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

The final installment of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy hits many of the high, operatic moments of The Lord of the Rings, leaving this fan completely satisfied, and more than a little sad, at this concluding cinematic adventure in Middle-earth.

Warning:  Full spoilers follow.  

Further warning:  I will probably also have more thoughts on this film after I see it a few more times.

When I first watched The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,  I knew the film was worthwhile when, very near the end, Bilbo announces to the Dwarves that he came back to help them because he wants them to have the same feeling of home that he does.  There is something so intensely emotional and genuine about that scene, something that hits an emotional truth, that renders the entire preceding film both legible and compelling.  A similar scene occurs in the second film, surprisingly enough when Kili, having just recovered from his wound, asks, “Do you think she could have loved me?”  Again, this made the entire film worthwhile for me, reaching into and beyond the more hyperbolic elements of the film.

The Battle of the Five Armies, fortunately, has many of these moments, starting from, surprisingly enough, Smaug’s death.  For all that he is one of the primary villains of the franchise, seeing his agonized death-throes proved, for me at least, to be a profoundly moving experience, as we literally watch the light fade from his eyes before he plunges in ruin into the already-burning Esgaroth (killing the avaricious Master in the process).

The duel between the White Council and the Necromancer likewise packs quite the visual punch, and we finally get to see Galadriel unleash the full extent of her power.  Admittedly, this scene did not take up as much time as it could have, and that actually proved an advantage, as it was tight, focused, and emotionally resonant.  Of course, we have known from the beginning of these films that the Necromancer will merely flee to the East and take shape as Sauron indeed, but that doesn’t lessen the visual impact of this scene.  What’s more, Christopher Lee shines (as always) as Saruman, and his ominous line “Leave Sauron to me” leaves us in no doubt that this is the beginning of his slide into the service of the Dark Lord.

Lee’s is just one performance among many that, I think, help to grant this blockbuster film its emotional core.  It goes without saying that Ian McKellan hits all of the right notes as Gandalf (I think he could do this role in his sleep and still manage to be compelling), but even more recognition should go to Richard Armitage and Lee Pace, both of whom manage to bring an enormous and riveting depth to their characters.  Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that they, perhaps more than any other actors to appear in Jackson’s visions of Middle-earth, come closest to the ancient heroes of the North that Tolkien so admired.  We admire these characters for their bravery and their ability to face their dooms, even as we also shake our heads at behaviour our modern mindsets do not allow us to fully understand.  It is this dance between different identifications and emotions, I think, that allows us to find characters as potentially unlikable as Thranduil and Thorin so infinitely compelling and their fates so intensely sad.  Who did not weep at the parting of Thanduil and Legolas, for who can say whether they will ever join one another again?  And who did not feel a bone-deep sorrow for the death of Thorin, a flawed yet heroic figure, enshrined and honoured by Bilbo’s title of “friend”?

There were other moments of genuine emotionality.  The deaths of Fili and Kili, while expected, hit me harder than I thought they would; it is a testament to Jackson’s ability as a filmmaker that he can shuttle so effortlessly between bombast (and there is quite a lot of that in this film) and these intimate moments of intense feeling.  Indeed, Jackson actually does quite a good job of showing the actual human effects of war, rather than leaving them in the abstract.  Equally affecting was Bilbo’s genuine invitation to his Dwarvish companions to join him for tea at any time, without needing to knock.  Freeman manages once again to bring a full range of emotions to the character of Bilbo, and one can actually believe his tears when he finally breaks down at Thorin’s deathbed.

There were a few things that did not quite hit the right notes, such as the eagles dropping Beorn into the middle of the battle, as well as Radagast riding said eagles.  There were also mysterious worms that look like they could have come out of the Dune universe.  Still, it’s clear that Jackson was having fun in making this film, and I for one appreciate the fact that he catered to what he thought the fans wanted to see.  Say what you will about Jackson, but there has never been a doubt in my mind that he loves Tolkien and he loves the fans.

All in all, this was in all ways the perfect way to say goodbye to Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth.  Naturally, I cannot wait to see the Extended Edition, since it’s quite clear from the very slim running time (coming in at under 2.5 hours) that Jackson was under some pressure to make a shorter film.  Nevertheless, he still manages to capture the intense tragedy that lies just beneath the surface of The Hobbit.  This is the beginning of the end of this age of larger-than-life heroes such as Thorin, Thranduil, and Gandalf, and their like will never be seen again.  As I said goodbye to Middle-earth tonight, Tauriel’s last conversation with Thranduil resonated most powerfully.  As she weeps over the body of Kili, she begs her king to take her pain away, asking mournfully, “Why does it hurt so much?”  And he replies, with a world of sadness in his own voice, “Because it was real.”  As I savour the sweet hurt of saying goodbye to Jackson’s Middle-earth, I can’t help but be grateful that it, too, was real.

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