Thoughts on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

“I will not say, do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”

As always, the words of Gandalf the Gray prove quite appropriate. Here at last, after thirteen years, comes the end of our journey. And what an end it is.

The Hobbit has proven to be a divisive film series and the amount of vitriol and bitterness directed at Peter Jackson and company has been a bit depressing, and in my opinion, misplaced. Put simply, the majority of people I have met who have disliked these films have done so based upon a vague remembrance of a book they read in their childhood. They claim to love the book, but have no real memory of the events that take place within it. A separate blog post will be posted in the near future focusing on this topic, explaining why I think Jackson was justified in his additions and the startling idea that adaptation does not equal translation when it comes to making a book into a film. For now, I’ll just say that as a person that rereads the four main Tolkien books every year, I was completely satisfied.

Onwards.

When we last left Bilbo Baggins and the company of Thorin Oakenshield, they had failed to kill a dragon. Now, the red drake of the north, Smaug, Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, bears down upon Laketown with murder in his heart. Despite his massive importance in the tale of Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves, it is obvious from the trailers that Smaug is not long for Middle Earth. After his exit, all eyes turn to the Lonely Mountain (also known as the dwarf Kingdom of Erebor) and the vast hoard of treasure that now sits unguarded beneath it. Thorin and company quickly take refuge within the mountain and prepare to receive those that would stake a claim upon the immense wealth hidden within it. Soon to be besieged by multiple forces, their problems are further compounded as Thorin begins to succumb to his family’s ancestral Dragon Sickness – an illness of the mind that makes one value gold and wealth above all else. Though men and elves seek to take the mountain, it is soon clear that other, darker forces have also been waiting for this moment. When a massive orc army appears, the forces of men, elves, and dwarves must make a choice on whether to put aside their differences or fall to the ruin of Middle Earth.

Epic though this story may be, at the heart of this tale is a hobbit. Bilbo Baggins is not the same person he was when he left the Shire. Peril and violence have changed him from a fretful homebody into a reluctant adventurer, completely invested in the plight of the dwarves of Erebor, and more widely, that of the free peoples of Middle Earth. Through all of his hardships, he still encompasses the purity and stalwartness that define his race in both Tolkien and Jackson’s work. Like Frodo and Sam before him (or after, depending how you look at it), no matter the circumstances, Bilbo’s inherent goodness shines bright. I have long been a fan of Martin Freeman, but his turn as Bilbo in this film is undoubtedly my favorite performance of his. The trajectory of Bilbo’s character arc here gives Freeman ample room to explore the depth of Bilbo as a character. Despite his long, life-changing journey, in every scene Freeman makes his struggle against the impassivity of his Bagginsness apparent. Bilbo is often faced with the choice between safe passivity and dangerous initiative (his Tookish urges). Like all great heroes, he chooses the latter, for Bilbo is never driven by thoughts of wealth or power, but those of loyalty, friendship, and love. Though he is beaten and battered, both physically and emotionally, he remains Bilbo, good to the very core; he is courageous in the face of death, a voice of reason in times of conflict, and most importantly, he always sees the best in people. Freeman effortlessly embodies all of this in a performance that is both honest and subtle and I have not words to describe just how perfectly he portrayed one of my favorite literary characters. Though I knew it wouldn’t happen, it is a shame that he will not receive any nominations for this excellent, moving performance.

Bilbo’s journey would not be so affecting if it were not so heavily intertwined with that of Thorin Oakenshield, again played by Richard Armitage. Once disgraced and destitute, the stoic and determined dwarf king proved a worthy leader, leading his company through hardship and pain all the way back to their mountain home. However, what should be a joyous celebration is marred by the resurgence of an old illness. Glimpsed in The Desolation of Smaug when Thorin asks Bilbo about the location of the Arkenstone, the Dragon Sickness that has plagued Thorin’s lineage returns with the reclamation of the Mountain. Thorin descends into madness, seeing enemies in his friends and allies, and reneging upon his promise to restore a portion of the dwarves’ gold to the people of Laketown. As tensions mount and multiple armies arrive at the gates of Erebor, Thorin’s volatile, capricious nature threatens to spark a war that could send all of Middle Earth into chaos. It is only through his company of loyal dwarves and the efforts of a certain hobbit that he stands any chance at redemption.

Like Freeman, Armitage’s work in the first two installments of this series has been spot on. His Thorin encapsulates the regal solemnity of an exiled king who wishes only to restore his people to their former majesty, yet one who is also fully aware of how slim his chances are of achieving that lofty goal. He, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, fears his family’s historical weakness, yet must face it if he is to truly become King Under the Mountain. In showing Thorin’s growing insanity, Armitage gives what can only be described as a Shakespearean performance. Through his muttered grievances, furtive glances, and unpredictable mood swings, Armitage displays Thorin’s precarious mental state in a way that is neither overblown nor ponderous. Mad Thorin has the volatility of Hamlet and the warmongering apathy of Macbeth, all stirred into a character of incredible potency. The scenes with Thorin and Bilbo were my favorite in the film, alternatively touching and heartbreaking as we see Bilbo struggle mightily to save his friend. This film is a tale of two leads; if one didn’t work, the story would have suffered. I’m happy to say that Armitage was just as brilliant and thoughtful in his portrayal of Thorin as I had hoped he would be and I echo my sentiments on Freeman here as well in saying that he too deserves a nomination for his work. I haven’t seen a character so compelling in such a classic way in some time.

As for the supporting cast, they are uniformly impressive. What can be said for Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf? His portrayal of the character is iconic and flawless. As always, Gandalf remains a voice of wisdom in difficult times, there to remind those of what matters most and galvanize the forces of good into action. Thanks to Peter Jackson and company’s expansion of the narrative using the appendices materials, we are made privy to Gandalf’s time away from Bilbo and the dwarves. His encounter with the Necromancer of Dol Guldur is both memorable and fun and the narrative of the film (and subsequently, The Lord of the Rings) is strengthened by its inclusion.

Of the dwarves, Graham McTavish and Ken Stott turn in wonderful performances as the brothers Dwalin and Balin respectively. Though given little screen time, McTavish imbues within Dwalin an acute sense of anguish over his friend and leader’s descent into madness, while Stott laments that he might see Thorin succumb to the same fate of both his father and grandfather. Both share important scenes with Bilbo that remind the audience of just how far these characters have come together as well as the nearness of their journey’s end.

Of the human characters, Luke Evans’ Bard is a standout. Evans embodies the spirit of a man who wants nothing more than to live in peace so that he may raise his family. Bard’s honorable and steadfast nature make him an easy character to like, and Evans’ admirable performance goes a long way in endearing the audience to a character that is merely described as “grim” in the book. A sequence involving his son in the opening scene is one of the most emotional points of the film and a highlight for the human faction in one of the least human-heavy films of the Middle Earth series.

Completing the triumvirate of Middle Earth’s noble, warring races, the Elves once again make an appearance. Lee Pace (or He of the Glorious Eyebrows) glares and scoffs his way through a perfectly dickish version of Thranduil, the Elven King of Mirkwood. However, thankfully, there are cracks here in Thranduil’s mask of ambivalence; he is not as cold as he would like to seem. A particularly subtle sub-story involving his strained relationship with his son, Legolas, and an old pain make him a compelling character and one who specifically benefited from the additional material. Orlando Bloom reprises his iconic role as the elven prince, Legolas Greenleaf. This Legolas is far more headstrong and less serene than his older, wiser self found in The Lord of the Rings and it is interesting to see how the events of this film changed him. Though many have complained that he shares an unnecessary “love triangle” with the elf warrior, Tauriel (played once again by Lost’s Evangeline Lilly), I found it to be exceptionally well done and subtle. Legolas has clearly expressed feelings for Tauriel, but he *gasp!* does not make any demands upon her or pressure her to reciprocate his feelings. He remains a steadfast friend and ally that is both supportive and respectful of her decisions. Who knew that The Hobbit would feature one of the best examples of respecting women in a film this year? It was refreshing, to say the least. Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel also enjoys a heightened importance this time around, performing the important role of helping to break the elves (and mainly Thranduil) out of their isolationist mindset as well as showcasing that love really does transcend the bounds of race and culture. Some have said that the intense feelings between her and the dwarf Kili (Being Human’s Aidan Turner) have developed too quickly, but considering that Middle Earth is basically an analogue for our historical medieval ages, it works. Very few question the romance in Romeo and Juliet, which is perhaps even more outlandish.

Finally, though the forces of evil are vast, there is one that stands at their head. Azog the Defiler returns in a final attempt to end the line of Durin forever and seize the Lonely Mountain for the forces of darkness. Manu Bennett (known for his work as Crixus on the show Spartacus) reprises his role as the Pale Orc, bringing all of the gravitas, hostility, and brutal physicality that he displayed in the first two films. Though Azog is, at his core, an evil and power-hungry creature, Bennett imbues within him an intelligence not often seen in the evil forces of Middle Earth. Azog, despite his roared orders and leering grin, also displays moments of quiet thoughtfulness and a begrudging respect for his arch-nemesis, Thorin. Though I love The Lord of the Rings films, they do lack a primary, physical antagonist. In Azog, The Hobbit has that, and I found the viciously personal nature of the animosity between him and Thorin fascinating. Their hatred is a deep, old thing, nurtured over years and miles. Their meeting in this film’s climax is almost marked by destiny, inevitable, and the only fitting end to their story. On the technical side, I don’t think I have ever seen a CGI creation more convincing than Azog the Defiler. Weta Digital astounded me earlier in the year with their work on Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but here, they have outdone themselves, presenting the audience with a creation for which there is no real world reference. Azog moves with a real sense of weight, his muscles sliding beneath his pearlescent skin. The pores of his face are visible, obscured by dirt and rivulets of sweat. Perhaps most impressive are his eyes; pale, blue, and expressive. This is truly the purest form of cinema magic I have seen this year and it made me believe.

I could go on and on about the characters and performances in this film, but I shall spare you considering the already lengthy nature of this post. As for the other aspects of the film (removed from Weta’s general wizardry), the sets are lavish and detailed, the costumes are gorgeous and memorable, and the score by the irreplaceable Howard Shore hits all of the right beats, providing music that is just as moving as that found within his previous Hobbit outings and The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson’s direction remains as epic and expressive as ever. His battle scenes are dynamic and exciting, yet never overdone. He knows when to show armies clashing and when to focus on the intense character drama taking place within the story. The cinematography (provided by series cinematographer Andrew Lesnie) is uniformly lovely and creative as expected. If one were to make a drinking game of panoramic shots of New Zealand’s amazing landscape, they would undoubtedly die. The beauty of the sets and locations are effectively transferred to the screen and the dialogue scenes, particularly those involving the primary characters, are masterfully shot. The last ten minutes are especially moving for diehard Tolkien/Jackson fans, and I am happy to report that a majority of the most memorable quotes from book are related with very few alterations.

If you could not tell, I adored this movie. I loved it from beginning to end. The Lord of the Rings films remain my favorite films of all time and I can’t wait to put these next to them upon my shelf (though I await the extended edition of this film with bated breath). Thrilling, heartfelt, suitably epic, yet also very personal, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is everything I wanted from this series and more. As a whole, this trilogy represents the most complete version of the story we are ever likely to get and I for one could not be happier.

So to all of those who have shared this long journey with me, I say, “Namárië.” May you live happily ever after, to the end of your days.

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