by Gabriel Valdez
When I tell you The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the least of director Peter Jackson’s six Middle-earth epics, it’s a lot like saying milk chocolate is the worst kind of chocolate. Any way you cut it, you’re still getting dessert.
By this third Hobbit film, our halfling hero Bilbo Baggins has accompanied a band of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain in order to reclaim their homeland. This sets off a chain reaction that draws human refugees, armies of wood elves and dwarves, and vicious orcs and goblins to the riches of the mountain stronghold. Five Armies is mostly one continuous battle scene including plenty of 1-on-1 duels between heroes and villains of every species.
In his earlier Lord of the Rings films, Jackson centered his fight scenes on the actors’ performances. There were heaps of CG visual effects in those films, but the actors were always the center of the battle. The Hobbit trilogy has used CG stand-ins in its battles more and more, and Five Armies takes it to another level entirely.
This reliance on visual effects often lets Jackson create energetic, whirling action scenes, the kind I usually compare to a Rube Goldberg machine. Some viewers will like the CGI duels more – they’re flexible and allow clever situations like felling a tower to make a bridge, then battling across it as it falls apart. Personally, I prefer the earlier duels that involved more live action participation. They might not include whirling cameras and crazy shots, but they did feel more personal and more desperate.
The first two Hobbit films also had great humor, focusing on the dwarves’ slapstick behavior when eating, sleeping, or fighting. The novel The Hobbit is more youth-friendly than Lord of the Rings and these moments were ways to translate the humor of the book into the film without taking the novel’s large story detours. Unfortunately, there’s not as much of that here. Five Armies has its notes of mirth, but less than its prequels. It’s also dire at points, but not nearly as apocalyptic as the Lord of the Rings films. It sometimes feels caught in the middle, but at the same time, these are terrific co-franchises to get caught between.
Make no mistake, Five Armies is impressive. You will see sights and visuals you won’t find anywhere else. You feel the fantastic in the fantasy – the elf king rides a war caribou (I’m sure it has a beautiful name in the books, but I’m calling it a war caribou), dwarves ride armored hogs on the battlefield and mountain goats up steep cliff faces, and the orcs boast war bats and giant, tunneling worms. That’s not even mentioning the huge, majestic eagles or a dozen other moments.
Some images will stay with you, others will play with the cliches you expect from fantasy movies and, as always, Jackson finds a way to sneak two or three quick, experimental sequences into his classical framework. These asides have always been my favorite moments in his Middle-Earth movies, and truly shine when depicting a mad hallucination or a magical stand-off.
Five Armies is the Transformers entry in Jackson’s Middle-earth saga: it exists to show off its action with a minimum of story. The first Hobbit was an uneven, yet loving, character study. The second Hobbit was the travelogue of the bunch, full of life and texture that stuck the viewer into its world like few films ever have. This third one is the most rousing of the bunch, but I can’t help but miss the focus on character and place that made the others feel so vibrant and important. Some of this may be added back in the special edition re-edits Jackson does for all his Middle-earth films. In this theatrical release, Five Armies feels slightly dulled – it lacks the sense of awe and the nuance for bittersweet storytelling that I’ve come to rely on from Jackson.
While Five Armies fails to evoke the full range of emotion that its prequels and the Lord of the Rings trilogy do, it still boasts more experimentation and emotion than most other action films. It’s a good film, and it’s must-see big-screen territory if you’re a fan of the franchise. It’s just a notch down from greatness – which is what I’ve come to expect from this world – and it doesn’t compare to the capstone that Return of the King gave to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I’m harsh on it because of what’s come before, but I absolutely enjoyed watching it. It has tense action and great performances. It just doesn’t feel absolutely complete.
(On that note, this is my favorite trailer and it’s remarkable in that half of the shots in it aren’t in the final film. That special edition is going to be interesting.)
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Cate Blanchett plays elf queen Galadriel and Evangeline Lilly plays the elf warrior Tauriel. Peggy Nesbitt and Mary Nesbitt play Sigrid and Tilda, the two daughters of human hero Bard. Sarah Peirse plays Hilda Bianca, a villager of Laketown who is supportive of Bard and critical of the old regime.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. Tauriel helps evacuate Bard’s family when Laketown is attacked by the dragon Smaug.
Note that four of the five women in the movie are invented specifically for the film series. Jackson has always had a feminist streak in his films, even if many of them center around bands of men.
Tauriel’s an Elven captain, and a better fighter than nearly everyone else in the film. (She also gets the best live-action fight choreography.) Fans complain that she was invented for the franchise simply as a love interest, but that’s clearly backseated to her function as a warrior. Without her, there wouldn’t be a single woman taking part in the film’s central showdowns. It’s also worth noting that, while a dwarf and elf pine after her, she’s too busy with the war to let it get in the way of her decapitating orcs.
There’s also a moment when the women of Laketown, after being told to bunker down in a chapel, rally to save the men of the town. This is not in the book either. Jackson (and the screenwriting team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) made additions to Tolkien’s material in order to give women more agency in the fighting.
Also, Galadriel is a beast. There is no joy in this world that quite compares to seeing her one-shotting an orc. In fact, there’s a moment that consciously evokes the modern fantasy trope of the fainting lady lying in her knight’s arms as he protects her – except in this case, Galadriel’s the knight, and the fainting lady is the most powerful male character in the franchise.
Jackson later inverts another fantasy trope, of the male warrior avenging the death of his woman through self-sacrifice, except this time, the gender roles are reversed.
It may not be the best example of passing the Bechdel Test on technical terms, since women barely get a chance to talk to each other here, but when you compare Five Armies to its source material and take into account Jackson’s consistent reversal of fantasy cliches, you have a movie that makes a very meaningful feminist effort in its storytelling.
Simply put, the writing team’s additions pissed off diehard fans in order to put female role models on the battlefield. That’s worth commending.
Women in the film save men more often than they are saved, and they are as brave and effective as their male counterparts. It’s also worth noting that the Elven army is mixed gender. You can’t really tell with the dwarf army because, as Viggo Mortensen reminded us in The Two Towers, they all have beards – and we never get to see the armies up close except for a few key characters.
Other issues of diversity, such as the fact that every main character is white, are real issues. How much of it is the racial makeup of New Zealand and how much of it is bias, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve got to imagine there’s a greater presence of Maori, Polynesian, and Indonesian populations Down Under than the casting here shows, and it is off-putting that the only place for these actors to go is in portraying the evil orcs. I am no expert on New Zealand and Australian ethnicities, however. It might be something to ask writer Olivia Smith one day.
Insofar as the treatment of women goes, I really do have to commend the changes Five Armies makes in order to create more feminist agency and narrative importance. That’s not to say it couldn’t have gone further, because it could have. But it does go much further than the vast majority of other writers and directors would tempt with the adaptation of such sacred source material.