I should start by making one thing perfectly clear:
I stayed awake!
That may sound like faint praise, but really: I stayed awake! That's something I wasn't able to do through the first two-thirds of this Hobbit trilogy. This, despite the fact that I was fairly excited for them, and was psyched to see Peter Jackson return to Middle Earth. But while those first two films felt, to me, like a bunch of emotionally-flat filler, this one felt alive. Also, with a running time that felt downright lean and mean at around 2:15, Battle of The Five Armies is the most urgent and streamlined of Jackson's voyages to this world.
We open right where we left off at the conclusion of The Desolation of Smaug and, from there, the film keeps a great pace throughout. It hits the ground running, and when it stops, it's for character beats that feel truly necessary. The film wastes very little time building up to the titular battle and when it comes, boy does it come. Fans of the book, who have been dying to see the full scale chaos of this epic battle will not be disappointed. I would say that it takes up almost half, if not more, of the film's running time.
Jackson stages the battle in such a way, though, that it doesn't become boring or monotonous. That's a gargantuan task, and Jackson gleefully rises to the occasion here. How does one make such a long sequence fly without wearing out their audience? By constantly shifting focus. To his benefit, Jackson has several variables to play with. He has five armies, every major character from the first two films, a wide variety of warriors from swordsman to archers to mystical beasts, a castle to defend, and a small town with narrow streets to flood with chaos. By shifting the focus from place to place, Jackson is able to keep things fresh.
But, better than that, Jackson displays a wonderful ability to balance out the mayhem with quieter sequences. See, the success of "big" sequences like this, ironically, sits on the shoulders of its "small" moments. Giving the audience a chance to catch its breath, while taking some time to zero in on a particular character's motivations, or to see two rivals come together against a common enemy, or to witness the reconciliation between two old allies, gives the action a greater sense of purpose. Without spoiling anything by getting too specific, having a moment amidst all the insanity where we see the trusty steed of one character get killed, then witness that character acknowledge and mourn that death, realize they're hopefully outnumbered and likely about to face death, only to go after their attackers head on- that's the kind of thing that elevates a blockbuster action scene from CG fluff to gripping storytelling.
Speaking of CG, there's plenty of it here- naturally. But most of it is rendered so well that it shouldn't distract you too much. There are a few instances here and there, of course, where someone moves a little unnaturally, and when you have so many mass-produced legions on the same battlefield you're likely to feel like "They're all identical" at times. I will also say that I have a harder time connecting with the stakes of the action when I can tell it's all computer-generated. I just can't get as worked up seeing our heroes swing swords at a bunch of pixels as I can when it's a guy in a costume with a weapon swinging right back at them. Despite this, I can say that the visuals in this film are quite strong, with Jackson likely doing his best to go out with a bang as he bids farewell to Tolkien.
But what about the humans in this special effects extravaganza? Well, for some reason, the inherent melodrama in the performances was a little more obvious to me this time around. I'll have to go back and watch some of the other films in the overall franchise to see if I either just never noticed it before, or if Battle of The Armies really just had a lot more melodramatic acting all of a sudden. I especially felt this way during the first 30-40 minutes of the movie- and it probably wasn't helped by the fact that I saw the 48 FPS version of the film. Something about seeing it with this "real world" aesthetic made the slightly over-the-top performances seem that much more over-the-top. This isn't to say that the acting is bad. Not at all. Everyone is quite committed; quite locked in; and trying to bring their all to this fantastical tale. Just don't expect much in the way of subtlety, because it doesn't appear Jackson was particularly interested in that.
Martin Freeman deserves special attention here, though, as he's the one exception. While everyone else dials up their performances, Freeman is a master at conveying a lot by doing very little. With the twitch of an eye, or the quiver of a lip, he's able to make you laugh or choke you up. Ian McKellen gets an honorable mention in this department as well, though he isn't given much to do in this film. Speaking of laughs, there are quite a few spread throughout the film, as that's another way that Jackson is able to keep the audience engaged: Humor. There's a nice amount of comic relief sprinkled throughout, which I appreciated.
The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies is, by far, the best of this new trilogy. It's vibrant. It's exciting. It's all purpose with no filler. It's an engaging spectacle with heart, action, interesting characters, and masterful plotting. How do I know this? I stayed awake!
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