Title: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Director: Peter Jackson
Major Players: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage
Out Of Five: 3.5
Spot the similarity! This third and final instalment of The Hobbit saga (and the whole Middle Earth series as well) gets exactly the same rating as part two – and that was a film that left me decidedly tepid. Actually, The Hobbit:The Battle Of The Five Armies is a better film overall than its predecessor, but it has just as many downsides.
Originally, this was going to be The Hobbit: There And Back Again, rather anodyne for a film centring on one almighty showdown. The Battle Of The Five Armies at least does what it says on the tin. And it picks up just a heartbeat after the moment where The Desolation of Smaug ended, with the venomous dragon soaring into the sky to wreck vengeance on the people of Laketown for helping Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves. And he’s a dwarf with his hands full. Not only does he have to face of the consequences of awakening Smaug, but there’s the small matter of tracking down the Arkenstone, which starts to send him round the bend, and the armies of Orcs descending on his newly-reclaimed kingdom.
And it all gets off to a red hot start. Literally. There were plenty of things I didn’t like about part two, but Smaug wasn’t one of them. He was – and is – a great creation, this time flying high to breathe fire and destruction on the people of Laketown. Sadly, though, he’s not around for long as he gets a nasty case of spear in the stomach delivered by Bard (Luke Evans) and that’s your lot. And his.
But starting the film at that point and plunging straight into the action comes with a downside if you’ve not seen any of the other movies or read the book. No allowance is made for newbies/latecomers, unlike the recent Mockingjay Part 1, which managed to seamlessly incorporate gap-fillers into the script. Here, Peter Jackson and company appear to have assumed that everybody, but everybody, knows the story inside out. It smacks of arrogance – and I’ve got news for them …..
Which means some of the audience may be mystified by Gandalf (Ian McKellan) appearing from nowhere, suspended in a metal cage and being freed by a less than benevolent Orc. But at least it ties up that particular loose end. The cast is the same as before, of course, and there’s some other returning faces. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel gives Sauron what for, and Christopher Lee’s Saramon is right behind her, plus Hugo Weaving is back as Elrond, but don’t you dare blink when he’s on the screen.
The film’s running time is a practical improvement over last time. At two hours 20, it’s 40 minutes shorter than The Desolation of Smaug, and all the better for it – tighter and more disciplined. The storyline is less repetitive as well. Last time, it was dwarves get into trouble, elves rescue them, dwarves get into trouble, elves rescue them – and again and again. This time there’s much more in the way of an actual story and with big scale battles enhanced by some decent enough 3-D. And there’s a big leap into darkness when it comes to the tone, which is more sombre and sinister than before. That makes it more in keeping with the book which, when published in 1937, was clearly intended as an allegory about impending war.
So what’s the catch? Curiously, it’s partially down to the special effects, 3-D excepted. On a more basic level, there is nobody on earth – Middle or otherwise – who will believe that it’s Christopher Lee fighting Sauron up there on the screen. His body double is far too obviously young and athletic, as is Ian McKellan’s. There’s some very strange jiggery-pokery going on when Galadriel confronts Sauron. I’m not sure what Jackson was aiming at with the weird colour changes and even more bizarre voice distortion, but it’s deeply unsatisfying. And there are some decidedly lumpy moments in the curiously bloodless battles: not one of the numerous decapitations produces the slightest little spurt.
There’s also a serious misjudgement with the introduction of Dain (Billy Connolly), who rocks up with his army to support his brother Thorin. I’ll ignore the fact that he has a Scottish accent and Oakenshield a northern one. Visually, you wouldn’t know it was Connolly – he’s buried under a huge helmet and extravagant beard – but there’s no mistaking that voice, especially when he describes the enemy as “buggers”. And it’s his voice that’s the problem. Did they really need to give what is essentially a small role to such a big name with an instantly recognisable voice? It’s extremely distracting.
The Battle Of The Five Armies is reputedly the most expensive film production ever, costing in excess of £462 million. Some has clearly been well spent, but the rest has disappeared down a black hole somewhere in the vicinity of Middle Earth. Which doesn’t stop it being a more satisfying experience than part two. But it does mean it’s not the film it could so easily have been.
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is released around the UK on Friday, 12 December.