“The Battle of the Five Armies”: a Review by a Tolkien fan

The Hobbit wasn’t a prequel to the LOTR, but not many people realise that. Even less will after the third part of the Hobbit trilogy, which includes characters that weren’t in the original book – like Legolas and Galadriel. Even Sauron gets a bigger say in this film than he ever did in the Hobbit but then we’ve had three years to come to terms with the fact that Peter Jackson was determined to turn the slender Hobbit into a film trilogy.

The film sprints along at a fairly lively pace. There’s a lot to do and five armies takes a lot of choreography after all. It’s no spoiler to say that Smaug, the dragon from Hobbit II, is despatched fairly early, and the scenes where he attacks the wretched people of Laketown are spectacular. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the deliciously-voiced Smaug myself. One minute he’s there, the next he’s gone, and he’s just so amazing to watch on the screen that it feels like a great pity. But then again, I suppose his time was always going to be limited. Leave Smaug in the mix and it would have been a very different film. “Battle of the Burnt Armies” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Nice to see ya, to see ya nice.

There are a lot of people doing a lot of things in this film and Thorin Oakenshield’s quest to hold on to his reclaimed gold gets pretty manic at times. There are some scenes when things don’t quite gel so well, but you barely have time to notice – or react. For example, in one lightning-quick moment, Bilbo meets a character again and let’s just say both have been through a lot. You know the kind of thing – fighting dragons, fighting evil, almost getting killed, surviving through sheer luck/dynamic rescue/etc. In those circumstances, you might expect a few words of delight at seeing your friend alive – maybe something like “Bilbo! You’re alive!” It would have happened in the Two Towers, and it definitely did in the Fellowship. But in this film, there’s barely time to squeak “Hello!” before we’re off again.

For all that though, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and of course, Tolkien’s gift for creating characters who feel so much and are so dedicated to fighting evil right to the point of their own detriment more than makes up for the moments when a lack of screen time hinders the kind of development you’d like to see.

No-one does battle scenes like Jackson and while there will never be another Helm’s Deep, the main battle is extremely well done. Personally though, I preferred the one-on-one fights. Huge fields of orcs and elves and dwarves are all very well but give me a battle to the death that’s been brewing since the first film anytime.

With a film of this size, some characters are always going to be especially wasted. I’m sorry about two. One is Thranduil, who just doesn’t get the moment that would define him as a really stand-out elven king of old (to use Tolkien language). Lee Pace impressed in his few scenes in the earlier films so I thought he would have more of an impact this time out. Apart from some slowly-spoken sentences that linger in the air, and a few unlikely alliances that seem out of character given his previous arrogance, there weren’t many other notable moments.

“Don’t. You. Know. Who. I. Am.”

The other character who was utterly, criminally wasted was Tauriel. I rarely take much notice of the criticism levied at Tolkien for his lack of female characters (after all, a woman killed Sauron’s greatest servant, the witch-king of Angmar).

But I get it. Fantasy stories, indeed all stories, should have good strong kickass women as role models and so Tauriel was born for the Hobbit trilogy, intended to be the centre of a love-triangle between Legolas and Kili, one of the dwarves, and a strong elf soldier in her own right. Except something went wrong. Between the credits of the second film and Five Armies, Tauriel devolved. She went from an elf who could slide through a window and finish off a few nasty Orcs to a creature so confused and beguiled by something (love/fear/something she ate) that she literally can’t do anything.

This is not a jest. When Smaug attacks Lake Town, she duly shepherds everyone, including the injured Kili, into a boat. They make their escape while the dragon roars overhead. Does she try to help the rest of the town? No. All she does is sit in the boat and look terrified. At one point a child fell out (a child!) and, instead of going to save the child, like any normal person (Eowyn/Arwen/even Merry for Heaven’s sake) would do, she responds “we cannot go back”. Okay. No going back. Not even for a child. In the water. Two feet away. This lapse of character is a catastrophe of Titanic proportions.

“Er, you’re kinda cramping my style, blondie”

Why bother creating Tauriel if all she’s going to do is flail around the place and follow orders given by Legolas? I’d mention something else that she does in this film but I honestly can’t think of anything worthwhile, which is a shame because she showed a lot of promise.

On the upside, Bilbo came into his own with the same gusto shown by Martin Freeman who played him. Quite unlike hobbits of just a few generations down the line, Bilbo is more than capable of taking on Orcs and killing them with a sword, or even just rocks. Given the lack of fighting skills exhibited by Merry and Pippin in just a few short years, there’s a social skills lesson for the Shire here somewhere but I can’t figure out what it is.

An evolved elf

The other character to mention is Sauron, who gets a fairly big scene in this film. Maybe Jackson felt that he was just too commanding a screen presence to be ignored, or maybe he just wanted a smooth link to the first film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Either way, the scene featuring Sauron in Five Armies is sinister and probably one of the darkest scenes in the entire Jackson Rings repertoire, to be honest.

We’re told this is the end of Tolkien’s stories from Peter Jackson. I really hope it isn’t and that, as is rumoured, he’s trying to secure the rights to the Silmarillion. If you haven’t read it, then you should. But if you can’t bear the way it’s written (trust me, it gets easier after a few pages when your eyes acclimatise to the style), some obsessed fan has taken the time to put together a few videos entitled “History of Middle Earth”, doubtless to offer Peter Jackson a few tips. You’re welcome!