The Battle of the Five Armies: Engaging, Beckoning & Satisfying
A father of legendary stature will undoubtedly eclipse his son, even if the son has notable achievements or qualities of his own. The same holds true for films and prequels. Peter Jackson’s cinematic rendition of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) was an instant classic. It abides and thrives in the consciences of viewers across the globe as the standard of contemporary fantasy films. Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, however, is shrouded in the shadow of its legendary predecessor. It cannot trump what has come before it, but it can shine a light of its own. The Hobbit is eager to engage audiences with its characterization and focused plot structure, and its place in Jackson’s six-part Middle Earth saga gives it a satisfying sense of completion.
Jackson’s sojourn in Middle Earth has now come to a close with The Battle of the Five Armies (BOTFA), the final installment in The Hobbit trilogy. It proves to be a satisfying conclusion to Bilbo’s journey with Gandalf and the dwarves to Erebor. An Unexpected Journey pulled the audience along with Bilbo as he experienced the richness and danger that occupy the world beyond his comfortable home in the Shire. The Desolation of Smaug then drew us closer to the looming evil that is poised and eager to unleash upon Middle Earth. Finally, The Battle of the Five Armies unshackles all the greed, desperation and heroism that has been brewing in the hearts of the characters in the previous two films. It provides the proper balance that it’s position in the six-part Middle Earth saga requires by simultaneously being a satisfying conclusion to the Hobbit trilogy and a believable prelude to LOTR.
The cohesion of all six films is impressive, especially since Jackson originally created LOTR as a stand-alone trilogy without the production of The Hobbit in mind. A few minor discrepancies remain, namely the contradiction between the two sequences--one in The Fellowship of the Ring prologue and the other in An Unexpected Journey--where Bilbo finds the ring. Still, The Hobbit’s unveiling of Sauron in preparation for the Fellowship of the Ring comfortably bridges the prequel trilogy with LOTR. The subplot of the White Council and Sauron is gradually developed throughout the first two Hobbit films until its full realization at the end of Desolation. In BOTFA, then, this subplot goes beyond a side-story and becomes the central conflict that ultimately unifies the entire six-film series.
The music of BOTFA is superb--perhaps the best of the three Hobbit films. Howard Shore wisely incorporated the musical themes from the other two films in a way that supports the singularity of the trilogy, yet also emphasizes the culmination found in BOTFA. The persistent melding of the previous two films’ themes with the new ones in BOTFA give this defining chapter such a satisfying sound. The new themes of BOTFA soar into lofty melodies, yet as we frequently hear the familiar ones from An Unexpected Journey and Desolation, the overall score becomes both comfortable and arousing (certainly the feeling that would be aroused upon discovering a secret door in one’s childhood home). It thus becomes something not entirely new, but not entirely unoriginal, forming a sense of completion that one would expect in the final film of a prequel trilogy.
What draws millions of viewers to these films, along with any film, is the characters. The character developments of Thorin, Bard, Tauriel and Bilbo give BOTFA a hold on the audience. We can relate to the greed of Thorin, the sense of responsibility and humility in Bard, the tension of love in Tauriel, and the fear in Bilbo as he wrestles with his convictions. Perhaps the most surprising characterization in BOTFA is that of Thranduil, the king of the Woodland Realm. Clearly a liberty from the novel, the film reveals a tidbit of his personal history when Legolas tells Tauriel about Thranduil’s wife--Legolas’s mother. This adds verisimilitude and depth to Thranduil’s later statement to Tauriel about love: “It was real.”
Much of the film is riddled with minor elements that delight. For one, the scene where Gandalf sits beside Bilbo and cleans his pipe is one that any pipe smoker, like me, thoroughly enjoys. Additionally, the humor and subtleties of the entire Hobbit trilogy maintain a level of charm that is difficult to ignore, and BOTFA is no exception; these qualities are certain to make future viewing experiences rich and engaging. The destruction of Lake-town and Smaug was the perfect introduction to this tale, and although short in comparison to the Smaug sequences in Desolation, the continual references to "dragon sickness" throughout this film provide many references and recollections our beloved dragon.The battle at Dol Goldur offers a fresh look at the familiar terrors of LOTR, and it is certainly an improvement on the lack of "magic battles" in that trilogy. Also, I was pumped to get a glimpse of Gundabad; it was short, but just enough of a peek to make me happy.
In this final film in The Hobbit trilogy, we once again fall in love with those parts of Middle Earth that wooed us with LOTR. The assortment of races in Middle Earth are unique and creative, but because they all correspond with the essences of humanity, they will always be relatable. Tolkien deeply entrenched the human heart into the world of myth, which is why his “legendarium” (what he called his entire mythology of Middle Earth) continues to be so irresistible.
Perhaps my biggest issue with The Hobbit trilogy as a whole is the use of CGI for orcs and most of the battle sequences. CGI may bring the picture to life, but the miniature sets and flesh-and-blood actors and actresses used in LOTR are what brought the fantasy of Middle Earth to life. I missed the sense of realism that LOTR offered, especially with the use of makeup for orcs. However, as with every other fan of LOTR, I must accept the use of newer technology for the production of The Hobbit, even if it still lacks in certain respects. Even if I dislike its usage, the CGI of The Hobbit deserves praise. Indeed, in BOTFA, the CGI was the most toned and realistic out of the three Hobbit films, which proves that the digital crews of The Hobbit not only maintained, but continually perfected, the realism of Middle Earth.
As any fan, I watched the trailers for BOTFA numerous times, yet as I watched the film in theaters, I kept expecting to see a few sequences that I recalled seeing in the trailers. For instance, in the theatrical version of the film, Thorin, Kili, Fili and Dwalin ride what resemble rams up the mountain to Ravenhill, yet these animals appear out of nowhere, which begs us to wonder what they are and where they came from. In the film’s trailer, however, there’s a sequence depicting dwarven cavalry riding on the rams, but this segment does not appear in the theatrical version. I expect, however, that this sequence will appear in the extended version of the film (which will include thirty extra minutes of footage). Additionally, in the trailer, there’s a sequence of a few dwarves on a chariot being pursued by wargs on a frozen river yet did not appear in the film. I would have liked to see more of this action since it was revealed in the trailer, but, to be honest, these are minor grievances.
I understand that Thorin and his conflict with Azog deserved ample screen time, but Legolas’s conflict with Bolg was far less important. Their duel dragged on, and especially frustrating was the unbelievable sequence of Legolas running up the falling stones while the bridge collapsed. Instead of their duel, more screen time should have been devoted to the resolution of the battle for the mountain, since, in the novel, the focus was on the Battle of the Five Armies--indeed, it’s the title of the film!
Perhaps most frustrating was the missed potential of Beorn and the eagles. In the novel, Beorn was the reason for the victory of the forces of good (see The Hobbit, page 260), yet in the film, his arrival is merely a subsidiary sequence because Thorin and Bilbo apparently deserved more attention. As a huge fan of Beorn, I was dissatisfied with the footage of him in battle. Although I did enjoy his free-fall transformation, his presence was too short-lived. Still, I hope to see the extended edition show more of Beorn in battle.
Perhaps Jackson hated the backlash from his Return of the King ending, but I didn’t like how rapidly BOTFA ended. I wanted to see Thorin’s burial, Bard’s crowning and the beginning of Dale’s renovation. I wanted to see more of Gandalf and Bilbo’s journey home, especially since they stopped at Beorn’s house, Rivendell and then even collected the chest of gold from the troll hoard that was buried in An Unexpected Journey. All of this, sadly, was ignored in the film.
As with any adaptation from book to film, Peter Jackson’s rendition is littered with reasons for Tolkien purists to lament, but for the average viewer, his treatment of Tolkien’s world is far more respectful than many admit. Jackson has undertaken what few others would risk, which is attempt to bring Middle Earth to life in a believable way, and I believe he succeeded. The land of New Zealand alone is enough to elicit awe, but the way Jackson incorporated his home country into the fantastic world of Middle Earth is unparalleled. With the nature of entertainment, especially with film, the focus is on pleasing the audience. Viewers must recognize the difference between novels and films before complaining about films that were inspired by novels. This is why films based on novels should be seen as “billboards” for the books; if someone wants to dig deeper into a film they love, they should read the book (if the film is based on one). The same holds true for Jackson’s films. If we want more from Middle Earth, we must dig into Tolkien.
The Battle for Middle Earth is bold, engaging and heart-wrenching, and it’s position in Peter Jackson’s six-film saga is comfortable and satisfying. Living in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings has worked against The Hobbit, but it still shines as a standard of contemporary fantasy films. Despite the ills of CGI technology and the restrictions inherent in cinematic renditions of novels, The Hobbit still maintains its own glory. In the years to come, we will yearn for the magic that we found in these six films, but alas, it will be hard to find. The magic, however, was not Peter Jackson’s, but Tolkien’s; the power of the Jackson’s films is found not in the audio-visual media, but in the deep mythical world of Middle Earth that J.R.R. Tolkien spent most of his life penning. I encourage everyone who enjoyed the films to dive into Tolkien’s novels and swim in their depths because that is where the real magic lies.