The final chapter of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit-based trilogies, The Battle Of The Five Armies, is all at once tragic, brave, beautiful and generous.
It is also final and absolute proof that Jackson has created six of the most visually memorable films in the history of cinematography, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and faithfully winding their way through the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien through six epic releases.
For most film makers, creating just one of these would serve as the crowning accomplishment of a lifetime. That Jackson could catch his stride with the recreation of one of the world’s most beloved fantasy adventures and keep his momentum (and his glorious cast) through six films is an artistic milestone few could ever hope to achieve.
There is now no question that Jackson falls proudly into second place behind Steven Spielberg as the greatest of the big-story, big-hit filmmakers of all time. It is also further proof that film now belongs to those who can master the unleashed powers of special effects, which allows humans to interact with dinosaurs at Jurassic Park and allows hobbits with hairy feet do battle with algae-green trolls and hideous Orcs born in mud holes and bred for war.
Jackson’s accomplishment, which began with the release of The Fellowship Of The Ring 13 years ago, has already reverberated throughout the industry. After the first release, directors around the world embarked on a frenzied race for fantasy adventures just to keep up with the master from New Zealand, who won a Best Picture Oscar with the Return of the King, the third film of the first trilogy.
The highlights to these films: The terrific story lines, the sense of epic comings and goings, the grand visual spectacles and some of the finest acting ever recorded.
The weak spot is easy: The scripts. For the most part, they work admirably with the audience treated often to jovial interplay and sound character development. But hand the scene over to a bad guy and you get one hackneyed line after another – “Slaughter them all. Leave none alive,” for example, said with carnivorous determination.
The final chapter maintains the pace of visually stunning storytelling of a fantasy kingdom at war. Filmed entirely in New Zealand, it also serves to define the five films before it as ultimately about loss and corruption.
Even Bilbo Baggins, the central character played flawlessly by Martin Freeman, is poisoned by greed. As he says goodbye to the wizard Gandolf (played by Ian McKellen), his most enduring friend through his long adventures, he lies about the ring of power that sits in his pocket. He says he lost it, a sign that greed is not unknown in the Shire, the idyllic home of the hobbits, who are defined as guileless “halflings,” who value peace and tranquility and tankards of ale and prefer to avoid adventures, which are unpredictable and, generally, make you late for dinner.
However, it is also assumed that you have to leave the shire and bring corruption back with you. Otherwise, the Shire is seen as a quiet corner of Camelot, safely removed from the troubles of politics and commercial exploitation.
As for a plot, The Battle Of The Five Armies hardly needs an explanation. Imagine legions of elegant elves facing down a rag-tag group of war-mongering dwarfs, until everyone realizes a army of orcs bearing down on them both creates a bigger problem.
After five films, however, facing yet another massive battle with swords hacking the enemy to bits, Jackson is wise enough to concentrate on the fate of the individual dwarfs who have come so far to retake their homeland, especially Kili (played by Aidan Turner), who has fallen in love with the she-elf Tauriel (played by Evangeline Lilly), and the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage). There are battle scenes, yes, but the action becomes more riveting when the fate of these heroes hangs in the balance.
Curiously, after six films, it is Oakenshield who emerges as the most complicated character in the entire series. It takes three films and some heartfelt ups and downs for him to finally descend into his private hell, fueled, of course, by greed. He then finds a reserve of nobility and takes this into the final battle with him, where he rallies his troops to a victory that comes at a very high price.
Why do I appreciate the devastating ending? Simple: After six enormous films, it is clear that a slap-happy victory at the end would cheapen all the sweat, toil, scars and deaths it took to get to this point. Grinning dwarfs swilling ale and bumping knuckles would have made you wonder what was the point. It would just seem silly, somehow.
Instead, let’s face it, J.R.R. Tolkien, almost 80 years after his books were written, has few equals in the realm of his choosing. And it may take that long for Jackson to be surpassed in his chosen genre, as well.