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The last time audiences visited Middle-earth in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” Peter Jackson ended on a rousing cliff-hanger in which the gold-obsessed dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) flies off to destroy Laketown. The final installment of the trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” begins just as Smaug descends onto the helpless wooden town. Unfortunately, for the people of Laketown, their world ends in fire while Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) desperately battles against the psychotic reptile.
“The Battle of the Five Armies” action-packed prologue is the perfect bait to lure audiences back into the world of Middle-Earth, but, it also serves a thematic purpose. Smaug’s destructive presence reminds moviegoers of the dragon’s insatiable greed and avarice, a burning desire that is now mirrored within the heart of our sullen dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).
Far-off inside the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves are left to pick up the pieces after Smaug’s rampage and tame Thorin, whose mind descends into gold lust and madness brought on by the same “dragon sickness” that consumed his grandfather.
Meanwhile, outside the mountain gates, Laketown survivors remain under Bard’s reluctant leadership. Among them, the Elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his massive elven army find themselves in a tense standstill between Thorin’s increasing greed and Thranduil’s claim for a share of the dragon horde. To make matters worse, orcs led by Azog the Defiler rush to the mountain to destroy everyone in their path.
Heavy stuff to be sure, and in the hands of any other less-than-capable director, “The Battle of the Five Armies,” would have sunk under the weight of its various moving parts. However, Peter Jackson proves himself at the top of his game as he steps to the fore and orchestrates a poignant finale for his three part Hobbit Trilogy. Credit is due in large part to the stellar efforts of screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh who have created a masterful script, which rivals the best they had to offer in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Combined with masterful acting by the entire Hobbit cast, the film’s themes long resonated with me days after its initial viewing.
Jackson’s team of artisans at Weta Digital has also ensured that this final journey into Middle-Earth proves to be the most beautifully rendered. A vast majority of the time I could not tell where computer generated characters began and where they ended. No other moment proved this more, than during the titular Battle of the Five Armies. Seemingly hundreds of orcs duke it out with men, dwarves, and elves on screen and you would be hard pressed to distinguish with 100 percent certainty which characters were computer generated and which were not. Thankfully, Jackson knew that to compete with the sheer scale of his previous Ring’s battles would severely undercut the film. Instead, Jackson wisely chose to use the Battle of the Five Armies as a backdrop to the more compelling character arcs throughout the film. No battle scene spends more than two or three shots without returning to one of the principal characters.
Armitage imbues Thorin with a sense of human pathos that threatens to steal the show. His relationship with Bilbo remains at the film’s thematic core. More than ever before, Jackson demonstrates a masterful use of sound, music, and digital effects to create abstract and provocative imagery in service of exploring Thorin’s descent into madness. This same coalescence of film elements are used to dramatic effect during Thorin’s fateful encounter with his arch nemesis, Azog (Manu Bennett). Standing atop a field of ice, Azog’s seething hate is exemplified by the cold environment surrounding them. Like Frost’s poem, fire may epitomize desire, yet for destruction, ice is also great. Thorin may have shed his burning desire, but now he must contend with Azog’s cold hatred.
Freeman’s performance as Bilbo continues to thrill, as does his ability to convey two emotions simultaneously through subtle use of facial expressions. The best moments are often the most understated; when Bilbo finds himself alone, staring past the camera lens, struggling between his loyalty to Thorin and his inner conscience. Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whose inclusion in the previous film left me feeling mostly ambivalent, take on a more layered role this time around. As their character arcs drew to a close, I began to understand why Jackson chose to include them in the Hobbit trilogy. I even grew to appreciate Tauriel’s growing love for the handsome dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner), whose story takes on a remarkably topical racial undertone. Bloom also grew into his own as Legolas, showing more depth than during his Lord of the Rings days. My only complaint being, I would have liked to see more of his struggled relationship with his father Thranduil.
Overall, Jackson’s Middle-Earth send-off proved to be a thrilling one. I will recommend however that audiences re-watch “The Desolation of Smaug” prior to viewing this final film; otherwise, they may struggle to catch up to events on-screen. There may no longer be any Middle-Earth films to look forward to, but I’m happy to say The Hobbit trilogy will sit comfortably alongside The Lord of the Rings as one of the finest film achievements of our time.
Rodolfo Martínez Vergara (Havana, Cuba, 1987). Graduated from Florida International University with a bachelor’s degree in English and Journalism. Collaborated with The Beacon newsletter. Blog editor of The GamerPhile (http://thegamerphile.wordpress.com/)