There’s something familiar and comfortable about Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies by now and it’s actually a little bit poignant that this will be (allegedly) the last time we’ll get to visit his New Zealand-infused take on Tolkien’s epic fantasies. Yes, there are a number of tricks and techniques which are starting to look a bit threadbare now: helicopter shots of tiny figures trekking across (admittedly spectacular) countryside to stirring music, sweeping shots of grand armies piling into each other with berserker abandon but this is still lavish, epic fantasy film making of the highest calibre.
This final instalment picks up immediately where the last film ended, if not just slightly before as Smaug explodes from the Lonely Mountain to exact a curiously misplaced revenge on Laketown. But the Dragon is just the beginning of the troubles facing our heroes as the various factions of the forces of Darkness gather to #OccupyLonelyMountain.
Notoriously, after the bloated and overstretched “The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug”, there were only 65 or so pages of the book left to cover and much sport was had over just how this could be stretched into another three hours plus movie. But the idea central to the criticism that has dogged this trilogy – that page numbers should somehow correlate to minutes of film – is just stupid, especially when it comes to epic battle scenes. Indeed, most of the action in the written version of The Battle Of The Five Armies is described to the reader after the event. Showing the ebb and flow of battle on screen takes up ample (if slightly repetitive) time. Fortunately, there’s not much padding added to the rest of the film and the running time clocks in at a relatively brisk two hours and twenty four minutes/
JRR Tolkien may have created the world of Middle Earth and written the stories and characters that bring it to life, but the films are very much Peter Jackson’s variations on the theme. Thus he has seen fit to excise certain characters, introduce his own and tweak the narrative when it suited his vision. I don’t have a problem with this at all. If I want the pure Tolkein version of this magnificent story, I can read the books. This is Jackson’s sweeping vision of the story, and despite the odd indulgence or misstep here or there, he’s set the standard for fantasy filmmaking for decades to come.
Some of the action and violence this time around seemed a touch edgier than before, especially in some of the graphic scenes of immolation as Smaug destroys Laketown and later, when swords and axes are flailing, on screen decapitations are conspicuously plentiful. While the large scale action set-pieces in “The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies” have a touch of ‘been there, seen that’ about them, what Jackson does manage to get absolutely right are the individual showdowns between the key characters and their nemeses. The showdown between Thorin and Azog and the pitched battle between Legolas and Bolg are both action packed and satisfying in terms of bringing the conflict and characters to their conclusions.
Away from the action, the quieter moments serve to highlight just how well Jackson understood these characters and the care he chose in casting them. Martin Freeman, given precious little to do in his own sequel (kind of like a Middle Earth Superman) excels in the small but pivotal role Bilbo plays in both defying and redeeming Thorin, and thankfully Richard Armitage finally repays Jackson’s faith in him by delivering a credible and charismatic leader for the dwarves to rally round rather than the petulant hoarder of the previous film. The rest of the returning cast are as good as you would expect and the most obvious addition of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is far better integrated into the story this time round.
There will always be those who say the material was stretched too thinly over these three movies but I have no hesitation in snapping up the extended versions when they’re released. Why? Because such is the quality of these films and the care which has gone into making them that even indulgent, expository additions are welcome, giving me the opportunity to dwell a few more minutes inside this incredible world. Hopefully they’ll also bring a bit more Beorn and Radagast because there just wasn’t enough, dammit.
This was my favourite of The Hobbit Movies, and possibly my second favourite out of the whole Middle Earth cycle. Luckily, with over twenty-four hours of actual movie to watch, I’ll never be far from the adventures of men, elves and dwarves again.