The Battle of the Five Armies is the concluding chapter of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, and assuming he doesn’t get his hands on the Silmarillion rights, the last film we can expect to see set in Middle-Earth. For die hard fans of The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies will be a cinematic joy and an epic send off for the series. For everyone else, from casual fans to those who have been waiting for the Hobbit films to actually meet their expectations, this will be a rough one.
The Battle of the Five Armies is one big action sequence with increasingly spare breath for character moments. Jackson deserves some commendation for translating a battle of this scope on screen; with so many different sides and characters in play, it would have been easy to drop the ball and have it be a convoluted mess. At the very least, the stakes are always clear, and there’s an absurd sort of logic to it. That being said, the words that come to mind for the action sequences aren’t “satisfying” or “tense” but “indulgent” and “artificial.” With each swing of their sword or ax the main characters slay goblins in increasingly silly, overcomplicated ways. Bard steers a cart downhill to kill a troll, Thranduil’s elk (Battle of Five Armies earns points for having the most creatively ridiculous cavalry, including elk, rams, and pigs) catches enemies in its rack like a net, Legolas jumps and spins and defies the laws of physics and manages to escape without a bruise or spot of blood on him. It’s all too pretty, too on the rails, too animated.
Watch the scene in Balin’s tomb, or the Battle of Helm’s Deep, or the siege of Minas Tirith from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you’ll see the difference in action sequences. It feels like a fight: there’s grit, there’s blood, there’s a physical presence on camera. In comparison, everything happens too perfectly in The Battle of the Five Armies. The elves are lined up just so, they draw their bows at the exact same time, and they all have the same face. There are too many scenes like this that could have easily been improved through the use of actors in costume and makeup instead of copy and pasted animations.
There’s also the issue of tone. For those who are familiar with the book, there are some pretty major character deaths in this concluding chapter, but sadly this movie fails to do them justice. There’s something unearned about the sense of tragedy the film tries to surround their death with. The previous hour of fighting is full of so much silliness that it cheapens the deaths of those few characters the audience is meant to care about.
More to the point, the highlight of The Battle of the Five Armies is also the part that doesn’t get nearly enough screen time: the relationship between Bilbo and Thorin. Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage do excellent jobs with their characters– especially in their last scene together, where Freeman manages to actually tug at some heartstrings despite the numbing action sequence proceeding it.
The Battle of the Five Armies constantly calls back stronger, more emotional scenes from the original trilogy to try and invoke a sense of nostalgia. Thranduil looks at his slaughtered men in a scene that’s a little to similar to Haldir doing the same at Helm’s Deep. One dwarf’s death monologue is strikingly similar to Boromir’s. Alfrid is a cheap discount of Wormtongue. And scenes of Dale overrun with goblins try to mimic the dread-inducing siege of Minas Tirith.
The problem with The Battle of the Five Armies, and the Hobbit films in general, isn’t that they’re not more like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it isn’t even that they aren’t a faithful adaptation of the book. There’s no reason The Hobbit trilogy should mimic The Lord of the Rings trilogy because their sources are so vastly different in tone. And as bloated and overstuffed as they may be, the Hobbit films are nothing if not reverent towards the novel.
The problem is they never manage to establish their own personality, independent from the original trilogy and the novel. Instead, they got caught in an awkward limbo state, trying to emulate both at the same time. The Battle of the Five Armies only inspires a desire to revisit the superior stories that have been told in Middle-Earth, and to ruminate on what the Hobbit trilogy might have been.