“Will you follow me, one last time?”
It’s time to say goodbye to Middle Earth, at least from a cinematic perspective. The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies marks the last time we shall see Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth. Sure, Ian McKellen has told us he wouldn’t be surprised to see some kind of a return. I would. There is certainly enough work from Tolkien to support future adventures, but the rights to anything beyond these books belongs to the Tolkien estate. To say they are not very fond of Jackson, New Line, Warner, or the six films themselves would be an understatement. There is great animosity there, and no amount of money is going to change that.
The Battle Of The Five Armies does a rather splendid job of giving us closure. Jackson avoids the trap he fell into when he closed out the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. This time we’re spared several endings piled one on top of the other. This film ends perfectly while still leaving us wanting more. That desire will have to be satisfied when the extended version is released, likely near next Christmas. I for one am looking forward to running the extended versions of all six films in their chronological order at that time. It’s a daunting task, but one I am determined to attack.
The Battle Of The Five Armies picks up exactly where we left off last year with The Desolation Of Smaug. His confrontation with the dwarves over, Smaug hurries to Laketown where he relishes the idea of inflicting his own brand of death and destruction. The residents flee or die, and it is up to Bard (Evans) to make up for the unfinished job of his ancestor. The devastation drives the refugees toward the LonelyMountain in hopes of claiming the portion of gold they were promised by Thorin (Armitage). But a sickness has descended on Thorin from the gold. He has become obsessed and will not part with a single coin. His determination to fight rather than yield any of his hoard sets the small company of dwarves up against an army of men and the army of the Elf-King Thranduil, who doesn’t need much of an excuse to attack the dwarves. After an added perceived betrayal by Bilbo (Freeman), it looks like a dark future for Thorin and his kin. That is until his cousin Dain (Connolly) arrives with a mighty dwarf army. But they will all need to fight together when an overwhelming army of Orcs attacks, led by Thorin’s familial enemy Azog (Bennett).
It is this epic battle that dominates a full two thirds of the film’s 144-minute running time. The scope of this battle makes this film the most like The Lord Of The Rings of all three Hobbit films. We see the familiar fighting prowess of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas that was so much a part of the first trilogy. We are even treated to a scene that sets him on the path towards the events of those films. That’s really where this film plays out its purpose effectively. It is not the better of the Hobbit films, but it is the piece that brings it all so well together. It functions as that touchstone between the works that I think will be even more evident when I finally do watch them all together late next year.
The film has its share of new characters for the screen. Thorin’s cousin Dain is played with great flair by Billy Connolly. He has one of those wonderful voices that make him instantly recognizable even if his physical features are lost beneath the makeup. While not new to this particular film, Evangeline Lilly gets some powerful emotional payoff for her Tauriel character. Her relationship with Aidan Turner’s Kili is a bonus found in the films and not really a part of the Tolkien story. It’s one of the more compelling elements of the battle’s aftermath, rivaling the fates of more than one central character. If you know the book, you already know it’s not a particularly happy ending. Relief might be a better description after the film’s central battle-fatigue elements. Of course, Thorin’s final encounter with Azog does a good job of incorporating elements central to the original story, all the while giving us those cinematic moments that are required in an action film.
Unfortunately, for some characters there is much less to do in this final chapter, and much of the company ends up with little screen time compared to the two previous outings. Suffice it to say that each gets both action and emotional beats even if those moments are brief. It is, after all, Bilbo’s story in the end, and in the end that is where it remains. Ian Holm gets to return to the role for one last curtain bow. One of my favorite scenes in the end takes us back to what might have appeared a throwaway scene in the first film but somehow brought it all full circle for me.
Richard Armitage gets to show some of the finer aspects to his portrayal that we hadn’t seen to date. He plays the obsessed king with such fine nuance and emotion that the point, a vital one to the story, carries far more weight than the heaviest of the battle scenes. He’s convincing to the point where you are able to lose sympathy for him, if just for a moment. A cruel turn, perhaps, but one essential to the redemption to be found in the end. Credit Martin Freeman here for allowing us to feel through the eyes and heart of Bilbo here. Freeman has been an excellent bit of casting throughout, and he delivers right up until the final moments.
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The high-definition 3D image is arrived at using the standard duel MVC codec at an average 30/15 mbps. And it is as exceptional as you expect it should be. 3D is strictly for depth and immersion. Peter Jackson isn’t going to waste your time with poke-in-the-face gimmicks here. This is a lush and stunning environment that deserves to be explored in this depth. There is great beauty in this high-definition image presentation. Textures stand out in every frame. The same care that went into every little detail in production is put on showcase for your viewing pleasure at home. This is likely one of those films that was made to showcase the upcoming 4K home releases. It’s hard for me to imagine a home image much better than this. Black levels are the deepest and truest representations you’ll find…once again. This is truly a show-off piece for your equipment. Lucky me, I am also in the process of putting Oppo’s BD-103 DARBEE edition through its paces. High-end equipment like that is what films like this were made for.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is just as much a show-off for your system. Jackson has created a sound field that truly wraps you in a 360-degree environment. The result is an extraordinary feeling of placement and an immersive experience unlike any film I’ve reviewed on home video in any format. Dialog is always clear and placed exactly where you expect it. The surrounds complete the effect with their often thrilling boldness. The battles offer you incredible surround experiences. It might be the clash of metal or the squish of body parts being severed. You might catch just the slight glance of the wind off a sword. The subs deliver ground-shaking lows throughout.
The 3D version is spread over two discs. There is a separate Blu-ray for the 2D version of the film and a DVD version as well. Another Blu-ray disc offers the following extras in high definition.
Recruiting The Five Armies: (11:39) Here you get to see what it was like to be an extra on the film. You don’t see this kind of feature often. Extras are crucial to such large battle scenes even with the addition of millions more in CGI. It’s like a production diary that follows the extras on a typical day at work.
Completing Middle Earth: (19:59) There are two parts with a handy play-all. A 6- Part Sage and A 17 Year Journey. Both look at how the two trilogies come together as one work. There’s a lot of bridging done in this film in particular and the piece examines those elements. You’ll find clips from all six films.
The Last Goodbye: (15:39) This piece looks at the end titles song performed by Billy Boyd. You get recording studio footage and some comments from Boyd and others about how it all came together. The music video is part of this two-part feature with a play-all. We also see the drawing of the wonderful end credit character titles.
In the end it’s not the epic titular battle that truly defines this movie, even as it dominates the screen time. Jackson has been building toward those certain brief shining moments for a long time. Thankfully they arrive at just the right moment to carry us back home. We could talk about the wonderful WETA effects and the sweeping locations and seamless blend of the real and unreal. But we’ve been doing that for five previous films. If you don’t understand that part of it by now, this film will do nothing to change your mind. I find that it’s the quiet moments that have lasted with me the longest. The entire Tolkien film collection will be debated and dissected for decades to come. For now I’m just trying to savor these last few moments in Middle Earth before I must say: “Farewell, Master Burglar. Go back to your books, your fireplace. Plant your trees, watch them grow. If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.”