From the opening battle in Laketown, where the dragon Smaug (voiced again by Benedict Cumberbatch) wreaks fire-breathing havoc on the townspeople, Five Armies makes its M.O. clear. This is an action extravaganza. Admittedly the abundance of digitally-generated elements results in a distractingly artificial visual environment. It feels like the level of verisimilitude has not only taken a step down between the LOTR franchise to The Hobbit, but even from one Hobbit movie to the next. Tellingly, Five Armies was the first in the series not to be recognized with an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. But Jackson’s visual style remains as sure-handed as ever and Smaug’s last stand makes for a suitably thrilling opening act.
From there on out, Five Armies really just moves the pieces into place for the titular battle. Martin Freeman continues to infuse his Bilbo Baggins with heart and humor, though he is unfortunately as buried under the onslaught of effects and side characters as in the earlier films. Freeman and Ian McKellen, making his final appearance as Gandalf, share some nice moments. For longtime fans of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptation, it’s certainly a treat to spend a little more time in the wizard’s presence, but McKellen isn’t given a ton to work with here. More noteworthy is Richard Armitage, whose Thorin has come down with a wicked case of “dragon sickness” following Smaug’s death. He’s in possession of the dead dragon’s untold riches and the allure of infinite wealth is corrupting him.
As Thorin leads the dwarves into war, Five Armies turns into something resembling a Middle-earth version of The Expendables. Don’t look for plot or character subtleties; this is all about improbable action heroics like Legolas (Orlando Bloom) running up a stack of falling rocks. There are a few broadly-drawn emotional arcs sprinkled in, with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) experiencing a tragic end to her romance with Kili (Aidan Turner) being particularly well handled. But all in all, Jackson delivers an extended knock-down, drag-out fight that doesn’t falter in terms of pure entertainment value. It’s just not any more thoughtful or emotionally involving than the average Hollywood-produced, CG-driven action blowout.
Speaking of big-budget Hollywood actioners, Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray is every bit the equal of any of them in terms of audio-visual presentation. Following the precedent set by the previous Hobbit outings, it would only be surprising if Five Armies offered anything less than near-perfection. There’s just nothing to take issue with here, as the visuals are simply stunningly detailed. Same goes for the roaring DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix, during which viewers are bombarded with not only the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink chaos of the battle scenes, but also more nuanced audio elements such as Howard Shore’s stirring score.
With an extended cut on the way later in the year, fans know not to expect a terribly expansive special features package. With under an hour’s worth of supplements, The Battle of the Five Armies is especially skimpy. “New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth Part 3” is a six minute look at the country that served as the primary shooting location for the series. “Recruiting the Five Armies” is a 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with a light tone. “Completing Middle Earth: A Six-Part Saga” spends about ten minutes with Peter Jackson discussing the big picture of his six-movie adaptation. Another ten minutes is allocated for “Completing Middle Earth: A Seventeen-Year Journey,” which offers a bit more about the series’ wrap-up. The final two pieces are dedicated to the end credits song, the appropriately-titled “The Last Goodbye.” There’s a music video and a ten-minute look at the song’s recording.
It was pretty well established by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2012 that Peter Jackson was aiming far lower, artistically, than he had with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In 2013, The Desolation of Smaug upped the entertainment value, even if it still felt quite padded. With expectations already lowered from the heights achieved by The Two Towers and The Return of the King, The Battle of the Five Armies manages to wrap up The Hobbit trilogy in high spirits.