ADVANCE MOVIE REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

(Image: imax.com/au)

(Image: imax.com/au)

"THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES"-- 5 STARS

Two years ago when reviewing the first chapter to Peter Jackson's new J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," this website preached the virtue of patience to see an entire story through.  Comparisons were offered where you were asked to imagine quitting "Superman" when Krypton exploded, "Psycho" when Marion Crane left Phoenix, or "Star Wars" before Luke Skywalker left Tatooine.  Last year, within my review of the crucial and improved middle chapter "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," those comparative timelines were moved ahead.  You now had to imagine that you gave up on "Superman" when the guy with the cape showed up, "Psycho" when Marion checks into the Bates Motel, or "Star Wars" when you find out who Darth Vader really is.

With the arrival of "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," we have made it to the payoff.  This big story gets its ending, its tidy bow, and its cherry-on-top.  Even if you think the movie studio was milking you for three movie tickets over three years out of a book that probably could have fit into a single film, you now get to see your patience rewarded and your virtue justified.  You will realize it was worth it.  You will feel like you stuck around to see "Superman" save the world, you survived the walk down those basement stairs in "Psycho," and you partied with the Ewoks and spirit Jedis in "Star Wars."  

Pat yourself on the back, but, before you do, pat director Peter Jackson, writer/producer Fran Walsh, and co-writer/creative consultant Guillermo del Toro on their backs first.  Peter Jackson's two film trilogies of J.R.R. Tolkien's work have always been in good hands that we should trust.  Even before embarking on "The Hobbit," the multiple Oscar winner earned the right to make movies his way and execute his style of epic storytelling.  Fellow filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's creative boost gave this new trilogy the visual punch it needed to stand tall in a cinema landscape where superhero flicks have replaced good, old fashioned fantasy films.  They have delivered all the goods and deserve credit for honoring our patience.  Sharpened, honed, and polished to an exquisite level of detail, breadth, and impact fitting a great trilogy finale, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" is an impressive and imposing final chapter that accomplishes the world-building and seed-planting it set out to conquer.

"The Battle of the Five Armies" takes place at the moment "The Desolation of Smaug" ended.  The enormously vicious dragon Smaug (voiced and acted via performance capture technology by Oscar hopeful Benedict Cumberbatch of "The Imitation Game") has evaded the best attempts of Thorin (Richard Armitage of "Into the Storm") and his company of dwarves to slay him inside "The Lonely Mountain" of Erebor.  He bursts forth from the mountain and lays waste to the neighboring human village of Lake-town with fire, destruction, and death.  In the midst of leading his family to safety, Lake-town's man-of-the-people leader Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans of "Dracula Untold") is miraculously able to kill Smaug with a Black Arrow, the only piercing weapon strong enough to penetrate the immense dragon's armored skin.

Even with Smaug defeated, the dangers and threats are only beginning.  Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) is still held captive at Dol Guldur by the orc followers of Sauron the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch) and the resurrected Nazgul kings.  Elven prince Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his captain of the guard Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) continue to track the orc and goblin troop movements that draw closer to the dwarves.  Thorin may have retaken Erebor and its vast plunder, but the gold there is cursed.  His thirst for the Arkenstone, the "Heart of the Mountain," is beginning to drive him mad with greed and obsession.  With their home in ruins, Bard brings his survivors to Erebor seeking shelter and his ancestral claim of the mountain's gold to rebuild the city.  The same notion of ancient claim also brings forth King Thranduil (Lee Pace of "Guardians of the Galaxy") commanding an army of wood elves from Mirkwood, the same elves and sworn enemies that Thorin's party escaped from last chapter.

The jaded and fixated Thorin goes against his honorable word and rebuffs the peaceful efforts of men and elves to share the treasure.  When Thorin fortifies his position in the mountain to defend against man and elf, Dain Ironfoot (the always dependable and cheeky Billy Connolly), Thorin's second cousin from the Iron Hills, and his army of dwarven reinforcements arrive to back their kin.  At the crucial moment when men, elves, and dwarves appear ready to clash, two armies of Sauron's forces, one of orcs led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett of TV's "Arrow") and another of flying goblins converge on Erebor to destroy all three rivals.  If you did you math, there are your five armies.

As always, stuck in the middle of it all is the homely hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman).  As the voice of reason within Thorin's company, he tries to help the misguided king to make the right decisions.  As a friend of Gandalf's and Bard's, Bilbo soon becomes thrust into the position and middle man and peacemaker between the two sides on the brink of war.  And, with that incredibly important and powerful ring in his pocket, he can make his way anywhere and dodge all enemies.  

Just when you think you've seen every kind of massive silver screen battle scene, Jackson pulls out new tricks that dazzle and amaze with 3D brilliance and unmatched stylish flair.  If you could dream it up, Jackson puts in here, between fights and duels set on frozen waterfalls, foggy cliffs, collapsing brick towers, mangled village streets in tight quarters, and on open fields radiating with sunlight and the clangs of metal on metal.  

Once this titular battle kicks off at around the one-hour mark in the film (which totals a comparatively easy 144 minutes, the shortest of both trilogies), everything comes together beautifully.  Peter Jackson brings out every tool in the WETA Workshop arsenal when it comes to special effects.  WETA's digital work and performance capture (also on display to a high degree in this past summer's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") is consistently top-notch.  However, it is WETA's incredible volume of practical work with props, costumes, and makeup, spanning from the lead characters all the way down to the most minuscule extra, that truly becomes the palette of quality that sets this series apart from all of the other shiny big-budget blockbusters you're going to see.  All of this technical and artistic expertise is, and has been for three films now, Oscar-worthy.  

Beyond the extreme technical and artistic prowess on display, what elevates this nearly hour-long action climax from being meaningless white noise on par with a Michael Bay "Transformers" film is the dramatic storytelling being played out in the midst of this battle.  This isn't spectacle solely for spectacle's sake.  Backed by Howard Shore's continually masterful and brassy musical score, the ups and downs of "The Battle of the Five Armies" resonate towards the world-building that has been established from the first two film chapters. 

Before the dust settles, families are separated and reunited, hearts are broken, destinies are fulfilled, old scores are settled, new rivals emerge, friendships are jeopardized and strengthened, authority is challenged, and heroes are made and taken away.  The journey to reach this resolution has built our investment into these characters.  This finale gives them their worthy episodes of closure.  Each of their storylines get their ideal moment to shine and the results are stirringly fantastic and meaningful.  Seeing the end, this final chapter will connect seemlessly well to Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy

The first two films of the trilogy received five-star reviews from this writer and this final film will follow suit as one of the must-see films of 2014.  Soak it up too, because like "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" in 2003, you will be witnessing the end of an era for the fantasy genre with "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."  James Whitbrook, an online writer for io9.com with his "Toybox" column, recently posed the question of what happened to all the fantasy movies.  He brings up excellent and very true points.  Other than the upcoming video game-based "Warcraft" blockbuster from "Source Code" director Duncan Jones and the promised double follow-up to "Avatar," superhero movies and science fiction like "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" have taken over the fantasy genre.  It's true that in the decade-and-change since "The Lord of the Rings," tastes have shifted and fantasies have been phased out.  It's a shame too, because, as Peter Jackson so often proves, fantasy genre greatness is always attainable with the right patience, craft, and dedication.  

LESSON #1: FULFILLING ONE'S DESTINY-- As aforementioned, many tangents and storylines started two films ago that thread this world's centuries of history come to fulfillment.  Chief among them are the place of Dwarves in Middle Earth.  Thorin's destiny was to take back his homeland and that conquest is at his fingertips, but not without fending off the next wave of challenges.  As "unexpected" as Bilbo's journey gets labeled, the feeling of destiny is still present.  He was meant to be here and meant to help.  We, of course, know how his future reverberates to Frodo and "The Lord of the Rings."  Sauron looms large, but not before the heavy-hitters of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) help Gandalf set a new destiny in motion.

LESSON #2: THE CHARACTER FLAW PRESENT WHEN GREED REPLACES HONOR-- The leaders at the forefront of these colliding forces all fall on different sides between greed and honor.  The sickening lust for gold and the Arkenstone has corrupted Thorin and replaced the honor of his word and dedication that brought him this far.  The selfish Elven king Thranduil only wants the mountain for its jewels and not as an opportunity to bridge the feuding alliances between man, elf, and dwarf.  Gandalf, Bard and Bilbo represent the unselfish opposite end of that spectrum.  They give away their riches and value willingly to help others and those in their charge.  All three grow their honor rather than cast it aside for their own best interests.    

LESSON #3: FRIENDSHIP AND BROTHERHOOD AS FORMS OF LOVE-- Bilbo has always been our emotional guide through this adventure.  In the first film, one of the highlighted life lessons was "the values of loyalty, honor, and a willing heart."  This evolved into "committing to a promise" in the second film.  Each lesson spoke of Bilbo's growth as not only a willing participant, but a worthy companion to his peers.  In this penultimate final film, those bonds of friendship and brotherhood are now deeply forged between Bilbo and Thorin's company of dwarves.  Good friendships such as these reach a form of love.  Each member, top to bottom, carry unbreakable emotional connections of dedication, belonging, and sacrifice that unite them forever going forward. 

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