And so we come at last to the end of the journey. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies marks the definitive exit from Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, with the Tolkien estate unlikely to sell the Silmarillion film rights any time soon. It’s been a long road, 13 years for moviegoers and the best part of two decades for Jackson, redefining fantasy on screen as it went and, whilst it may not scale the lofty heights of the Oscar-sweeping Return of the King, this is still a very fitting goodbye, as epic and lavish as one could hope for.
As suggested by the title, the film’s main focus is on an enormous conflict between five separate armies – Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) dwarves, Thranduil’s (Lee Pace) elves, Bard’s (Luke Evans) humans, and the Gandalf (Ian McKellen) summoned eagles all battling against the orc and goblin force. Impressively, given that this is 20 minutes shorter than either of the previous Hobbit films, the leader of each force is given enough screen time for the audience to care about their fates and not feel as if they’ve been shortchanged on any particular faction. In fact, the character given the shortest shrift is the eponymous Hobbit. Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) story arc had essentially been concluded by the end of the second film, and that is really felt in Five Armies as he is relegated to a supporting role. The key characters of this tale are Bard, leading the survivors of Smaug’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) devastating raid on Laketown and Thorin, who is being driven slowly mad by ‘dragon sickness’, the lust for gold and other treasures which brought down his grandfather.
Armitage does a great job as the ailing dwarf king, infusing the descent into glowering madness with moments of remembrance and recognition, and his moments of recalling his warmth for Bilbo are touching. The rest of the dwarves are definitely less memorable, with the possible exception of Aidan Turner as Kili, serving to remind that the key difference between the LOTR and Hobbit trilogies is that the Fellowship is a far more engaging bunch of characters than the company of dwarves. However, character development is not a priority of this film, with action kicking off right at the start with Bard facing off against Smaug and continuing all the way to the very end. Fears that this surplus of combat would get tiresome prove largely unfounded here, with Jackson corralling the battles masterfully. Almost every scene features at least one recognisable character, a particular highlight being the White Council (Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond and Christopher Lee’s Saruman) taking on Sauron (Cumberbatch again) and his Nazgul, and the swashbuckling swordfights are giddying childish fun.
However, as should be evident by the sheer wealth of characters mentioned above, Five Armies does, at points, feel overstuffed. Whilst this is undoubtedly less problematic than the padding that the previous films needed, and offers a great sense of pace, it does mean that your attention is diverted all over the place, lessening the emotional pull of any one story thread. Also, if you are more into this franchise for the world building than the fights, this is not your ideal Middle Earth film. I personally enjoyed it, but book purists and fans of characterful conversation ahead of action will most likely be put off. What is undeniable is that Jackson’s direction is breathtaking, panning through the titanic clashes of the separate armies and very rarely getting lost in the melee. As with everything Middle Earth, it looks fantastic, although the majority CG warriors means that the final fight lacks the exciting physicality of, for example, Helm’s Deep.
On the topic of the looks, the effects here are far better than they have been in the rest of the Hobbit series. Nothing looks cheap and the seams between real and animated are far less obvious than they have been previously. WETA Digital continue to be amongst the very best at what they do, even if their standout work this year was done on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Alongside Peter Jackson, WETA’s visions have helped to craft what is now one of the most iconic fictional landscapes of this generation, even as it is ravaged by raging conflict. That other shaper of Middle-Earth, Howard Shore, is still on top form here, and I would argue that his score for the Lord of the Rings franchise is among the best to grace cinema, flawlessly capturing the scale, fantastical atmosphere, and beautiful quaintness of this world. He is pitch perfect in Five Armies, the soundtrack elevating every single sequence.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ends our time in Middle Earth with an enormous bang. By this point, some of the actors absolutely inhabit their characters, and it’s always a joy to watch Ian McKellen et al as the beloved inhabitants of this most extraordinary world. The action is engaging and varied, ranging from city-levelling sieges to intimate, personal clashes, never getting too bogged down in one fight to show the audience something new. As Billy Boyd sings his farewell song over the credits, it could reflect Bilbo and his return to the Shire after his grand adventure, but it could just as easily be about Peter Jackson himself, finishing the project of a lifetime. It’s been a brilliant ride, and Middle Earth is a world I will miss, even if it has not been quite as definitive to my generation as Hogwarts. Jackson’s universe is one of the most finely crafted ever in film, and there could be few more exciting ways to see it out than this.