There and back again12/24/2014
“The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies”
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage
The age of natural wonder is over for films. No longer do we leave the theater asking each other “How did they do that?” because we know the answer is almost always “computers.” We have reached a saturation point where filmmakers can no longer “wow” an audience strictly through special effects. Director Peter Jackson had lost sight of that for a minute — but he seems to be better now.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is the third installment in Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, all based off JTT Tolkien’s source material. In this one (and this paragraph is clearly written under the impression that you’ve already seen the previous two installments), the dwarves have retaken their ancestral home in the Lonely Mountain. The dragon Smaug is slain, and now the kingdoms of men, elves and orcs all turn their eyes toward the Mountain and the untold riches contained within.
For each race, the motivations are different. The humans have lost their only city in the realm to Smaug’s final destructive rampage, and the dwarven king Thorin (Richard Armitage) had previously promised the men a portion of the reclaimed dwarven gold in exchange for their assistance. For the elves, the dwarven hold contains a portion of their racial heritage amongst the other gold and jewels, and they aim to reclaim them. And the orcs — as you know if you’ve seen anything Peter Jackson has done in the past decade — just love wrecking stuff.
So that is it — a band of 13 dwarves have set up shop on top of a limitless pile of gold, and literally everyone else in the land feels like they have a reason to come take some. From that conceit on, “Five Armies” has a number of parallels to the middle film of Jackson’s previous Tolkien trilogy, “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Both films are built almost entirely around large-scale battles, and, once they get started, both films are the most exhilarating experiences in theaters for their respective years.
There are a litany of criticisms one can level at Jackson’s film making, but two truths are unassailable: He’s got a deep love and respect for the work of Tolkien, and there is nobody on the planet who does large-scale warfare the way he does. It takes “Five Armies” nearly an hour to get cranked up to speed, but once it does, even the most cynical filmgoers will be riveted to their seats.
To be sure, the Hobbit trilogy depends upon computer-generated imagery (CGI) more than the Lord of the Rings films — and that’s saying a lot. For many, it was disappointing to see Jackson put less of a reliance on miniatures and forced perspective and more on computer animation. But the large scale, open field battles that “Five Armies” focuses on are where the technology works best, and all of the film’s sweeping scenes look amazing.
From a story standpoint, you will be lost if you haven’t seen the previous two installments. But, do you know what? Even that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this film on its most basic level, because the action sequences (which are most of the film) are absolutely heart-pounding, and the way in which the action builds — first two armies on the field, then three and four, with a late-arriving contingent of eagles making five — is absolutely masterful.
The excitement and action inherent in the large, sweeping battles is wonderfully counterpointed by the performance of Martin Freeman as the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Jackson plays Bilbo mostly for laughs in the first film but really begins to develop his nuance in film two. Finally, here, Bilbo’s complexity as a fully developed, compassionate character is in full bloom, and he is easily the best-developed character in the trilogy. CV