At one point in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Dwalin (Graham McTavish) tells a greedy, paranoid Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), “You are lesser now than you have ever been.” The same could be said to director and co-writer Peter Jackson and the conclusion of his prequel trilogy. In an interview with EW earlier this year, Jackson stressed that it was important to keep cutting back to main characters during the action scenes, “otherwise the audience gets battle fatigue.” He should have taken his own advice as this trilogy is clearly spent and left with almost nothing but hollow spectacle, hypocrisy, poor characterization, and at times becoming an outright embarrassment. If The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of cinema’s best, then Battle of the Five Armies cements The Hobbit trilogy as one of its most disappointing.
After tying up the loose end of killing Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) before the title comes up, Erebor is back under Dwarven control, but now the other races see the kingdom as up for grabs. The dwarves want it because it’s technically theirs in the first place, the people of Lake-town want it for shelter after Smaug burnt their homes to the ground, the Elves want it because it holds precious gems, and orcs want it because it’s an important strategic location to conquer the North. Matters are made worse by Thorin going mad in his search for his birthright, the Arkenstone, which Bilbo (Martin Freeman) currently holds and is afraid that returning it would only make Thorin worse, as if that were somehow possible.
The Desolation of Smaug made Thorin a sympathetic, heroic character who may have taken the spotlight away from Bilbo, but made us understand his larger drive to reclaim his home. Here, he’s just a dick whose selfishness unleashes Smaug, which results in Lake-town getting destroyed, but then he refuses to provide them sanctuary (a refusal done in the unintentionally humorous manner of Thorin talking to Bard (Luke Evans) through a hole in a wall). He somehow thinks that he and his 13 cohorts can fend off gigantic armies because he needs more gold than he could ever use.
All of this makes him despicable, but then the movie lets him off the hook by saying he has (deep breath) “dragon-sickness”. He’s just come down with an unfortunate ailment, and it’s not really his fault, so we can’t hold him too accountable for his actions; actions that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Additionally, splitting the movies from two installments to three becomes a serious liability because instead of at least watching Thorin fall into this terrible behavior, this is where he begins at Battle of the Five Armies, and we have to sit and wait for him to get better—not redeemed, because redemption implies recognizing personal wrongdoing.
As we wait for Thorin to come to his senses, we sit through at least 45 minutes to an hour of setting up the battle, a really big one that may encompass about five armies give or take depending on when they decide to show up. This lead-up includes a lot of petty bickering, which can only be set aside when the orcs show up. And just to get in some cameos because “Hey, remember how much you liked Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving)!”, the three Lord of the Rings characters show up to solve the problem of Sauron’s return by making sure he gets locked away for a good seventy years before he starts trying to reclaim The One Ring. They table the guy who can destroy the world.
Then comes the big battle, and everything comes together as a painful reminder of how far Peter Jackson fell from The Lord of the Rings. Those reminders had already surfaced in this trilogy as he chose to go with CGI orcs over putting people in makeup, and how everything looked far too shiny and clean even in the darkest moments. Personality had been polished away in favor of what was technologically more advanced, and story took a backseat to how many digital characters could be crammed into every shot.
The Lord of the Rings movies were jam-packed with CGI battles as well. One of the very first scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring is a CGI battle. But the battle isn’t the point. It’s a background to show the chaos of the war and how one desperate, unexpected moment of a soldier picking up his fallen father’s sword was able to vanquish an evil ruler.
In The Two Towers, Helm’s Deep is a long and desperate battle, but it has a personality. It’s in the rain. There’s a ton of living, breathing extras ready to perform. Within the battle, one leader falls into doubt—a doubt that will take him until the next movie to overcome—and another realizes he must rise to the challenge. More importantly, we take consistent breaks from this well-edited, easy to follow fight, and not only spend it with other characters, but characters who are speaking to the larger theme of why it’s important to fight for what’s good in this world.
The Return of the King has the biggest battle of the trilogy, but it’s anchored by a few characters who are moving through personal arcs and not just popping up for a few seconds. They’re giving a rallying cry. They dig deep to find courage. The emotional stakes are as large as the battlefield because we care about these characters.
In The Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly), a dwarf with a Scottish accent, shows up riding an armored ram because he and his people need to get in on this battle. It may as well be the “vicious cockfight” from Anchorman but with giant CGI armies instead of news anchors. They’re equally silly, but only one is being played for comedy, although I will say that Five Armies has one of the funniest battle scene moments even though it’s not played for laughs.
Watching The Battle of the Five Armies, I felt myself uneasily empathizing with people who disliked the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I could now understand why they laughed at places with names like “Gundabad” (I assume Holland is in Middle-earth), goofy special effects, a bloated runtime, and uninteresting characters. It’s painful that The Hobbit could lose the pulse of beloved characters like Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Galadriel, and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who has become such a video game character at this point that at one point he literally jumps up falling blocks; all that’s missing is a “boing” sound effect. All the good-will and world building built up by The Desolation of Smaug has been replaced by a shitty little battlefield filled with CGI armies. It becomes so tedious that at one point Dain says, “Oh, come on!”
The sole saving grace is Bilbo. Even though he’s pretty much been swallowed up by larger events since the end of An Unexpected Journey, he provides The Battle of the Five Armies‘ lone source of heart and humor. He’s the only one who treats Thorin like a friend even when it means betraying him in order to protect him. He tries to be a voice of reason and stays around to help even though he’s completed his task of infiltrating Erebor.
Aside from Bilbo, the final chapter of The Hobbit trilogy is a sad shell of the franchise filled with dull set pieces and brazen hypocrisy. Jackson earned his emotions and themes in The Lord of the Rings. It meditated on how to preserver in the darkest times and what bravery truly means. By comparison, The Battle of the Five Armies says “Greed is bad,” which is an odd statement coming from a trilogy that cost $745 million to make has made nearly $2 billion on return. That’s not to mention the narrative greed of stretching out one small book into a trilogy of movies.
When The Hobbit movies finally got a green light with Jackson returning to direct, I was so happy to return to Middle-earth. Even in the weakest moments of An Unexpected Journey, I felt like I had traveled to a land I had desperately missed. And in The Desolation of Smaug, I felt like the world had expanded and introduced new, exciting elements. With The Battle of the Five Armies, the journey has come to a crushingly disappointing conclusion where Middle-earth feels small and pointless. Peter Jackson’s battle to return to the glory of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has ended in defeat.