We took advantage of the school break to take in a matinee of the final movie in The Hobbit Trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies. Now, for the record, I never had a real problem with director Peter Jackson breaking the story into three films instead of the two that were planned; the escape from the goblins in the first movie and the unleashing of the dragon Smaug in the second seemed like ideal break points to me. Having said that though, I have to agree with one common criticism: the movies are too long, and this one is no different. I'm still glad we went, though.
As an adaptation, BOFA is a qualified success. While it does feel poorly paced, and much of the new material rather unnecessary, the tone and overall story make it through largely intact. Does The Hobbit need a love story as a sub-plot? No, but Evangeline Lilly is great fun to watch as an elf, and the romantic angle is played out awkwardly and earnestly, and with respect for the characters.
Do we need to see the dismantling of Dol Guldûr, which is barely mentioned outside of the appendices of Tolkien's original work? Heck no, but tell me it isn't great to see Cate Blanchett cradling Gandalf's head like in a painting by the Brothers Hildebrandt, or Christoper Lee whooping ass as pre-corruption Saruman.
Do we need as much backstory as we get about the corruption of the government in Laketown and the need for regime change? No, but it makes the eventual leadership of Bard the Bowman a little easier to swallow in a narrative sense.
The movie's greatest successes lie in Jackson's ability to deftly handle both epic battle scenes and small interactions with one or two characters. In particular, Bilbo's (Martin Freeman) exchanges with Thorin (Richard Armitage) as the latter slides deeper into paranoia and greed, perhaps brought on by 'dragon sickness', but equally as likely to be common selfishness exacerbated by years of homelessness, really strike a chord about the deeper meaning of the story, and gives two excellent actors room to work.
Likewise, the panoply of arms, armours and creatures (especially mounts!) in the eponymous climactic battle remind us just how good Jackson is at depicting these fantasy battles, while grounding them in the appropriate loss and horror associated with war. There is cool stuff to be seen, surely, but the cost is never left to doubt.
The battle itself takes over 45 minutes to resolve, but my biggest issue with it is that the last third is less about The Battle of the Five Armies as it is The Showdowns for a Half Dozen Key Characters. Once we start following the fortunes of Thorin, Bilbo, Legolas and the others, the outcome of the actual engagement becomes almost an afterthought, which strikes me as a bit of a shame.
Still, in the book, the battle is a single chapter, told after-the-fact, and is a bit anticlimactic, so more adherence there is not the answer. And despite devolving into skirmishes between larger than life characters, none of the intensity or gravitas is lost.
Most importantly, and the real reason most of us have gone to see this bloated but magnificent spectacle, is that the canvas of Middle Earth remains a great canvas for telling escapist stories with a moral component, especially in the loving hands of creatives like Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyen. Everything we see onscreen, from the settings and sculptures to the clothes and armour, build upon the tremendous verisimilitude created by Tolkien those many years ago, and make us believe that Middle Earth is a shared place we can let our imaginations go to, in order to get those things we feel our own world can't provide for us. For this reason, three Hobbit movies are both too much, and also not enough.