Movies of adventure in more than two parts are often referred to as sagas, but no series fits that description better than Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films. A saga by definition is a long, heroic and detailed narrative. His groundbreaking Lord of the Rings trilogy truly did justice to J.R.R Tolkien’s source material, especially in their definitive extended editions. Much has been written and discussed of the need and purpose of extending The Hobbit, a single and much shorter tale than any of the Rings volumes. But there can be no doubting that Jackson is a passionate Tolkienite who truly wraps himself up in the Middle Earth universe and has both earned and allowed himself artistic license to extend upon themes and sub plots that even Tolkien himself pondered for inclusion in his children’s story. However, it seemed obvious from the first thirty, painful minutes of singing dwarves in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that this particular saga would be long…and drawn out. Perhaps two films as planned by Guillermo del Toro would have best suited the rise, peak and fall in the narrative of the book. That the peak was presented at the end of the second instalment; The Desolation of Smaug, an improvement but still not wholly satisfying film, left many wondering how Jackson would stretch the footnotes in the book over 144 minutes. The answer is with a film that still frustrates, but recalls more of the screen magic from the original Trilogy than either of the previous chapters and provides pleasing closure to the Middle Earth saga as a whole.
We are wisely plunged straight into the action with no flashback or preamble and what follows is a dazzling and hugely impressive sequence where previously dormant dragon, Smaug, unleashes fire and fry upon the homes and residents of the floating lake town of…’Lake-town’. What makes the scene all the more effective is that Jackson pushes the human cost and consequence to the fore. Action is often presented at eye level in houses to capture the fear, panic and helplessness in the fleeing towns-people. The scale of the beast is made all the more impressive from this perspective and Jackson does well to reign in the temptation to use computer camera trickery to constantly barrel-roll and swirl around the dragon. Something he could have learned from in capturing the film’s later battles. As bodies are washed up in the ruin, parallels to Spielberg’s Omaha beach are obvious but no less affecting. It’s a grand opening statement of intent which the film never quite tops.
Much of the story centres on Dwarf King Thorin. Plagued by “dragon sickness” and surrounded by gold, he has been corrupted by greed and his rule becomes a danger to all; men, elves and dwarves alike. Indeed, an alternative title could have been ‘The Hobbit: The Dwarf’. The furry footed Martin Freeman is largely absent from much of the final part of his trilogy and this absence is felt. But after two film’s worth of character growth the ensemble cast are able to stretch their legs and for the most part, the film is all the better for it. Richard Armitage as the aforementioned Thorin is excellent. Artfully allowing glimpses of his character’s former self to creep through in the many silent and intense close ups used to portray his inner conflict. The re-treading of forbidden elvish love finally comes to fruition as Evangeline Lily transcends the clumsy script to provide genuine and much needed emotion. But just as there seems to be development in characterisation and story, we are fired headfirst into battle; The Battle of the Five Armies. I counted three armies at first, then four. Five at a stretch. And stretch is the optimum word here as it soon becomes obvious that this is to be a hugely protracted conflict.
Extended battles scenes are all well and good but they work best when we have a vested interest. Much of the problem is that the fighting means nothing when you don’t care about the outcome. It is very hard to empathise with the plight of a character who is implausibly bounding up falling stone in mid-air like a green-garbed Super Mario brother. Even harder when said character is played by Orlando Bloom. The tone of The Hobbit films is a far more humorous fantasy than Rings but this sits slightly uneasily in the third instalment which constantly hammers home pathos and directly sets up the dramatic and altogether darker thematic arc of the original Trilogy. Comic relief is more than welcome in epics but just when it has drawn you in, Five Armies crosses the line into pantomime on too many occasions. See, for example, Billy Connolly leading an army of dwarves onto the field of battle riding a pig. Sounds amazing, right? Somehow it’s mis-timed and ill judged, like much of the CGI-heavy action. The adage of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should applies again here.
It is telling that the film’s most successful and memorable set piece is also it’s most concise. A viscerally charged battle between the Ring Wraiths, an impressively rendered Christopher Lee in full on Kung-Fu mode and a demonic Cate Blanchett. The action is punchy and dynamic where so many of the film’s other engagements grow repetitive and wearisome. It also pulls the neat trick of bridging the trilogies through the audience’s knowledge of a character’s future progression.
One hour and SEVEN armies later, the hostilities end. As does our time in Jackson’s Middle Earth. Bilbo returns to The Shire and the realisation that after such an adventure, home can never be the same again. And for all of the series’ shortcomings, neither will fantasy cinema.