Monday, 22 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

After unintentionally freeing the dragon Smaug from the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his company of Dwarves must watch as the nearby Laketown is destroyed. After the attack is ended, Thorin (Richard Armitage) begins mindlessly searching the mountain for the Arkenstone, becoming overwhelmed by the gold and "dragon sickness". Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is still being imprisoned, and a number of armies have begun making their way to the Lonely Mountain, prepared for war.

So here we have the final chapter of the long running Middle Earth saga, a franchise that has now spawned six films and over 1000 minutes of screen time. The original The Lord of the Rings trilogy garnered widespread critical acclaim, praised by many for its scale, ambition, scope and storytelling. Whilst the Hobbit series has been well received, it has undeniably suffered a less warm reception. I'm not entirely sure why this is, though. An Unexpected Journey was a nice opening for the trilogy, and The Desolation of Smaug adapted the story further with a winner of an ending. Perhaps it is the occasional silliness that lets this trilogy down in the eyes of many, as it is, unfortunately, something that is present in The Battle of the Five Armies, this closing installment. It may be too silly occasionally, and suffers heavily from narrative and pacing issues, but The Battle of the Five Armies remains a strong end for a fantastic saga.

The vast majority of this installment is the titular battle, which takes up well over an hour of screen time in what is, for Peter Jackson standards, a relatively short movie at 144 minutes. Whilst this battle does have a knock-on effect for the way the film feels in terms of pacing and plot, it's also undeniably the most entertaining the Hobbit trilogy ever manages, despite not quite reaching the heights of The Two Towers' Battle for Helms Deep. The visual effects here are extraordinary, much as we've come to expect from this franchise now, and despite only seeing this in conventional 2D, I can't help but think this must have been an incredible experience in IMAX. Even if he occasionally struggles with dialogue or narrative, Jackson knows how to pull off an all-out war and make it one of the most entertaining hours of cinema all year.

But whilst this battle is so brilliant to look at and so wonderfully tense, it has far too big of an impact on the plot for this to come off quite as seamlessly as you'd hope. Adapting from one book into three films was never going to be easy, but it feels as if not enough was left for this final installment. The plot pretty much resolves within thirty minutes, with the remaining run time only really serving as a "who will live, who will die?" opportunity. It's an opportunity that is handled well, but an opportunity that shouldn't have taken up as much of the film as it did. This also causes the pacing to fall apart slightly, as the film repeatedly jumps between a rapidly cut action sequence, and slower, dialogue driven moments. Whilst this is normally not a problem, with a 65 minute battle finale, this happens far too many times, and almost every time the dialogue isn't written well enough to sustain the slower moments. Battle of the Five Armies is never really boring, but that's a feat it only just pulls off.

Unfortunately this final chapter also suffers from the occasional silliness that plagued the the first two of the trilogy, albeit undeniably less so. Whilst we never quite reach "Legolas Jumping On Dwarf Heads On A River" silliness here, we are subjected to a "Legolas Runs Up Falling Rocks Super-Mario Style" moment, which felt more uncomfortable than anything else. The Eagle reveal in the film's climax also felt more like something from a Michael Bay production than a Lord of the Rings prequel. But, despite the occasional preposterous burst, The Battle of the Five Armies is also a much darker film than its two predecessors both visually and emotionally, and feels far more similar in style and tone to the Lord of the Rings formula, which is never a bad thing. I don't like comparing between the two trilogies as they are separate stories and should be treated as separate trilogies, but this felt far more inspired by Lord of the Rings than either of the first two chapters, which gave this closing installment another boost.

So now we've left Middle Earth, and I can safely say we've left on a high. People who compare The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings are setting themselves up not to enjoy this trilogy; they are vastly different in terms of style, visual appearance, narrative and tone. It is easy to label Lord of the Rings a superior trilogy, but that shouldn't and doesn't reflect badly on the quality of the Hobbit films. The Battle of the Fives Armies is far from perfect, but remains about on par with the opening installment of this trilogy, despite falling behind the incredible heights of The Desolation of Smaug. Whilst this trilogy may not have been everything everyone had hoped for, it has expanded the world of Middle Earth and added character depth to the Wizards and Dwarves we loved throughout Lord of the Rings, whilst simultaneously remaining visually incredible and entertaining. Not many franchises can boast two good trilogies, let alone two great ones, but for those who love Middle Earth and the films it's given us, it's time to say goodbye, and this was a nice way to go.

To Summarise: It may suffer from narrative and pacing issues, but Battle of the Five Armies remains a suitably epic, action-packed and visually masterful closing entry for the Middle Earth saga.

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