Should you go to see The Battle of the Five Armies?
This is really the core question any review ought to help answer, so that’s the one I’ll try to address. And since this is intended for readers who have not seen it yet, I’ll do my best to avoid any spoilers.
Caveat: I am assuming that you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies and the first two in the Hobbit offerings.
Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) are excellent, and most of the other actors turn in wonderful performances as well. A few scenes intended to be heartrending come off a bit hammy, but others tug the right chords. Billy Connolly (Dain Ironfoot) doesn’t get much screen time, but makes an impression with what little he has.
From magic to mayhem on the battlefield, no expense was spared in the treatment of Five Armies as a Hollywood blockbuster. Based on the previous five movies, this is nothing unexpected.
OK, here’s my first surprise: they actually did a good job with this one. I was critical of the first two movies (especially The Desolation of Smaug) as disjointed, rambling, and crammed too full of distractions to the main story. While there is still a bit of fat on the plot (you can see Peter Jackson’s vision of a Lord of the Rings tie-in all too clearly), I think the multifaceted conflict of the Five Armies was well done.
The Hobbit (a.k.a. Hobbit Prime, the paper and ink version) didn’t go into painstaking detail on the battle itself. But if it had, I think this was in keeping with the heroic, yet tragic, view of warfare in the Lord of the Rings.
For the first time in the three movies, I felt like Tauriel was more than the token female love interest. While she may have been a good character, she hadn’t seemed like a particularly necessary one. Now, Five Armies connects some dots and shows how she fits into the larger narrative.
Just because you can CGI it, doesn’t mean you should. The elf and dwarf armies, at times, dip into the Uncanny Valley threshold, if it can be applied to crowds. Military precision is one thing; forming a shield wall like Rockettes doing kicks is another. Also, I believe elvish archers are some form of hive mind.
Overall, the action scenes were great. There was scope and grandeur when needed, and swirling chaos when things were viewed close up. But there were times … oh my were there times … when you just had to roll your eyes and wonder who said: “We need this for the video game tie-in.” I think if you tell yourself that anything with just “Legolas + some orcs who didn’t survive” was pieced together from Legolas’ memoirs, and he exaggerated greatly.
The cowardly, whiny, second hand man to the Master of Laketown could easily have been excised from the narrative early on. There is even an obvious place to do it. But yet he crops up from time to time throughout the movie. Maybe he was meant to be comic relief. Maybe he was meant to be a counterpoint to the heroism all around him. However he is too loathsome to be funny and too comical to be credible as a straw man coward. He is no Wormtongue.
This is The Battle of the Five Armies, not The Desolation of Smaug. And yet, they left Desolation as a cliffhanger, then prove that Smaug’s plotline could have been ended in just a few more minutes. The beginning of Five Armies should have been included in Desolation, letting both movies stand better on their own.
The flaws in this one are more nitpicky than detracting from the whole. I went in worrying that this was going to be another disappointment like Desolation of Smaug, where the key elements were tinkered with to the point of ruin. However, there was so little original material to work with that there was little risk of mucking it up. Instead, telling a mostly original story, Peter Jackson made a winner. There were a few key points from The Hobbit to hit, and for the most part, they got those spot on (apart from a bit of dwarf math). It’s like taking a cross-country trip from Boston to L.A., and only being given the constraint that you had to pass through Ohio and Nevada before you finished.
If you’ve seen the first two movies, even if you were lukewarm (or worse) on them, go see The Battle of the Five Armies. This one is so much more than a CGI spectacle showcasing a dragon.