This review for the third Hobbit film is coming out almost a month after release, because I had a crazy thought while watching it and I wanted to check the first two again to make sure they supported it. They did, so here’s my theory:
Peter Jackson has spent the last three years trolling us.
Take any of the complaints levelled at the original Lord of the Rings trilogy and, regardless of whether you agree with them (which I don’t), you’ll find every single one repeated tenfold in the Hobbit movies. This has mostly been interpreted as Jackson, unrestrained and power-mad, giving in to all his worst tendencies. But in The Battle of the Five Armies, it’s taken to such ridiculous extremes that I can only assume he’s been doing it on purpose the whole time.
Sick of the eagles saving everyone at the last moment? Here they do it again, and Bilbo even comments on it. Too much CGI? There’s a dwarf here who’s entirely CG even though I’m sure they filmed the actor in makeup. Bothered by the needless prequelising, and endless shout-outs to Lord of the Rings? Behold the scene where a bunch of characters from the original trilogy gather to fight villains from the original trilogy, mostly using references to the original trilogy. Annoyed by Legolas’ increasingly ridiculous, videogame stunt sequences? In Five Armies almost every scene he’s in becomes one of those. Think Jackson’s sequences drag on for too long, and have too many endings? There’s a character here who keeps coming back from seeming death again and again for easily half an hour. Don’t like all the daft humour amid the more serious moments? There’s tonnes of it this time and, perhaps intentionally, much of it involves actual trolls.
All of which, of course, sounds incredibly negative. Except that, if Jackson really is trolling us – and, again, I truly believe he is – he’s doing it with such wild abandon that I loved every second of it.
One of my favourite moments of this third film is when, in the heat of battle, a dwarf declares that they need to reach the top of that cliff over there. In the very next shot the dwarves are all suddenly riding what I can only describe as armoured battle-sheep. We’ve never seen them before, they just appear with no explanation, and they proceed to run vertically up the cliff with an insane disregard for physics.
This sequence has everything people complain about. The solution comes out of nowhere, relies too heavily on digital effects, it looks and feels like a computer game, and it’s being funny in the middle of a serious battle. And – here’s the thing – it’s awesome! It’s revelling in pure imagination and invention, and there’s such an innocent and honest joy to it. More than anything, it’s just fun!
And that’s only one of a thousand moments I could have chosen. I could also have picked the part where Billy Connolly starts headbutting people to death, or the part where a child gets used as a makeshift ballista, or the epic wizard tag-team ghost smackdown, or the angry skydiving bear, or the ludicrous moment where Legolas tries to outdo Tai Lung from Kung Fu Panda. These are all things that happen in The Battle of the Five Armies, they’re all basically crazy, and they’re all amazing to watch unfold on screen. My jaw was on the floor for most of this film, as I struggled to believe what I was seeing.
The Battle of the Four Pages
The reason Jackson can get away with any of this is that, as depicted in the book (I just checked my copy), the titular battle comes to a grand total of four pages. And they’re not exactly very descriptive pages either. We’re given the broad strokes – we know who wins and loses, who lives and who dies – but the details are completely up for grabs. The first two Hobbits had moments of this, where they expanded on the book and filled in the blanks, but this time it’s the main conceit of the whole movie.
The result is a non-stop barrage of incredible, creative moments. It’s like Jackson and his team storyboarded all their wildest ideas and then found a way to use every single one. Which is, of course, the exact weakness this new trilogy has been accused of from the start – a serious lack of restraint. But here that weakness is revealed as a strength, although that shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Before he conquered Middle-Earth, Jackson’s most famous scene involved a lawnmower, a house full of zombies, and more fake blood than any other film ever! Excess has always been this director’s strength, and it’s a blast to just watch him and his team cut loose like this. Where the first two films were clearly trying very hard (but not always successfully) to entertain their audience, this one is far too busy enjoying itself to care – and that turns out to be far more entertaining.
Likewise, Five Armies seems much more comfortable with its tone. Its predecessors often seemed to whiplash between the darker nature of the Rings films, and the much lighter feel of Tolkien’s children’s story – between Gandalf being tortured by orcs, and daft song-and-dance routines about plates – and that contrast often hurt the films. This third outing finds a comfortable middle-ground, giving us a heightened and more fanciful version of Middle-Earth that’s equally suited to both ridiculous action and serious drama.
The drama in question is easily the best in the trilogy, too, as Richard Armitage’s Thorin slowly succumbs to greed and madness. The performances, like the action, are pitched slightly over-the-top, and it all gels nicely together. Even the dwarf-elf romance – a groanworthy addition to the second movie – works a lot better here, especially when it’s coupled with Lee Pace’s wonderfully deadpan Thranduil.
I’ve heard people comment that the actual hobbit gets unfairly sidelined in this one, but I completely disagree. He may not have any big whacky action beats, but Bilbo is an ever-present and pivotal force in this story. More than that, he’s the beating heart that holds the film together and makes it more than just a two-hour action montage. Martin Freeman, who has always been exceptional in the role, makes Bilbo a hero in his own quiet, hobbity way. The final moments of this trilogy are entirely Bilbo’s, and they’re the perfect bittersweet send-off to Tolkien’s world.
Here, at the end of all things…
For me, the lowest point in Jackson’s entire oeuvre is the finale of the second Hobbit film. All that bollocks about furnaces and golden statues, with the mighty dragon Smaug reduced to whining like a stupid child. It’s awful, and I assumed – I hoped – that I’d never have to think about it again. But there’s a moment in the third movie that calls back to it in a really meaningful and clever way. It’s unexpected and unexpectedly powerful, and everything I hated about that scene feeds into what makes this new one work. Suddenly that rubbish action scene means something – its existence is justified, maybe even redeemed. And that’s sort of how I feel about this whole final film.
The Battle of the Five Armies takes all the things that didn’t seem to work in the last two – the out-of-place humour and hyperactive set-pieces – and turns them up to the proverbial eleven. In doing so, it justifies everything that came before. More than that, it reveals that those were the important parts all along. The Hobbit was always meant to be a madcap action romp full of crazy ideas, we were just too busy expecting a Lord of the Rings prequel to realise that. That’s why I used the word “trolling” – because Jackson has been messing with us this whole time, giving us exactly what we didn’t want and using our expectations against us.
Now that the curtain has dropped away, the Hobbit trilogy stands revealed as an insanely inventive and wonderfully different take on Tolkien’s world. Yes, it stumbled occasionally and, yes, it probably didn’t need to be three films long – but it gave us something new and unusual and filled with unforgettable moments. The Battle of the Five Armies is definitely not the movie I expected or thought I wanted – and I could not be happier about that.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is still showing right now in the UK and US. Our reviewer quested across the land to buy his own ticket, and saw the film in dragon-sized IMAX 3D.