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With a movie titled “The Battle of Five Armies,” viewers could expect a lot of battle scenes, but behind the dazzle of special effects and splintering spears weaves a tale of fall and redemption, of pride and power, of material gain and loss of life. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), and Thranduil of Mirkwood (Lee Pace) each have their own stakes in the sword-rattling and verbal fencing at the foot of Erebor, but a humble Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) musters the courage to intervene between the leaders of nations to prevent bloodshed.
The action heats up early with dragon Smaug’s attack on Lake Town. Though Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) brings death and destruction wherever he soars, the visuals are awe-inspiring, such as when orange flames contrast with a blue night sky as Lake Town burns. Smaug dwarfs the size of anything in his path, but Bard steals the scene with heroic poise. Yet his showdown with Smaug is when the film hints at some of the over-the-top silliness to come. Without spoiling anything, Bard’s method of fighting Smaug in the book is simply not dazzling enough for Jackson & Co., who have Bard instead resorting to something bigger.
To Jackson’s team, “bigger” equals “better,” including such overblown stunts as bat surfing and running up falling debris as if they are stairs. The instances of single combat drag out longer than they should; more emotion is packed into Aragorn’s brief duel with Lurtz in “The Fellowship of the Ring” than Thranduil’s drawn out showdown with Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett). The White Council’s raid on the Necromancer’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) lair in Dol Guldur feels more like a superhero fight than heroic combat from an epic saga (though granted, Galadriel’s creepy elf magic looks pretty cool). The fights feel like something from a videogame rather than an epic movie. After a while, the long, flashy fight scenes lose their impact. Ironically, the armies in “The Battle of Five Armies” seem small compared to the armies of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy; the film’s martial scale pales in comparison to the camera zooming out to reveal rank upon rank of Uruk-Hai pikes pointing to the sky in “The Two Towers” or Denethor looking out upon legion upon legion of orcs swarming outside Minas Tirith in “The Return of the King.”
Where “big” works for Jackson is the setting. Middle-Earth remains as beautiful as ever, populated by distinct creatures and cultures. The egos of Thorin and Thranduil are colossal and spark compelling character conflict. The pride of the dwarves is perhaps more well-known and some viewers may wonder why the “wisest and fairest of all beings” can prove just as capable of greed, bitterness, and swiftness to bloodshed, but those familiar with Tolkien’s wider mythology may recall the ferocity of Feanor and his sons as they murdered and betrayed their fellow elves in their quest to recover the Silmarils from Morgoth, the first dark lord of Middle-Earth. Like Feanor and Thorin, Thranduil seeks something shiny himself and is willing to stake the lives of immortal elves to get them.
The film’s real strength is the different motivations and tensions driving the characters. Once in possession of Erebor, Thorin descends into madness and moral decay. His obsession with the Arkenstone is reminiscent of the corrupting power of the One Ring. Bard the Bowman seeks compensation from Thorin’s vast treasure horde for the damages wrought to the people of Laketown as a consequence of waking the dragon. Thranduil seeks another treasure, the White Gems. Gandalf (Ian McKellin) is more interested in the big strategic picture. He tries in vain to reason with the conflicting parties and unite them against a goblin army marching for the region. Bilbo wants to prevent a war and is willing to resort to theft and deception against his friends in order to achieve it. Balin (Ken Stott) is loyal to Thorin but his lord’s rapid plunge into moral decay brings him to tears. There are symbolic contrasts of the characters’ motivations. For example, Bilbo’s choice treasure for his share from the journey is an acorn from Beorn’s home that he hopes to plant in his own yard. “One day it will grow,” Bilbo tells Thorin, “And then I’ll remember.”
Less compelling is the continuing love triangle between Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), Kili (Aiden Turner), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and their strife with Thranduil. The romance remains shallow with clichés such as Tauriel’s tearful lament, “Why does [love] hurt so much?” Thranduil’s backstory is left underdeveloped. Attempts at comic relief through the pathetic coward Alfrid (Ryan Gage) are simply not funny. If the writers left him out of the story completely it would not have affected the plot in any significant way. Sadly, Beorn is shown only briefly, but it is a moment of awesomeness.
All this character conflict does lead to some well-written verbal sparring, such as Gandalf’s biting rebuke to Thorin, “You’re not making a very splendid figure, are you, as King Under the Mountain?” With five films clean of offensive language, however, it is surprising to hear Thorin’s cousin, Dain Ironfoot, make occasional use of vulgar words.
As a sum of its parts, “The Battle of Five Armies” is an enjoyable film in spite of its flaws. It comes nowhere close to the profound depth and breathtaking beauty of “The Lord of the Rings” films. Without high expectations it is a fun escapist adventure in a visually rich environment. Unfortunately the film offers little more than glitter and glam.