Review – The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

As good a writer as JRR Tolkien was, he wouldn’t have got very far in Hollywood if his description of the epic battle of orcs, elves, dwarfs, men and anyone else lying around was anything to go by.

And so we come to the end of Jackson's Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it

And so we come to the end of Jackson’s Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it

Passed off by Tolkien in just a few words, Peter Jackson obviously had other ideas when imagining how he’d like to conclude his stint as Middle Earth’s resident director.

It’s a decision in keeping with the whole exercise of making three movies out of a 300-page book, which is ironic when you consider he originally envisaged making two films out of The Lord Of The Rings; a three-book saga spanning more than 1,000 pages.

The loyal band of dwarfs prepare for war in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

The loyal band of dwarfs prepare for war in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

That said, Jackson has thrown everything and the kitchen sink into this final chapter of his prequel trilogy and, while there is much to enjoy, it won’t change anyone’s opinion that The Hobbit ultimately remains the poor cousin of LOTR.

We pick up where we left off last time, with the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) on his way from the Lonely Mountain to smite Laketown and its terrified folk. It’s a breathless opening salvo, arguably the best sequence in the entire trilogy as Bard (Luke Evans) desperately tries to bring the beast down as the town is incinerated around him.

Watching on helplessly are hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf companions, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who disturbed Smaug’s slumber in search of untold wealth and the coveted Arkenstone, a precious gem Thorin is desperate to reclaim.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) looks on worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) looks on worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

When word spreads of Smaug’s death, an elf army under Thranduil (Lee Pace) marches to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim lost treasure, while a separate force of orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) also approaches. While all hell breaks loose outside the mountain, as men, dwarfs and elves go to war against the vast numbers of orcs, inside the mountain an increasingly unstable Thorin exasperates his fellow dwarfs and Bilbo by refusing to see sense.

Just as Jackson coiled the spring in the first half of The Return Of The King before unleashing CGI-infused mayhem, he employs a similar approach in The Battle Of The Five Armies. Characters look either pensive or defiant as they talk of impending war, while Jackson cranks up the expectation by regularly cutting to the orc hordes drawing ever nearer to the Lonely Mountain.

Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) looks his usual grumpy self in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) looks his usual grumpy self in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

When it finally does come, the battle is everything you expect; brutal and frenzied, with seemingly endless waves of orcs pitted against the dwindling alliance. However, as visually impressive as it is, it doesn’t involve you as much as the epic battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

The stakes may be just as high, but the clammy terror of a band of brothers fighting for their lives against an implacable army of Urak Hai is what sets Helm’s Deep apart. Too often, Jackson is content to pit CGI army against CGI army; an impressive enough site to be sure but one that will never grab you as much as seeing real people at each other’s throats.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) look worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) look worried in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

While the skirmish is the film’s key selling point, it works best when boiling things down to the struggle going on inside Thorin’s mind. Overcome by ‘dragon sickness’, his slide into mental illness is convincingly played by Armitage, who shows enough of the old Thorin to convince Bilbo (a conversation between the two that starts with an acorn is a standout) and co that he’s not gone completely off the deep end. Jackson has brilliantly played up the possessive effects ‘precious’ treasure can have on otherwise strong-willed characters throughout his Middle Earth saga and the lightning bolt moment Thorin experiences during a surreal hallucination is particularly effective.

Freeman does his best with the limited screen time Bilbo is given and lights up every scene he’s in, but once the battle kicks in he’s pretty much sidelined in favour of head-butting dwarves and snarling orcs.

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and fellow elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) go in search of orcs in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and fellow elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) go in search of orcs in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Also left on the sidelines is Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, whose rescue from the clutches of Sauron by his fellow White Council members (most notably Cate Blanchett’s luminous Galadriel) is an early highlight, but feels rushed (ironic, I know). Once Gandalf joins the party at the Lonely Mountain he soon gets swallowed up in the rest of the action.

And so we come to the end of Jackson’s Middle Earth fellowship. LOTR-lite it may be, but fantasy cinema is all the richer for The Hobbit having been in it.

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Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

We’ve had goblins and Gollum and now it’s time to enter the dragon for this breathless and sure-footed middle slab of Peter Jackson’s second Middle Earth saga.

The Desolation Of Smaug is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you'll be eager to find out how they get there and back again

The Desolation Of Smaug is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you’ll be eager to find out how they get there and back again

The bumpy beginnings of Bilbo Baggins’ unexpected journey were a worrying sign for this elongated adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s children’s novel.

However, just as The Two Towers was an an improvement of The Fellowship Of The Ring (and the best of the The Lord Of The Rings trilogy in this reviewer’s opinion), Jackson has rediscovered his Middle Earth mojo following the relative disappointment of An Unexpected Journey for this hugely enjoyable follow-up.

There's trouble brewing for Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

There’s trouble brewing for Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The now standard near three-hour running time this time doesn’t feel like a slog as the film zips from one frenetic set piece to another, while the introduction of new characters and environments enrich this expansive universe rather than weigh it down.

No concessions are made for the uninitiated as the story picks up where it left off, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) accompanying a 13-strong band of Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their lost treasure from the dragon Smaug. Their journey is made more perilous by the fact they’re being hunted by a bloodthirsty group of orcs, while the identity of the evil Necromancer who has been marshalling the orc forces is revealed.

The dwarves of Erebor, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the door of the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The dwarves of Erebor, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) at the door of the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

In spite of the film’s length, the first thing that’s apparent when watching The Desolation Of Smaug is its urgency. The decision to stretch a 300-page novel into a trilogy that in all likelihood will last close to nine hours still grates with many, but the flab that bloated much of An Unexpected Journey is trimmed down here.

In the time it took Bilbo to leave the Shire in the first film, our not-so merry fellowship has evaded orcs, encountered a mysterious ‘skin-changer’ and made it to the oppressive confines of Mirkwood. If anything, the film zips about too much towards the end and looses its direction as it attempts to juggle too many balls.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes face-to-face with evil in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) comes face-to-face with evil in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

While the set pieces of An Unexpected Journey were largely underwhelming, The Desolation Of Smaug delivers a breadth of spectacle that reminds you why you fell in love with LOTR. The creepy giant spider sequence in Mirkwood is masterfully done and reminiscent of the nightmarish attack by huge insects in Jackson’s version of King Kong. It also offers Freeman’s one real moment to portray the dehumanising effect of the Ring as a horrified Bilbo recoils at the possessive fury he temporarily succumbs to.

Just as Jackson captures the dark and suffocating mood of the spider sequence, he switches things up in the tremendously entertaining barrel escape from the wood elves. Shot like a roller coaster ride and infused with as much humour as danger, it’s exhilarating stuff.

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and fellow elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) on the trail of orcs in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and fellow elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) on the trail of orcs in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

And what of Smaug? As a work of CGI, it rivals Gollum and King Kong for sheer impact. Given voice by an oily Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is amusing, arrogant and deadly in equal measure and provides the film with a rousing final act. The interplay between Bilbo, who has been sent by the dwarfs into the dragon’s lair to retrieve a priceless heirloom, and Smaug is laced with tension as the hobbit flatters to deceive in the vain hope the beast will let him leave unscathed.

Freeman has visibly relaxed into the role and gets some lovely moments with his dwarf companions who, by sheer weight of numbers, still struggle to make much of an impact, save for Ken Stott’s Balin and Aidan Turner’s dashing Kíli.

The scenery remains just as lovely in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The scenery remains just as lovely in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The sense of entitlement, as well as the desire for power and its poisonous consequences are themes present in much of Tolkien’s work and are touched on here through a subtle shift in Thorin’s character, nicely played by Armitage.

It’s a shame McKellen’s Gandalf isn’t on screen more as, just as in An Unexpected Journey, he’s the star attraction. That said, the portentous scenes of him investigating the identity of the Necromancer are among the film’s strongest. As well as McKellen, Orlando Bloom also returns as a more impetuous Legolas, who has a personal attachment to Evangeline Lilly’s strong-willed Tauriel (a creation by Jackson and his fellow writers, presumably to balance the male/female scales at least a little bit).

This is a major improvement on An Unexpected Journey and, come the cliffhanger ending, you’ll be eager to find out how they get there and back again. That’s all the middle section of a trilogy can do, right?