Review: ‘Battle Of Five Armies’ brings troubled ‘Hobbit’ trilogy to dignified end

My first review for a Peter Jackson film about Middle-Earth was published on December 13, 2001. I was a wee bit enthusiastic.

There was a moment during the opening act of Jackson's latest film, “The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies,” where I just sat dumbfounded by how effortless Jackson makes it look as he summons up whole worlds with millions of moving parts. My kids are being spoiled by the sheer density of the fantasy world that Jackson and his collaborators summoned up, and with this final chapter in this latest trilogy, he not only marries this to the earlier “Rings” films, but he also brings together in a way that makes all three of the Hobbit films feel more cohesive.

By this point, we're well past the point of discussing the choice made to expand the “Hobbit” films from one movie to three. I would love to see a single three-hour “Hobbit” movie directed by Guillermo Del Toro just to be able to compare it to this giant ten-hour sprawling thing that Jackson made. I have a feeling it would not have lined up as neatly with “Rings” as Jackson's movies do, and I'm curious to see what Guillermo would have done with the same resources at his disposal.

After all, when I watch a fantasy film, set in a fantasy world, one of the things that modern technology makes possible is a depth to the world that is deeper than a soundstage set that runs right up to the edge of a painting of the Yellow Brick Road, and I'd be hard-pressed to name any fantasy realm that has been more fully realized than Middle-Earth now. This film begins just moments after “The Desolation Of Smaug” ended, with the dragon on his way to Laketown, and the dwarf party firmly ensconced at Erebor. By the time we see the title, “The Battle Of Five Armies,” the Bard has become a hero, Thorin's dragon sickness has taken hold, and the Orcs are on the move, ready to wage a war. That one pre-title chunk is really beautifully done, and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch is back to snarl at the Bard a bit) is incredibly well-rendered.

The rest of the film is fairly straightforward. Thorin wants the Arkhenstone, and he's starting to lose his mind. Bilbo wants to help Thorin, and he's the only one with the balls to do anything about it. Gandalf and Radagast have accidentally stumbled into the hands of an ancient foe. The elves, with Thranduil (Lee Pace) in the lead, want their own most precious gems to be returned from the Erebor vaults. Everyone begins to march on Erebor, and when they all come together, there's a big-ass fight. There's a momentum to the movie that builds until the actual titular Battle begins, and from there to the last person goes down, it's about a solid hour of movie. It may be one of the longest sustained set-pieces ever attempted, and Jackson manages to paint some broad strokes to show the scale while keeping most of the focus on the intimate fights going on in the middle of everything else. Jackson has become very, very good at keeping an energy up through an entire set-piece, and he moves from front to front, fight to fight, constantly showing us the big turning points, the crescendoes, one after another.

Now, there's a risk that a film built this way could end up feeling like a cotton candy buffet, no good for you in that quantity, pure overkill. That's not how it plays, though. Jackson wants you to see everyone's point of view here, except for the Orcs, and there are both surprising heroes and surprising deaths. I confess, the ensemble has grown on me over the course of the three films. I really like Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel and I think Luke Evans creates a really strong sense of sympathy for Bard. Thorin is on a dark trip in this film, and Richard Armitage plays the descent into madness well. Lee Pace finally shows some of the doubt behind Thranduil's bluster and imperious fury, and he never makes it seem like a foregone conclusion that Thranduil might step up and do the right thing. Kili (Aidan Turner) emerges as one of the primary dwarf characters thanks to his relationship with Tauriel, and both of them do a nice job of making us believe that this is something that is genuinely important to the both of them.

There's an amazing scene early on with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and I nominate it as one of the freakiest things in any of the six films. I love how Jackson handles Sauron in this movie, and how bizarre and broken the world becomes in proximity to him. Gandalf remains the glue that holds all of the disparate parts of the films together, and he's right there in the thick of things in this one as well. Watch for the appearance of Elrond and Saruman early on. They have transformed Christopher Lee into a powerful killing machine, a wizard with all the moves, and it's as startling as the first time you saw Yoda hopping around and bouncing off of things in “Attack Of The Clones.” Orlando Bloom's Legolas emerges a bit more here, giving him enough screen time that that when he gets his send-off at the film, he feels like he's the Legolas we met in “Rings” originally. There's also a reference made in that last scene that is so on-the-nose it may make you roll your eyes, but it's apparent they want this all to work as one big giant jigsaw puzzle.

Ultimately, this film feels like it finally gives Bilbo Baggins (the precise and perfectly cast Martin Freeman) room to be the hero and not an entirely passive participant. He's proven himself before, and in “Desolation Of Smaug,” he charged into a few fights, trying his best to be brave and stay alive. Here, though, he risks everything because of the bonds he's formed with his fellow companions on the trip, and the sort of hero Bilbo becomes is most important of all: a moral hero. He may have his secrets, but at heart, Bilbo is a good man, a good friend, and genuinely wants to see everyone treated fairly and well.

The battle is rousing in terms of escalation. It starts big, but the way it keeps shifting, and the ebb and flow as different forces hit the battlefield, it's thrilling. The Orcs have all the best stuff, bringing along giants and weird underground worms and giant bats, and they just keep coming, plowing more and more bodies into the enemy. By focusing on a few key emotional arcs instead of making it about every shot being the BIGGEST THING OF ALL TIME, Jackson gives the battle a sense of urgency that builds and ebbs, builds and ebbs.

While there are still several places where Jackson (working from the script he co-wrote with Guillermo, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens) uses laughs to punctuate or to relieve a bit of tension, this is the most serious of the three films, and there is a price that is paid here by our heroes. No one gets away unscathed, and my kids were genuinely shocked and upset by the body count, and by who fell in battle. However, they were also very moved by Bilbo's eventual return to the Shire, and it reminded me of what a strange feeling it was the first time we concluded one of these journeys. I loved “Return Of The King,” but I had some real problems with the theatrical cut, and I saw it twice before I wrote about it.  But there's something I wrote in that piece that is still just as true now:

What I hope is that somewhere out there, some eight-year-old is seeing these movies with their parents, and something”s been lit inside of them… a fire as bright as any of the beacons between Gondor and Rohan… and they”re going to carry that fire with them as they grow up so that some day, they can make something equally as effective and powerful. If Peter Jackson has awoken even one future filmmaker… and I suspect he”s done a lot more than that… then these films aren”t just fantasy. They will have reached into the real world and sent someone out on a real quest, a great adventure, and we”ll all be the richer for it.

“The Hobbit” as a whole is a messier proposition, but in the home stretch, Jackson has pulled it together in a way that makes me glad that I took this particular journey, and I still say this is a world that feels fully realized, a place you can go, a tactile triumph in world-building. If it is the lesser sibling of the towering accomplishment of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so be it. It still goes leaps and bounds beyond what most filmmakers would attempt, and if this is the end of Middle-Earth, then I am pleased to have been here to see it.

“The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies” is in theaters December 17.