"If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world." ~ Thorin
"You have but one question to answer: how shall this day end?" ~ Gandalf
"When faced with death, what can anyone do?" Bilbo Baggins
Peter Jackson brings his trilogy adaptation of The Hobbit to a conclusion in a big way with The Battle Of The Five Armies, a brisk but sprawling epic that closes the book on the saga but points the way forward to The Lord Of The Rings. For those of us who have loved to spend this amount of time in Middle Earth, it's a final chapter (unless Jackson decides to take on something like The Silmarillion down the line) for the saga. The film concentrates on the epic scale of forces moving against each other in Middle Earth, while emphasizing character in the relationships between the main character, weaving in themes of good, evil, ambition, greed, loss, integrity, and decency.
The film picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug, with the vengeful dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch)laying waste to Laketown. Bard (Luke Evans) is all that seems to stand in his way, and of course must have his heroic moment. In the aftermath, the dwarves who have made it into the mountain with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) find themselves concerned about their leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), who's showing more signs of the greed that consumed his grandfather and father's mental states in one way or another. Thorin is obsessed with the missing arkenstone, seeking it out, and not quite acting like himself.
Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) have survived Laketown's decimation to see another day, as have the other dwarves that remained there during the second chapter. We also catch up with Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who was in peril at the hands of the Necromancer, aka Sauron, when we last saw him. Friends in the White Council (including one who will come back to betray him a few decades down the line) intervene forcefully on his behalf. All's still not well, though, in the heart of Middle Earth, as dwarves, elves, men, and orcs all find themselves drawn into battle (this tends to happen on Middle Earth a lot).
By this point in the game, Peter Jackson knows Middle Earth as well as anyone, having had spent a considerable amount of time adapting various source material into two sprawling trilogies. He has a hand in the screenplay, along with collaborators Phillippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, and Guillermo Del Toro, who had once been attached to direct the follow up adaptation of The Hobbit. In this case, The Battle Of The Five Armies moves along at a brisk pace, more so than the first two chapters of the trilogy. It's a dark chapter, though, particularly in how it conveys the madness that overtakes the mind when greed enters the equation. And it's a poignant, heartbreaking chapter, with not everyone getting out of this alive (this is Middle Earth, after all, and we'd expect people we care about to die). It gives us closure to the story while leading us right back to where we started in 2001 in The Fellowship Of The Rings: the reunion of two old friends.
Jackson and his crew have made Middle Earth come alive yet again through multiple techniques: set, props, and costume detail feel very much of that fantasy realm. The landscapes of New Zealand suit Tolkien's world very well, and that certainly is taken advantage of by Jackson, giving us a familiar location but also one that feels otherworldly and dangerous. The look of dwarves and elves is paid such close detail, and the same applies to the Orcs, all of whom have such unique looks. I can only imagine how long the makeup process for some of them would have taken. The camerawork, of course, is signature Jackson style, able to give us the epic scale of the story, but also emphasizing the individual as he has before. I never get lost in the film; the camerawork by his cinematographers helps that along. I might suggest, however, to see this one in 2D. That's my personal aversion to 3D speaking.
When needed, CGI does what it's supposed to in giving us armies counted in the thousands, or the dire threat of Ringwraiths (after all these years, those things are still creepy) and their master Sauron. Not to mention the scale of destruction of Smaug's revenge unleashed is very impressively rendered by the special effects crew. Another essential member of the crew (at least from my point of view) is composer Howard Shore, who brings us the last score from Middle Earth with a rich variety of themes, touching on the epic and colossal while giving us the intensely personal, poignant, and intimate in his score. He even brings in a cast member from the previous trilogy, Billy Boyd, who played Peregrin Took, to sing over the end credits.
The cast is as before, astounding in their roles. He with the strange name and much sex appeal (otherwise known as Benedict Cumberbatch) once again gets double duty voicing the malevolent dragon Smaug and the Necromancer otherwise known as Sauron. Cumberbatch infuses both voice roles with a menacing undertone of malice. They're very different characters, but there's nothing remotely decent in either, and that's what he plays to. Lee Pace returns as the elvish king Thranduil, father of Legolas, and he gives the role a somewhat unhinged, not terribly likable quality. There's greed in this elf king, and an opportunistic streak, but that's what makes him work so well as a character.
Luke Evans returns again as Bard, the hero who steps up to the occasion among the residents of Laketown. His portrayal of the part continues to be that of a man of principle, whose first priority is his family, and finding himself placed into a position of responsibility. Evans plays the role with authority, acting decisively and moving forward with great courage. Ian Holm returns in a closing coda as the older Bilbo Baggins, and it's a treat to see him cantankerous yet still full of mischief. Orlando Bloom still looks ageless as Legolas, brought into the trilogy by the screenwriters, and still as deadly a fighter as ever. He plays the role as an elf chafing at the bit, torn between duty to his father and doing what he sees as the right thing to do. Evangeline Lilly is radiant as Tauriel, created for the trilogy but fitting right in. There's a real connection between she and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), and it comes across in how the two bond and banter with each other.
Christopher Lee returns as Saruman, decades before his betrayal in The Lord Of The Rings, and what strikes me first is how this actor, past ninety now, still handles himself very well physically in action scenes. He gives the wizard a sense of authority and directness- we still get the sense of not wanting to cross this man. There are hints in his performance of what's to come, and Lee seems to relish playing the role. We know not to trust him, but we find him compelling nonetheless. Sylvester McCoy returns as the wizard Radogast again. He's a comic relief sort of character- more than once he earns laughter- and he plays the role of the nature loving magician as somewhat unhinged, but in a good way. Hugo Weaving also returns as the elf king Elrond, once again playing the role with authority and force, and this time getting right into the action. And it's a treat to see Cate Blanchett return as the ethereal Galadriel of the elves, enigmatic in her speech but bold and decisive in her actions. There's a great strength in the character, and Blanchett plays to that in her performance.
As is before, it's hard to keep track of the dwarves- at least their names. With rhyming names all over the place, you need a score card to keep track of them all. However, each actor has a very distinct look, and plays their roles in unique ways that set them all apart in just the right way. Aside from Armitage and Turner returning as Thorin and Kili, the rest of the company return. Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Dean O'Gormlan, Jed Brophy, John Callen, Adam Brown, Graham McTavish, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, and William Kirchner all reprise their roles. Ken Stott certainly stands out as Balin, the wisest of the company, a steady presence for Thorin, and he sees the sickness of greed infect his friend. There's a poignancy in the character, and a sadness. Turner's take on Kili is also a standout among the dwarves. He's a charming fellow, and dashing, but there's a longing for home in the character... and a longing for that fetching elf maiden who's caught his eye. Turner has such good chemistry with Evangeline Lilly that we like the two of them together.
It is refreshing to see McKellan back as Gandalf one last time. He fits the role of the wise wizard so well, giving the character the gravitas needed. There's a sharpness to his portrayal, but also a decisiveness and inner strength. His Gandalf is a man of integrity, and that comes across throughout his performance. It has been a great character for the actor to play, and McKellan fits it so well. Richard Armitage has really made himself a reputation playing Thorin through these films. He is a bold leader, courageous even to the point of recklessness. We see here for a time the character take a different turn, consumed by greed that overrules everything- there are shades of the older Bilbo or Smeagol in that greed, or perhaps a bit of Boromir in that lust for his treasure. And yet that dark place he descends into is not the end of him, and Armitage plays the dwarf leader with great authority.
Martin Freeman was the perfect choice for the young Bilbo. We can believe that he'll one day age into Ian Holm, not only physically but in his character. He's been on a journey through these films, and the character has changed throughout. Where he started out as a hobbit happy at home and content in his life, awkward and out of place in a company of dwarves, he's moved beyond that. He's proven himself courageous, resourceful, and bold, a quick thinker and a sharp wit. Freeman's played the role in such a compelling way that we take his side, feel loyal to him. It's a terrific way to cap off the character, and set the stage for where he goes next.
So is this really the end of the line for Jackson's forays into Middle Earth? If so, it's quite a way to wrap things up... by bringing us back to where we started. There's heartbreak and loss along the way, but also the forging of bonds, the breakthrough of personal strength. And the inherent decency of a hobbit, the unlikeliest hero of all.