Writer: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Lee Pace
Running time: 144mins
The lowdown: Peter Jackson brings his unexpected trilogy to a close (bar the inevitable DVD extended edition next year) with a triumphant bang. Following on literally from The Desolation of Smaug’s cut-to-black ending, this boasts a treasure trove of excitement and adventure that will leave both Tolkein-heads and action movie fans panting with delight. Martin Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Richard Armitage again head up a cast that play the operatic material with a straight bat, but this is Peter Jackson’s show and he proves sometimes lightning does strike twice.
The full verdict: Trilogy closers almost inevitably end up the least ripe of the batch on Rotten Tomatoes.
But, with The Hobbit Peter Jackson wobbled early with An Unexpected Journey, found his stride (or Strider) with trilogy highpoint The Desolation of Smaug and closes with an audience friendly smackdown that pits five armies and all the magic in Weta’s box of tricks against each other.
Doesn’t hurt either that The Battle of the Fives Armies plays as one extended battle scene, so there is little time for the fidgets. Although it will undoubtedly be more satisfying when watched on the sofa as the climax to a 9hr+ movie.
Those who have waited a year to watch Smaug unleash his wrath, fear not. Jackson opens the film with an assault on Lake-town that lays claim to cinema’s best dragon sequence. Ferocious, fiery and a thrilling, terrifying set-piece it’s one hell of a start and sets the tone early.
But, Smaug is merely one obstacle to overcome in this linking segment with Jackson’s classic Middle Earth trilogy. He is retrospectively laying groundwork for the world he brought to the screen back in 2001. So the major players in those Ring films come together almost for a dry run here.
Dwarf King Thorin (Armitage) has holed himself up in The Lonely Mountain, losing his mind in Smaug’s hall of riches. Obsessed with the whereabouts of the Arkenstone, the precious jewel at the centre of the quest, he is willing to sacrifice all he holds dear.
Thorin is also deaf to the pleas of Bard (Evans), who has led the people of Lake-town to a neighbouring city in the mountains and asks for the gold Thorin promised to aid the destitute townsfolk.
Into the fight comes the Elf army, led by Thranduil (Pace), laying claim to valuables of their own.
As the three factions brace for war, an Orc army expands its numbers for a battle that will decide who rules the land. And there is one more surprise army to come…
As with all Middle Earth movies, there are more characters and subplots flying around than your average 5 season HBO drama. But, Jackson’s deft storytelling ensures understanding the emotional and visceral brushstrokes are sufficient to enjoy the adventure. Even if the emotion heft of the original Lord of the Rings series is reduced here.
Galadriel (Blanchett), Gandalf (McKellen) and Saruman (Lee) face off against Sauron and the Nazgul (those Ring wraiths from Fellowship…) in a Harry Potter meets Bruce Lee magic-fu showdown that sets up the burning eye as LOTR’s Big Bad and boasts flawless aging English thesp heads on stunt persons’ bodies CGI.
Room is also given to Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, the underestimated undersized hero who firsts tries for peace between the clans and then proves himself in battle. Luke Evans again shoulders hero duties as the lion-hearted human rallying his people against the Orcs and is presumably coming to a Marvel film near you soon.
Richard Armitage does the dramatic heavy lifting as the conflicted Thorin, ravaged by “dragon sickness” in Smaug’s lair and seeking redemption come the final push of battle.
Some may complain structurally there is overlap here with The Return of the King and Jackson is treading old ground. But, vast fantastical armies clashing against a backdrop of stunning New Zealand countryside never grows dull, and again the director unveils inventive, imaginative scrapes for the heroes to navigate.
Trolls, orcs, bats, wolves, and lashings of high altitude peril will give even the hardiest of hearts the wobbles. Some of the CGI still doesn’t match Jackson’s imagination (the mountain goats are particularly shonky), but a hard-headed troll and an extended climax between Middle Earth’s two baddest Orcs and Thorin, Legolas (Bloom) and Tauriel (Lilly) will leave action junkies with silly smiles.
The Hobbit could have been The Lord of the Rings’ Star Wars prequels. After the first instalment, and the promise of another 5 or 6 hours to come, it seemed grand folly. Now we’re happy to say Jackson has delivered the six movie fantasy saga we’ve all been waiting for.