasure in taunting Thorin as he kills Fili, his heir as King Under The Mountain. And Kili, having already professed his love for her in an earlier scene, sacrifices himself to save Tauriel who is brutalized by Bolg. Bolg, who is killed by Beorn in the book, is finally taken down in grand fashion by Legolas.

-       Thorin’s battle with Azog is lengthy and features the one dead/not-dead conceit used by Jackson when the Pale Orc springs from under the ice to best Thorin and deal the fatal blow. But Thorin gets the last shot in and slays Azog with Orcrist, avenging his grandfather and finally putting an end to his nemesis.

-       The death scene of Thorin takes place shortly after he receives his final wound at Azog’s hand and Bilbo is the only one to comfort him as he slips away. The dialogue is faithful to that in the book and it truly is a heart wrenching moment as we see Bilbo reduced to inconsolable tears at the death of his friend.

-       Though the Eagles appear and turn the tide of battle (with Beorn in tow) the focus of this development gets lost in the drama of the individual fights (i.e. Legolas v. Bolg, Thorin v. Azog). Victory for the Free Folk is kind of assumed at this point.

-       Bilbo does use the Ring once as concealment to protect him when he goes to warn Thorin of the approaching Gundabad army. However, he is not wearing it when he is knocked unconscious.

-       Legolas, weary from battle and a little disconcerted by the unrequited love from Tauriel, chooses not to return to the Halls of Thranduil but rather to wander in the North. He is advised by Thranduil to seek out a Dunedain named Strider who he believes will grow to be a great leader. It is implied that this is how Legolas will be so familiar with Aragorn by the time of the War of the Ring.

-       The journey home is fairly short for Bilbo and Gandalf though the Hobbit is shown carrying a chest what is probably gold. I’m convinced that the Extended Edition will show the two returning to the Troll Cave (maybe we’ll even see the Trolls again) to dig up the gold that the Dwarves buried there.

-       Unlike the book, Balin does not visit Bilbo at Bag End and the film concludes as Bilbo enters his now ransacked home and holds his precious – the Ring theme playing in the background. It dissolves into Ian Holm as older Bilbo, also holding the Ring. The look on his faces shows he is loath to part with it after all these years. A knock at the door prompts Bilbo to utter the exact line we heard coming from inside Bag End at the beginning of “Fellowship” as Gandalf arrives.

The Vision:

Other than some interior shots of Erebor and the battlefield view from Ravenhill, there isn’t anything new in terms of locations. The one exception is Mount Gundabad. The exterior of this fortress is reminiscent of Minas Morgul in its configuration though the color schemes is red/black as opposed to the green/black of that other structure. Perhaps the look is intentional as Legolas refers to it as the bulwark of the kingdom of the Witch-King of Angmar. To be honest, being so far to the North it was – to me – similar to what I think Utumno would have looked like. This was the old fortress of Morgoth and located far to the West in Beleriand and (as of the Third Age) long under water since the end of the War of Wrath (see The Silmarillion).

Cave trolls or Mountain trolls make a return as part of the Orc vanguard though some are considerably larger than the ones we have seen in LOTR. And there is a new kind of burrowing creature that I believe is a new invention of Weta Workship. The Orcs use these to create openings in the hillsides to allow their army to surprise the Elves, Dwarves and Men.

As the season is winter, there is rarely sunshine but rather lots of cloud coverage. This condition is necessary for Orcs to fight at full strength. And one element that was never mentioned in the book – ice – plays a prominent role in the terrain. The color scheme is heavy on dark greys for the Dwarf army led by Dain to reflect their connection to stone and mountains. The Elf soldiers are clad in the bronze and greenish browns we saw from the prologue of “Fellowship of the Ring”, symbolizing the “autumn” phase of the race of Elves as they begin to diminish in Middle-Earth. I look forward to more commentary from the filmmakers in the documentaries to be included on the DVD/Blu-ray release.

We return to the Shire and all its vibrant and pastoral hues and find Bag End – though empty – as the small scale setting that Bilbo no longer feels completely at home in, having seen the wider world. The hobbit looks out his living room window and we wonder if he isn’t already burning with a desire to go back out and “see mountains again” as he will exclaim to Gandalf many years later.

The experience in IMAX 3D

After my last IMAX experience with “The Desolation of Smaug” it was easier to convince myself to spent the extra $5 for this version of “The Battle of the Five Armies”. Though this time around there was considerably less of the motion sickness I grappled with before. Though in general I’m not a fan of 3D I highly recommend this format especially if you haven’t seen either of the other two films this way. I appreciate that the movies was actually filmed in 3D rather than converted after the fact and there weren’t any cheap prop placement gags to emphasize the effects. It was completely immersive and I rarely found myself taken out of the action as a result of the 3D effects.

Now comes the period where I have at least one repeated viewing so I can make more observations in the revisit posts. I will be looking at the last third of the book chapter by chapter (13 – 19) and commenting on what I expected to see v. what actually made the translation “From Book To Script” and then to film.

Some point soon, I will also get a chance to watch “The Desolation of Smaug” and post “The Top 10 Coolest Things From the DVD Commentary: TDOS”.

Until then, here’s wishing everyone a happy 2015!