For those who may have forgotten, The Desolation of Smaug ended with the titular dragon flying straight towards the human settlement of Esgaroth (Lake-town) in order to burn it to the ground after being woken by Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). Our diminutive hero had been sent into Erebor, the Kingdom Under the Mountain, by dwarf company leader Thorin Oakenshield to retrieve the Arkenstone, the magical artifact that would confirm Thorin as King. The Battle of the Five Armies picks up immediately where Desolation left off, covering the final portions of the novel.
This is by far the most uneven film I’ve seen not only this year, but in recent memory. Parts of it are absolutely stunning and others are almost stunningly bad. One of the best examples of this tendency is the amazingly disparity of the quality of acting. Martin Freeman, for example, hits the nail on the head in every single scene. He channels the same mixture of honesty, earnestness and heart that Elijah Wood pioneered during his time walking in the hobbits’ furry feet. It truly feels like Bilbo can stand on equal footing with his successors, those who would be bowed to by kings. Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield is somewhere in the middle; for the most part he does a good job, but there are a few scenes where he gazes straight into the eyes of the audience in the same way Harry Styles does in a One Direction music video. Lee Pace as the elvish king Thranduil is all over the place, spouting a few lines that elicit nothing but hysterical laughter from the audience and make you wonder how much of the Shire’s Long-Bottom Weed he was smoking at the time.
The special effects fall into a similar problem. One of my primary complaints of the Hobbit films is that they over utilize CGI technology. See, one of the things that make the battles in The Lord of the Rings so epic is that the actors aren’t just hacking at empty air in front of a green screen. Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, and John Rhys-Davies were actually swinging swords and axes at real people, covered in scary make-up and costumes. It seemed, well, real. Although it’s not quite as bad as previous entries (the scene in Goblin-town from An Unexpected Journey comes to mind…) Peter Jackson has sadly continued this trend. Even though there are a few scenes featuring actual flesh-and-blood enemies, these brief moments only make us all the more aware of the illusory nature of the remaining scenes. The only part where the special effects were used to brilliant effect—when Smaug the Magnificent mercilessly burns Lake-town to the ground—is over far too soon. The gloriously evil dragon (voiced by the fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch) was one of my favorite part of the entire Hobbit series, and I was very disappointed that the dazzling fire-drake had such a brief role in this movie.
And finally, we come to the meat of the film: the Battle. It’s right in the title after all. Yes, the promised battle does take up a significant portion of the film, but it yet again stumbles into the same troubles as the other aspects of the film. This is probably where these scenes are the most painful to watch. There are a few moments that so evoke the feel and spirit of Jackson’s greater work that the rest of the movie could almost be forgiven. But not quite, because the rest is just so outlandish you can’t help but laugh at it. Legolas (Orlando Bloom), particularly, has apparently been completely exempted from the laws of physics. Granted, he did this occasionally in LOTR; I haven’t forgotten the scene where he surfs down a staircase on a shield while shooting orcs with arrows. But his scenes in Battle of the Five Armies wouldn’t look out of place in The Matrix. Much of it not even necessarily bad, per se, it’s just so ridiculous it completely breaks the suspension of disbelief and takes you out of the film.
These are all major problems. The remarkably uneven quality of the movie produces a bizarre phenomenon: something awesome will happen, something that reminds us of earlier cinematic glory, and the whole audience will happily cheer. But then a minute later something utterly absurd will happen and the whole theatre will burst into hysterical laughter. That’s not how a Tolkien film is supposed to be. A Tolkien film is supposed to be gloriously epic, making us cheer, and then laugh only when the designated comic relief occurs. We are not supposed to laugh at bad acting or poorly-choreographed fight scenes.
Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m unfairly comparing The Hobbit movies to one of the greatest film trilogies ever made. But how can I not, especially when the same director is at the helm of them both? Peter Jackson seems to have lost his touch, and for the most part he is unable to recapture that quality which made The Lord of the Rings so perfect. We can now only catch momentary glimpses of that essence, and that only serves to make what this film is and what it is not all the more obvious.
Grade (good parts): A
Grade (bad parts): C-
Average Grade: B-