The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is either too short, or too long … I haven’t decided which yet. Regardless it’s a movie filled with spectacular moments, tremendous visuals, and a sense that there’s a story that was some how missed.
It begins with what should have been the end of the second movie, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The dwarves of Erebor, with their hobbit thief Bilbo Baggins, have returned to their mountain home. They fought the red dragon Smaug and nearly drowned him in molten gold. The movie opens with the fire drake enraged by the assault and eager to take out his revenge against the people of Lake-town. The humans had foolishly helped the dwarves, and in doing so, brought about their own destruction. I don’t think it’s a massive spoiler to note that things go badly for Lake-town … but much worse for the dragon.
All of this is over in a few minutes — indeed, the opening titles only play after the dragon’s attack is foiled and the beast is slain. That tells you just how much this scene belongs to this movie, which is … not at all.
With the dragon behind us, the movie unfolds pretty much as fans of the book might expect. There are a few minor diversions — an anticlimactic showdown with the Necromancer (aka Sauron) in the ruins of Dol Guldur — but for the most part the film immediately begins building toward its namesake Battle of the Five Armies.
The battle itself has some great set pieces, each of which seems ripped from a D&D campaign. A dwarven phalanx engaging a horde of orcs, their leader riding a war pig and laying about with a great hammer. The elven king, mounted on an immense elk, bowling his way through legions of his enemies. A mountain top battle on a field of ice. War trolls, giants, and other monsters pressed into service as war machines. Desperate humans standing their ground against impossible odds, wearing the battered armor of their ancestors.
The movie quickly moves between these battle vignettes, and while some pieces seem … unlikely (war worms? where were war worms in the book?) the bigger problem is the movie’s lack of narrative.
It may be that I’d just watched the extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug, which did a surprisingly good job of extending the trilogy’s story by elaborating on the madness that infected Thorin’s blood line. In the first movie, we saw how his grandfather — the original King Under the Mountain — became obsessed with gold and the Arkenstone, a mystical gem that was the symbol of his rule. In the extended edition of the second movie, we see how the loss of the dwarven kingdom consumed the mind of Thorin’s father, Thrain.
All of this sets up The Battle of the Five Armies beautifully as Thorin must battle his own obsession with the Arkenstone and the creeping madness it inspires. The subplot concludes as one would expect, and is satisfying in its own right. The same could be said for the various battles that filled the second half of the movie.
The problem though, is that there’s just not enough story to drive those battles beyond 10, maybe 15 minutes. Threads teased in the earlier movies — the tentative love story between the dwarf Kili and the elf Tauriel, the human Bard as a potential leader of the Lake-town refuges, Sauron-as-Necromancer, fail to fill the time as effectively as Thorin’s.
Kili and Tauriel’s romance never moves beyond meaningful glances, and the weight given to it at the movie’s end feels misplaced. Meanwhile there’s an entire side quest involving Tauriel and Legolas in whcih they run north to check on some orcs, find said orcs, and then run back to tell everyone “hey, there are more orcs coming.” Bard never reaches the stature of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings; he tries to lead his people and broker a peace with the dwarves, but most of the time he feels like an also-ran when it comes to the film’s main characters.
The result of all this is that The Battle of the Five armies lacks the emotional punch of The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers or the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Return of the King. Of course, while both of those battles were defining moments in their respective movies, they weren’t expected to carry the entire film. The Battle of the Five Armies, on the other hand, is the entire film.
Imagining Alternate Endings
Thus, my quandary. On the one hand, I think the film would have been better if they’d moved Smaug’s attack on Lake-town to The Desolation of Smaug and cut out Legolas and Tauriel’s pointless northern journey. I would have ditched the romance between Tauriel and Killi and instead focused on the elf’s confrontation with her isolationist king Thranduil. Her character was at her best when confronting her own people’s sense of superiority and refusal to engage the world; the romance subplot was anemic at best. This would have led to a more focused movie that — while shorter than its peers — would have been better paced.
On the other hand … Peter Jackson did a great job with the extended scenes in The Desolation of Smaug. I can’t help but wonder if the extra story I’m looking for is lurking in the 30 minutes of footage that will inevitably be added to the extended edition.
A battle scene with Kili and Tauriel fighting the orcs might have helped cement their relationship. Alternatively, beefing up Tauriel and Legalos’ scouting expedition into something more meaningful might have helped by taking some of the story load off of the big battle. I’d also loved to have seen some actual character development among the humans, particularly among Bard’s daughters. Their primary purpose in the movie seems to have been to scream whenever orcs showed up, and I can already hear my 11-year-old daughter grumbling about that (at least until Tauriel’s next scene). Anything that could have personalized the sprawling battle would have helped.
I’d also like to have seen a true conclusion to the dwarven storyline. I vaguely remember this bring a problem with The Hobbit as well (it’s been years since I read the book), but it seems worse in the film. The Arkenstone, so pivotal to the corruption of Thorin’s bloodline, ends up being a MacGuffin that goes nowhere. The lost dwarven rings? They remain lost. Even the fate of Erebor is left unsettled — the orcs are defeated, but do the dwarves retain the mountain? Do the humans rebuild? I get that Peter Jackson was criticized for having too many endings to The Return of the King, but The Battle of the Five Armies feels like it has too few.
My kids loved first two Hobbit movies, and were pressuring me to take them to see this one in the theatre. After seeing it I decided the sprawling battle film would be better watched at home, on our couch, over several days rather than in the theatre. It’s more visually intense and violent than the earlier films, and I the character deaths — of which there are several — are going to hit them hard. They were disappointed, but I think it’s the right call.
The Battle of the Five Armies isn’t a bad movie, but it feels like a let down after The Desolation of Smaug, and it falls short of the standard set by Return of the King. Despite all the moaning about Peter Jackson building out The Hobbit’s story by pulling in material from appendixes, The Battle of The Five Armies actually feels like it could used some strategic narrative padding (or even more strategic cuts). There is plenty in this movie that I liked, mostly because it’s such great inspirational fodder for Dungeons & Dragons (but then again, hasn’t that always been the case with The Hobbit? I loved the fiery beauty of Smaug’s attack on Lake-town, and most of the creature feature encounters scattered around the battle field were a pleasure to watch.