The Hobbit Battle of the Five Armies

Peter Jackson’s final movie in his Hobbit trilogy has the wiry elegance of elves, the robust craftsmanship of dwarves, the whimsical bonhomie of hobbits, and the spellbinding poetry of wizards. It’s elating to see these characters in action—and tough to bid them farewell. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug didn’t entrance critics: in Jackson’s Middle Earth sextet, these films were viewed as the awkward younger brothers to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. But The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is so beautifully wrought and unpredictably cathartic that it should compel even skeptics to reconsider Jackson’s previous films about the reluctant Hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the quest he shares with dwarves to reclaim their Lonely Mountain and its ancestral treasures from the fearsome dragon Smaug. I’m a fan of all these movies. Whenever I have a spare six hours, I aim to take a second look at the first two just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. That’s how seductively Jackson has woven multiple themes and motifs into this penetrating wrap-up of Bilbo Baggins’s saga.

Because Jackson has spun an entire trilogy from J.R.R. Tolkien’s single novel The Hobbit (and a smattering of material from appendices to the Lord of the Rings trilogy), all three Hobbit movies have been easy for critics to scorn as examples of greedy franchise-moviemaking or creative elephantiasis. For 90 years critics have lamented the loss of Erich Von Stroheim’s eight-hour cut of Greed, his adaptation of Frank Norris’ 375-page novel McTeague. Why is it obligatory to condemn as a piece of over-reach Jackson’s eight-hour-plus version of Tolkien’s 275-page book—which is about many things besides greed, including war and peace? Is it simply that so many bad movie fantasies have made critics grow impatient with a great one? These movies are the opposite of exploitation. Their scale derives from Jackson’s affection for Tolkien’s characters and his drive to shape the action to their personalities. Sequences like Bilbo’s rescue of dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) from rampaging Orcs in An Unexpected Journey, or his engineering of the dwarves’ escape from prison in wine barrels in The Desolation of Smaug achieve an exhilarating impact. They’re rooted in Jackson’s masterly nurturing of Bilbo’s bifurcated character—part homebody, part adventurer—and in the Hobbit’s attempts to prove himself to himself (as well as to the crusty dwarves with whom he’s questing).

Early on in the trilogy, Bilbo stumbles onto the Ring of Power, but he resists its corrupting aura. This trilogy is essentialy about fellowship and what it means to be of good heart. In The Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo uses the courage and wisdom he acquires far away from home to help unify dueling species—dwarves and elves—against swarming Orc and goblin armies that threaten their survival. It’s hard to imagine anyone else except Freeman in the role; the young Alec Guinness could have done it, but could he have done it better? Freeman’s confidence and subtlety enable him to make Bilbo’s innocence amusing and touching. The actor’s understated audacity makes Bilbo’s growing sureness as a man among alpha-males exciting.

The Hobbit Battle of the Five Armies

The performances of Freeman, Armitage as Thorin, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey secure Jackson’s sprawling spectacle to visceral bedrock. Their ferocious commitment to moments of enmity and amity alike brings emotional release to the audience. Armitage is galvanizing when he snaps into mission mode to annihilate the albino Orc known as Azog the Defiler, but he’s heartbreaking when Thorin tells Bilbo that if more creatures valued domestic virtues the way Bilbo does, “it would be a merrier world.” The affection the warrior-dwarf expresses for the stalwart Hobbit is palpable—and inspiring. Similarly, when Gandalf tells Bilbo “I am very fond of you, but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all,” these actors convey the wizard’s worry-tinged warmth and Bilbo’s rue-streaked relief at being called “little” once again.

In The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson reaches new peaks of accomplishment: 144 minutes whoosh by, like the war-bats Azog trains to darken the sky for his Orc legions. As the dragon Smaug swoops down Lake-town—a water-world with an atmosphere that Jackson has compared to “a smuggling operation in eighteenth-century Cornwall”—the director and longtime co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens swiftly reacquaint us with crucial characters, including Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who’s been jailed by Lake-town’s monstrously avaricious mayor (Stephen Fry). Lake-town’s population empties out of homes and into waterways to escape Smaug’s smashing tail and fiery breath. Bard’s children clamber for their dad’s release, while a trio of dwarves and the sylvan elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), busy caring for her beloved, wounded dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), try to shepherd them to safety.

In the midst of all this churning desperation, Jackson and company set up a Buster Keaton-esque stunt involving Bard, a makeshift noose, and the Mayor, who, with his lickspittle servant Alfrid (Ryan Gage), overloads an escape barge with the town treasury. Enjoyable simply as virtuosic seriocomic staging, it also establishes Bard as a resourceful swashbuckler—the people’s champion destined to bring down the dragon. And what a dragon! Benedict Cumberbatch gives Smaug its smug, sadistic, roaring phrasing and, via performance-capture technology, contributes to its horribly gleeful visage and sinewy yet slithery movements. In The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson draws not only on Tolkien, but also on Western European legendry from Beowulf to William Tell. Bard’s son Bain provides his father with the spear-like black arrow designed to bring Smaug down, then serves as a body part for his dad’s makeshift “wind-lance,” which resembles a mammoth crossbow.

The Battle of the Five Armies

This section propels the movie beyond bravura to operatic expressiveness. Jackson’s plunging camera moves are genuinely dizzying because their effects are at once gutsy and psychological. When Bard hangs onto a rooftop by his fingers, the downward curves of the camera trace the sum of his fears. Later, when Bard rallies his Lake-town survivors, Jackson cuts, as he frequently does in crowd scenes, to an off-center long shot. It’s as if the director is suggesting that even a strapping figure like Bard is a bit like Bilbo, “a little fellow in a wide world after all.”

Smaug’s presence never leaves the picture, especially because Thorin, now the dwarves’ “King Under the Mountain,” develops terrible “dragon sickness” (a hoarder’s kind of greed). He won’t spread the Lonely Mountain’s wealth, not even to fulfill his debt to that good man Bard. As Thorin, Armitage is equally wonderful at exuding cupidity tinged with inertia and atavistic rage. He thinks he’ll never forgive the elves because they forsook his people when the dwarves first lost their mountain to the dragon. He grows suspicious that one of his own men has stolen the “heart of the mountain,” a gem called the “Arkenstone.”

Far more organically than Into the Woods, The Battle of the Five Armies extends its fantasy long past the point when creatures should live happily ever after. Except for Bard, Bilbo and Tauriel, most of the characters revert to tribal allegiances, including the elf army led by the imperious King Thranduil (Lee Pace). The idea that Smaug no longer guards the mountain treasure brings out the worst in almost everybody—and summons the forces of darkness to the Lonely Mountain.

The Battle of the Five Armies

In Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy the evil Sauron has already prepared to achieve hegemony over Middle Earth. Cate Blanchett’s regal elf Galadriel makes a dazzling return to rescue Gandalf the Grey wizard from Sauron’s clutches; Blanchett and Jackson conjure a demonic display out of a curse she hurls in guttural “Dark Speech.” And the elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman the White wizard (Christopher Lee) face off against those foul ghosts the Ringwraiths. It’s particularly stirring to see the 92-year-old Lee play Saruman in his prime, not as a quisling spell-caster but as a righteous martial artist. Still, they can’t stop Sauron’s legions, led by Azog the Defiler and his equally loathsome son Bolg, from converging at the Lonely Mountain.

Akira Kurosawa once told me that when he designed the color-coded armies in Ran, he used ideas he’d developed for an aborted adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” The Battle of the Five Armies goes further in blending Gothic sensibility with medieval tradition. Glittering cadres of silver-and-gold elves line up against darker metal-clad dwarf soldiers while mud-skinned Orcs and goblins in rough-hewn helmets march in lockstep against both of them. Elves and dwarves ultimately band together with a bang: the dwarves use their sturdy backs to form a bridge for rampant elves who rain a splattering death down on their enemies. Although Jackson doesn’t explore the full range of Tolkien’s natural imagery, it’s a thrill to see the elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) enter the field on an enormous elk, or Thorin and his best warriors gallop up a mountain on battle rams, or Thorin’s boisterous cousin Dain (Billy Connolly) charge into the fray on an armored boar.

What makes Jackson’s lucid battle scenes extraordinary is how fraught with tension they are from every angle, whether in a God’s-eye-view of Thorin leading his dwarves in a Spartan phalanx that drives through the other armies like an arrowhead, or in close shots of battle that reveal the black-comic failings of Azog’s and Bolg’s slave armies. The Orcs’ strength lies only in their numbers. The most towering goblins among them are like moronic special-teams players, capable of just a single task. Whether functioning as walking catapults or a battering ram, they do their deeds, then collapse.

The Battle of the Five Armies

The scenes of single-warrior combat are even more jolting and haunting. The ultimate grudge match between Azog and Thorin is like Eisenstein’s ice battle from Alexander Nevsky done in miniature, with a spooky lyricism all its own. In a movie replete with images of noble and ignoble deaths and after-lives, there are few sights spookier than one nemesis watching another float in water under ice, as if suspended between life and hell. Jackson puts the interspecies love between dwarf Kili and elf Tauriel to the ultimate test as they clash with Azog’s son, Bolg. This sequence exposes the core gallantry of elf prince Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who also loves Tauriel, and is nobler and more poignant here than he is in any part of The Lord of the Rings.

As in the book, Bilbo gets knocked unconscious midway through the final combat. After the battle, Jackson’s eloquent, original additions to Bilbo’s multiple good-byes restore his decency and resilience to the center of the saga. Jackson fleshes out Tolkien’s final irony with comic brio: the hobbit returns to his cherished Shire only to find that his relatives, believing him dead, are auctioning off his house and goods. Bilbo quickly brushes it off. Unlike the rest of the hobbits, he has seen what lies beyond the far horizon.

As he enters his own door, you imagine him remembering what he told the dwarves: “If you ever pass through Bag End, tea is at four. You are welcome any time. Don't bother knocking!” At the end he tells his neighbors, so quietly he could be talking to himself, that proud, willful Thorin—the dwarf who sorely tested him and doubted him—was his friend.