If you were to take note solely of the more vociferous members of the critical chorus arraying themselves around Peter L. Jackson’s latest Middle Earth saga, The Hobbit, you could be forgiven for thinking that the three action-filled films he has formed out of Tolkien’s 1937 children’s novel and events gleaned from sundry reference texts by the great author, were the bloated corpses of misspent creativity, worth little beyond being a cash cow for releasing company, New Line Cinema.
And yet, while there are moments in all three films where the narrative padding does look a little too obvious under the gossamer-thin plot, and events take turns that seem to serve the purposes of delaying denouement rather than accelerating and completing it, The Hobbit, has by and large kept the faith with Middle Earth devotees with the latest instalment Battle of the Five Armies doing a fine job of wrapping up the trilogy with all the gravitas and melancholic farewells you would expect from the final film in the series.
As with Lord of the Rings, which is far more grand in scope, vision and storytelling than its successor and predecessor both, Jackson has imbued every frame with an immersive quality that means you don’t watch any of The Hobbit films so much as live them and experience them, as if you too are running from a vengeful Smaug as he sets fire to Lake Town, setting to battle with elves, and orcs and dwarves on the plains stretching out from the Dwarven stronghold of Eribor, or doing battle with the Necromancer (aka Sauron) and the Nazgûl wraiths in the ruins of Dol Guldur.
It is heady, character-driven action that is much poetic and beautiful as it is dramatically intense, meaning that for all the seemingly endless tableaus of war that take place throughout the film, and as suggested by the title there are armies and battles aplenty to behold, you never lose sight of the inherent humanity involved in any of the action.
Masterfully Jackson strives to ensure that everything is propelled by the characters themselves, lending this final piece of The Hobbit cinematic puzzle an air of substance and deeply-involving emotion that underpin all the back and forth clashes between the various combatants – Human, Elf, Dwarf, Orc and the Giant Eagles of the Misty Mountains – which otherwise might have been a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
The Battle of the Five Armies begins much as it plans to go on, mere seconds it seems after the final events of the second film, The Desolation of Smaug (2013), with the now-evicted money-hungry dragon (voiced with silken fury and arrogance by Benedict Cumberbatch) laying fiery waste to Laketown.
With its many inhabitants scrambling to escape, among with the comically evil Master of Laketown played with buffoonish greed by Stephen Fry, and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and many of his company watching in helpless horror from Eribor from whence they unleashed the angry beast, it is up to Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) to slay the dragon and reluctantly take up the mantle of leadership foregone in justice-will-be-done circumstances by the now-deceased corpulent Master.
A natural leader, the Bard takes the few hundred survivors up to the stony remains of the Dale, the town that lies just outside Eribor, to find shelter while Thorin (Richard Armitage), the king of the Dwarves loses his sanity to the “Dragon’s Sickness”, coveting the wealth he has now reclaimed more than the lives of his company, which now once again includes Kíli (Aidan Turner), Fíli (Dean O’Gorman), Óin (John Callen) and Bofur (John Nesbitt) who survived the destruction of Laketown.
Confronted with reasonably-voiced demands from a now-allied Thandruil (Lee Pace), the Elvenking, and Bard that he must honour his commitment to grant them a portion of his treasure in return for their assistance in helping his retake Eribor, Thorin responds with belligerence, gate-building and heartless pronouncements to the dismay of his company and Bilbo who goes to great lengths to ensure that the Arkenstone does not fall into Thorin’s money-ravaged hands.
While all this is happening, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) is leading a massed army of Orcs, War Beasts and Goblin mercenaries to wage war on Eribor – word has spread that Smaug is no more, unleashing a flood of greedy would-be treasure claimants – and a greatly-weakened Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) is barely saved from death by Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadrial (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) when they confront the rising power of Sauron in the ruins of Dol Guldur.
All of these various plot threads come together in spectacular fashion on the mountain-rimmed plains of Eribor where the five great armies go to battle, led by a now-sane Thorin, over far more than just the valleys of gold contained within the stone confines of the Dwarf kingdom.
It may sound like a narrative log jam of sorts but Jackson, and his long time collaborators in all things cinematically Middle Earth, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, now joined by Guillermo del Toro, manage to draw everything together with customary well-paced grace and a sense that everything is building to something worthwhile and meaningful.
Granted, Bilbo is somewhat sidelined in a way that Frodo wasn’t in Lord of the Rings finale, and the battles do stretch on and on at times, but for the most part, Jackson and his talented team stay the course, fashioning their story with as much poignancy and pathos, inspiration and an uplifting of the spirit as action and sword-wielding momentum.
The final scenes involving Bilbo and Gandalf are as touching as anything you will find in any of the other five films, with the ending linking with seamless pleasure into the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies is not the creative train wreck the Greek chorus of naysayers would have you believe.
Though overblown in parts, it mostly possesses all the grandeur and majesty, passion and love, strength and frailty and the enduring bonds of friendship and common purpose that the previous instalments in the Middle Earth opus had in impressive number, a fitting end to what has been a labour of love for Jackson, and a deeply-satisfying immersive journey into a magical world beyond our own for those of us lucky enough to watch it all unfold.