The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies review

I’ve fallen behind in blogging again because of travel over the past month, the holidays, and being ill. Fortunately, I have no shortage of topics to write about!

Last week, David I.S. & Sandra K. drove from Rochester, N.Y., to visit Janice and me in Waltham, Mass. Dave was the very first friend I made at college, and our New Year’s celebrations have become something of a tradition.

On Tuesday, 30 December 2014, Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Thomas’ brother Tony joined us for a potluck dinner and fun conversation. On New Year’s Eve, we took it easy because Dave & Sandra were suffering from bad colds (that Janice and I later caught).

On New Year’s Day, Janice, Dave, and I went to the AMC Burlington Cinema 10 for a 3-D matinee of The Hobbit [Part 3 of 3]: The Battle of the Five Armies. We mostly enjoyed the finale of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels.

Battle of the Five Armies
Parties to the battle


As with the previous installments, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, it’s assumed that viewers are at least passingly familiar with Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Jackson’s films for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition, the audience should have seen the first two Hobbit movies (even more than read the relatively brief children’s book) before watching Battle of the Five Armies.

The story draws from Scandinavian and Germanic mythology, fairy tales, and the extensive world-building and linguistics research of Prof. Tolkien. The Battle of the Five Armies sticks with the major threads from the book. (Note that some of the enclosed links lead to “spoilers.”)

The Wizard Gandalf has sent Hobbit Bilbo Baggins across the dangerous wilderness with a band of 13 Dwarves to help them reclaim their treasure and lost homeland from the fierce dragon Smaug. On the way to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, they encountered vile Goblins, haughty Elves, various monsters, and the scruffy humans of Lake Town.

Once Smaug is awakened from his slumber by Bilbo and company, the angry dragon incinerates Lake Town. Only the human Bard the Bowman is brave enough to face down the huge beast, even as Orcs and Elves rouse troops to wrest control of its hoard at Erebor.

Here are the five armies of the title battle, in order of appearance on the scene:

  • DwarvesThorin Oakenshield‘s band of former exiles (and Bilbo), plus eventual reinforcements from his kinsman Dain Ironfoot
  • Men — refugees from Lake Town and the lost city of Dale, led by Bard
  • Silvan Elves — from Mirkwood, led by King Thranduil and including his son Legolas and scout Tauriel (a character created for the movies)
  • Goblins/Orcs and Wargs (giant wolf-like steeds) — from Gundabad, plus Trolls/Giants and unnatural bats
  • Great Eagles — plus the shapeshifter Beorn (and Wizard Radagast the Brown, present only in the movie)

Meanwhile, to the south of Mirkwood in the ruined fortress of Dol Goldur, the White Council finds the Necromancer, who is revealed to be the evil Sauron. Gandalf, Elven nobles Elrond and Galadriel, and the Wizard Saruman the White fight the incorporeal Sauron and his nine Nazgul, the spirits of corrupted human kings.

Can Bilbo find a way to keep Thorin’s lust for treasure from getting their company killed? Can Gandalf and the White Council defeat Sauron? Can Dwarves, humans, and Elves put aside their differences long enough to deal with the Orc hordes, and what casualties will result from the battle? If you’ve read the book or noticed any of the foreshadowing in the previous Hobbit movies, you’ll know.


There are no major additions in this movie, but there were a few good moments for Sherlock‘s Martin Freeman as good-hearted burglar Bilbo, Robin Hood‘s Richard Armitage as proud Thorin, and Pushing Daisies‘ Lee Pace as isolationist Thranduil. As before, Bilbo’s scenes are closest to those in the book, and I even began to feel sympathy for elk-riding Thranduil.

I would have liked Thorin’s “gold sickness” be more of an opportunity for the other Dwarves to react than an explicit echo of Smaug’s words. With three long movies’ worth of screen time, there should have been more character development for all 13 Dwarves.

While I approve the addition of Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel in a male-heavy cast, I would have preferred less of a forced love triangle with her, Orlando Bloom’s ageless Legolas, and Being Human‘s Aidan Turner’s young Dwarf Fili.

I understand that the slapstick scenes with Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown and Ryan Gage as his slimy assistant Alfrid were meant to contrast with the virtue and courage of Luke Evans’ Bard, but they were a bit too broad for my taste. Of course, they wouldn’t be out of place during most fantasy tabletop games.

Spartacus and Arrow‘s Manu Bennett (whom I’ve met) and John Tui remained menacing as Orc chieftains Azog and Bolg — mostly through motion capture, I assume. Busy Benedict Cumberbatch had less voice time as the Necromancer and Smaug this time around.

It was nice to again see Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Christopher Lee as Sauruman, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond. The narrative framing device bringing back Ian Holm as old Bilbo was an even better tie-in to Fellowship of the Ring.


Because of the focus on the big set-piece battles, the pacing of Battle of the Five Armies seemed a bit smoother than in its predecessors. Smaug’s raid is rather short, and the evacuation of Lake Town and Dale by humans ahead of marauding Orcs is overly similar to Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

A combat between Thorin and Azog (rather than Bolg, as in the book) takes place on a frozen waterfall. As much as I liked 2004’s King Arthur and Battle of the Five Armies, I wish filmmakers would stop copying Alexander Nevsky‘s ice battle, which is based on real history.

Like his distinguished peers George Lucas, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott, director Peter Jackson has let technology overwhelm his sense of storytelling in this second trilogy. A good editor should be able to tell even established filmmakers when certain scenes go too long. Just because one can now realize a grand vision, if it doesn’t help the characters, setting, or plot, it doesn’t need to be included.

Perhaps some of the focus will be restored in the inevitable director’s cuts on DVD and Blu-ray. I also wonder how Guillermo del Toro might have handled the same material in less time, without franchise pressure from Warner Bros.


As noted above, the dragon, Orcs, and landscapes were all brought to spectacular life by WETA Studios. I noticed the computer-generated imagery less this time around, and 3-D worked fine for us (we didn’t find an IMAX showtime we liked). I do wonder what Battle of the Five Armies might look like at high frame rate.

Thranduil’s Wood Elves were too much like the shining hosts of the Second Age or the Sindarin of Lothlorien. Legolas’ gratuitous acrobatics, which have become a cliché since the Lord of the Rings movies, reminded me of why some role-players hated the smug, omnipotent Elves of the AD&D2 era.

Also, I would have liked to see more than telekinesis or blasts of wind during the White Council’s battle against Sauron. On the other hand, most magic in Tolkien’s books is more subtle than the pyrotechnics jaded audiences have come to expect.

Once the Goblins and Dwarves met in battle, it was hard to tell them apart, despite their difference in size (and we saw it in 3-D). I would have given each army more different armor or colorful surcoats. The overhead shots still felt too much like a video game.


The music served the story, but the themes that we noticed most were those that harked back to The Lord of the Rings. The fine art by Alan Lee and John How during the closing credits was well accompanied by “The Last Goodbye,” sung by Billy Boyd (Pippin in the first film trilogy, which takes place after The Hobbit).


Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which is rated PG-13 for violence, a B, 7.5 out of 10, or three and a half out of five stars. Despite some problems, the movie does tie up the prequel trilogy and shows the climactic battle for northern Middle Earth.

That said, I hope that filmmakers leave Tolkien’s work alone for a while before taking a fresh look at The Hobbit or parts of the Silmarillion. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation is the stronger work, and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.

The previews we saw were decent, but nothing among the sequels and remakes jumped out as a “must-see” flick for 2015. I am curious about spy actioner The Kingsmen and Mad Max: Fury Road, but I expect to see fewer than the 19 movies I saw in theaters this past year:

Back at home, Dave, Sandra, Janice, and I also enjoyed The Edge of Tomorrow, a decent Tom Cruise vehicle that was indeed a mashup of military science fiction Starship Troopers and time-travel Groundhog Day. We also later returned to Burlington for dinner at the busy Border Café, one of our favorite local Tex-Mex eateries.

Janice and I didn’t come down with our colds until after Dave and Sandra left (taking more of my comic book collection with them for storage), but we had a nice time around the holidays. Now, just to shake it while getting back to work!

The Desolation of Smaug review

On Sunday, 15 December 2013, Janice and I dug out from a weekend snowstorm and drove down to the Showcase Cinema de Lux at Legacy Place in Dedham, Mass. We met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Sara F. & Josh C., Bruce K., and Rich C.G. for The Hobbit [Part 2 of 3]: The Desolation of Smaug. We mostly liked the fantasy prequel/sequel.

The Desolation of Smaug
Tolkien and Jackson’s fantasy epic continues

Plot: If you haven’t read J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel or seen director Peter Jackson’s previous adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (LotR) and The Hobbit [Part 1 of 3]: An Unexpected Journey, then The Desolation of Smaug probably won’t make much sense. This movie assumes that you’re familiar with Tolkien and Jackson’s world of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a flashback to the town of Bree (as well as to The Fellowship of the Ring), where the Wizard Gandalf and exiled prince Thorin meet and decide on a quest to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain and lost stronghold of the Dwarves. We then see Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit burglar, traveling with Thorin and company through Mirkwood. They encounter multiple obstacles, including giant spiders and Elves, on their way to confront the mighty dragon Smaug.

Meanwhile, Gandalf goes on a side mission for the White Council to Dol Goldur, a ruined tower in the south where evil is stirring anew. He and colleague Radagast learn that the Necromancer raising an Orc army is none other than…. Well, I’ll try to avoid “spoilers,” even if some of the linked reviews and many viewers already know how The Hobbit ties to LotR.

Cast: The acting is the strongest part of The Desolation of Smaug, with Martin Freeman returning as slightly less-reluctant adventurer Bilbo and the magisterial Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. Richard Armitage gets the lion’s share of the Dwarven lines as Thorin. Aidan Turner returns as Kili in an unlikely love triangle.

Other new and returning cast members include Lost‘s Evangeline Lilly as the winsome Elf warrior Tauriel, Orlando Bloom as unaging archer Legolas, and Pushing Daisies‘ Lee Pace as haughty Elf king (and Legolas’ father) Thranduil. Mikael Persbrandt plays Beorn, a scary man who can shift into a bear.

During a stop at Lake Town, filled with descendants of refugees from the city of Dale, we meet scruffy humans, including the scheming mayor, played by Stephen Fry, and noble Bard, played by Luke Evans. Evans resembles Bloom, both in chiseled features and in his character’s ability with a bow. It was nice to see Bard’s children in a supporting role, hinting at a larger world with everyday people in it.

Direction: Jackson does a better job than in An Unexpected Journey, although The Desolation of Smaug still lurches a bit from set piece to set piece. The script has a good amount of humor, and we get glimpses at new parts of Middle Earth, from the depths of Mirkwood to Smaug’s huge treasure hoard in the stone halls of Erebor.

Warner Brothers no doubt wants to milk this franchise as the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy and the Harry Potter series have wound down. However, most fans and critics agree that stretching The Hobbit over three movies and adding new characters or material from LotR’s appendices wasn’t the best idea. Still, as with Disney’s recent acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm, it would be disingenuous to claim to not to be happy to return to a beloved setting.

Visual effects: The giant spiders are properly horrific, even if the Orcs still look more computer-generated than their LotR counterparts. An action-packed chase scene featuring the Dwarves (and Bilbo) in barrels leaving the Elven kingdom is more impressive than their escape from the Goblin town in the previous movie.

The great wyrm Smaug, well-voiced by Sherlock‘s and Star Trek: Into Darkness‘ Benedict Cumberbatch, is a true wonder to behold. Serpentine and greedy, prone to flattery, and winged death incarnate, Smaug is one of the best dragons we’ve ever seen on film. There was some controversy about the configuration of legs, but rest assured, Jackson and company did this monster justice.

Janice, Sara, Bruce, and Rich saw The Desolation of Smaug in conventional 2-D, while Thomas, Kai-Yin, Josh, and I saw the high-frame rate (HFR) 3-D version. Thomas and Josh didn’t care for the HFR, but it didn’t bother me. I’d compare it to seeing high-definition television (HD TV) for the first time, although I’d be the first to admit that most 3-D movies aren’t worth the extra ticket cost.

Soundtrack: No new themes stood out for me on first listen, but I was definitely aware of music that evoked the LotR trilogy. The score also supported the increasing levels of peril, from the Dwarves wandering in Mirkwood to their stirring up of Smaug under the Lonely Mountain.

Rating: Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. As a longtime fantasy fan and gamer, I look forward to next year’s third installment! The road goes ever on….

Of the trailers we saw, I’m most interested in the latest iteration of Godzilla, if less so in the Miller/Snyder ahistorical 300: Rise of an Empire. The remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminded me more of A Night at the Museum and Forrest Gump than the James Thurber short story or Danny Kaye comedy.

Over dinner at P.F. Chang’s, we discussed other recent and upcoming genre entertainment, and 47 Ronin (the Keanu Reeves fantasy, not to be confused with real Japanese history or folklore) is the next movie we hope to see together in theaters.

Here are the movies I’ve seen this past year:

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review

On Saturday, 15 December 2012, Janice and I met Beruk A., Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Ken G., Josh C. & Sara F., and Robin H. at the AMC Loews Boston Common to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We all enjoyed Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novels.

Boston showing of The Hobbit
The gang for An Unexpected Journey

I’ll try to avoid plot/script “spoilers,” but if you haven’t yet read the original book, do so! An Unexpected Journey follows eponymous Hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he evolves from a retiring country gentleman in the Shire to become an adventurer alongside 12 Dwarves and the wizard Gandalf. On the way to the Lonely Mountain, they encounter warg-riding Goblins, Elves, Trolls, and more, all harkening back to the Norse tales that Tolkien studied and loved.

Director Jackson and company fold in plot threads from the appendices of The Lord of the Ringsexpanding many scenes and characters. Since Jackson filmed more than four hours’ worth of footage for each installment of the previous trilogy, it should come as no surprise that he expanded on The Hobbit. I have fond memories of a marathon screening of the first trilogy’s extended editions in New York City with cast members present, so I am perhaps the target audience.

Dinner for 14
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!

The tone of the prequel is close to that of “LotR,” but with a bit more humor, as in the book, and slightly less violence — but maybe still too much for young children. I was pleased to hear much of Tolkien’s language in An Unexpected Journey, including a few songs and poems (some of us still remember the Rankin-Bass animated attempt). As a longtime Tolkien fan, this helped balance out the newer additions to the story.

One of the strongest components of An Unexpected Journey was the cast. It was nice to see familiar faces again, including Ian Holm as the older Bilbo and Elijah Wood as young Frodo in a framing scene. Of course, it’s now difficult to imagine mischievous Gandalf without picturing Ian McKellen, and Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett are back as regal Elves Elrond and Galadriel, respectively.

Fans of British genre television and movies should recognize many of the actors, at least by name. Martin Freeman is ever the befuddled Englishman, whether it’s in The Office, Shaun of the Dead, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlockand now as young Bilbo in The Hobbit. But as Gandalf notes, he’s more clever, hardy, and ethical than meets the eye.

Martin Freeman as young Bilbo Baggins
Bilbo Baggins, the bravest little Hobbit of them all

Even with a three-hour runtime, we get to know only a few of the Dwarves in The Hobbit, but Robin Hood‘s Richard Armitage stands out as honorable Thorin Oakenshield, and Being Human‘s hunky Aidan Turner as young Dwarf Kili might be a rival for the affections of fans of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. Jekyll‘s James Nesbitt has some sympathetic moments as Bofur, and Ken Stott is sagacious as older Dwarf Balin.

Dozen Dwarves
Far over the Misty Mountains cold….

Doctor Who‘s Sylvester McCoy is the twitter-pated (literally) wizard Radagast the Brown. Those playing the villains are just as experienced. Andy Serkis, now also second-unit director for The Hobbit, is a delight as the nasty Gollum. Comedian Barry Humphries, best known as Dame Edna, is unrecognizable as the Great Goblin, while Spartacus‘ Manu Bennet is fearsome as Orc leader Azog.

It was also nice to see familiar Middle Earth locations, such as Bilbo’s comfy estate of Bag End in Hobbiton and Elrond’s Last Homely House in Rivendell. Jackson also shows us Dwarf cities in their full glory and violent decline, a Goblin town beneath the Misty Mountains, and the depths of Mirkwood. All of the architecture, costumes, and props are again excellent.

Many critics have taken issue with the movie’s length and editing, and I agree that they could have been tighter. Still, trimming a few sequences of Bilbo and company hiking or computer-enhanced battle scenes wouldn’t make An Unexpected Journey much shorter, and I’m glad that so many character moments and scenes from the book made it into the film. The flow of the story from scene to scene could have been smoother — reminding me of both tabletop and computer role-playing games — and I hope it will improve in later chapters of this new trilogy.

Unlike practical visual effects and makeup, the storm giants and the aforementioned Azog and Goblin king do look computer-generated, unlike the expressive but still realistic Gollum or Trolls. I think that comparisons to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, even if they’re accurate, reflect “nerd rage” more than a fair critique. I didn’t see the movie in 3-D, IMAX, or high frame rate formats, so I’ll leave that to other reviewers to describe. Howard Shore’s latest soundtrack was also good, and it alluded to the soaring themes of Lord of the Rings.

Overall, I’d give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+/A-. For me, that’s about on par with The Two Towers, if not as satisfying as The Fellowship of the Ring or Return of the King. Compared with most other fantasy films, I’d still recommend the The Hobbit and remind moviegoers that it has been a generation since we’ve had so many to choose from.

Most of the trailers we saw before The Hobbit were for science fiction flicks rather than fantasies. Both Tom Cruise’s Oblivion and Will Smith’s After Earth post-apocalyptic visions had cool hardware but seemingly predictable plots. Romantic zombie comedy (when did you think you’d see those together?) Warm Bodies looked mildly amusing.

I’m most looking forward to kaiju vs. giant robots in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and to Star Trek: Into Darkness, even if I have reservations about how the latter again relies on a villain-driven story involving mass destruction and threats to the starship Enterprise. Man of Steel looked rather dark for a Superman film. Still, genre film fans have a lot to look forward to in 2013!

After the movie, we went to the Rock Bottom Brewery for a late lunch. On Sunday, Janice and I attended “A Celtic Christmas Sojourn” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. I hope that all your holidays are happy!