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Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Extended Edition), The
Reaching the finish line of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit Trilogy is an accomplishment for both viewer and director. Until now I resisted jumping on the bandwagon to complain that this screen adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's story should have been two shorter films. Some fans suggested the narrative could easily have been told in one setting, but I resisted joining their cries. But the malaise has now set in, particularly with this extended cut of the final part, The Battle of the Five Armies. Jackson's work here is, of course, impressive. There is a lot to like about the world building, characters and technical achievements on screen. This trilogy does not quite resonate like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and that is OK. The source material for The Hobbit is less serious, the narrative less dour, and Jackson's latter trilogy is decidedly more upbeat than its predecessor. One marked difference is that Jackson has slipped as a practical filmmaker. Some of his technique has improved, but his success on The Lord of the Rings was largely due to on-set improvisation and in-camera effects work. The Hobbit provides an often cartoonish, CGI-overloaded universe that is simply not as immersive as the Middle-Earth of Jackson's first films. This atmosphere and a stretched-thin narrative are the trilogy's biggest flaws, and these are most apparent in The Battle of the Five Armies.
The film picks up seconds after The Desolation of Smaug ends: The great, fire-breathing dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) descends upon Laketown, bathing its residents in a sea of fire. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the dwarves watch in horror from Erebor, while Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) battles the dragon in Laketown, earning the respect of its people. Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) remains the captive of the Necromancer - aka Sauron (also voiced by Cumberbatch) - as Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) conspire to free him. Soon Thorin, like Smaug before him, becomes obsessed with the Lonely Mountain's treasure, and incites a war with the elves, led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) and trailed by Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). Also approaching is Azog's orc army, which threatens to overpower any one of the protagonist armies. If you're counting armies, that's the dwarves, elves, men from Laketown, orcs, and wild wolves, who also show up to claim the Arkenstone.
The most glaring problem with The Battle of the Five Armies is that the movie is little more than a long battle sequence. If you watch it directly after An Unexpected Journey and the Desolation of Smaug it makes for a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, but it is the least satisfying of the three when viewed on its own. This extended cut adds approximately twenty minutes of new footage, much of which is incorporated into the battle sequences. This version actually earned an R rating, which again proves that the MPAA is scared of its own shadow. Other than some CGI blood splatter and an over-the-top scene where Legolas decapitates a couple of orcs while hanging upside down, this is decidedly PG-13 material. The opening battle at Laketown is the film's most exciting, as the circling, taunting Smaug remains a visually and narratively compelling character thanks to Cumberbatch and some incredible visual effects. The other battles are not nearly as intense. The overuse of CGI robs them of consequence and suspense, and I grew bored watching the fungible orc fights and animal combat.
This extended cut does provide a few welcome character moments that improve the film. Jackson really underwhelms with the too-brief Gandalf/Sauron fight he previewed in An Unexpected Journey, but at least that is given a bit more screen time here. The effects in this sequence are not impressive, unfortunately, and poor Blanchett's digitally edited face is laugh-out-loud bad, like a shot from some awful made-for-TV science fiction film. Better are added moments between Bilbo and Bofur (James Nesbitt) and extended scenes where Thorin contemplates whether or not to engage in battle against the elves and men. There are also brief scenes in which the dwarves are given the spotlight in battle, which is nice considering they're largely background filler in this film. We also see the annoying Alfrid (Ryan Gage) die on screen, so there's that to look forward to.
As the credits rolled here I told a friend that I liked - but did not love - Jackson's The Hobbit Trilogy. After viewing each extended cut, I think this would have been a stronger presentation with two lean, story-conscious films. There is just too much filler here to warrant six hours of screen time. It's puzzling that Jackson spends so much time on additions like Tauriel and Kili's (Aidan Turner) romance but glosses over important ties to The Lord of the Rings like the confrontation with Sauron. And, while I respect Jackson's technical prowess, I greatly prefer the film-shot look of The Lord of the Rings to the digitally shot The Hobbit. For all the high frame rate gimmicks and CGI nonsense (seriously, is Legolas in a video game?), The Hobbit squanders its beautiful set designs, costumes and backgrounds with a too-slick, modern appearance. Somehow I've turned this review into a summary of what I did not like in this trilogy. That is not totally fair, and I do recommend this final installment without hesitation despite its many flaws. Jackson gave us much - perhaps too much - to like, and I am thankful for that.
Complaints about the digital appearance of the film aside, there is no denying that this Blu-ray accurately replicates the theatrical experience. The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image is incredibly sharp and detailed, with miles-deep wide shots and crystal-clear close-ups. The detail is so striking that less-impressive effects shots are immediately noticeable. Jackson color grades the film to his liking, which can result in some blown-out highlights and grey/green skin tones, but this is not the fault of the transfer. I noticed very, very minor crush, but black levels are impressive and shadow detail is impeccable. Despite the film's nearly three hour running time, compression artifacts are totally absent, and I noticed no digital anomalies or edge enhancement.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also of theatrical quality and highly immersive. Anyone looking to test their home theater equipment could certainly do worse than this aggressive mix. Smaug's wings flap across the sound field, and fire burns around the viewer. The cries of war rumble the subwoofer and clash behind and around the room. Sound pans are frequent and effective. Dialogue is clear whether delivered from the center channel or directionally. Howard Shore's score is given weight and heft. Fidelity and range are both strong. Quiet character moments are as perfect as the thunderous battles, and all parts of the mix are layered impeccably. French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are also included, as are English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This three-disc package includes the 164-minute extended cut of The Battle of Five Armies, which adds 20 minutes to the theatrical version. The discs are labeled to match the previous releases and are packed into a black, hinged Blu-ray case. The case slips inside an attractive, embossed cardboard slipbox. You also get a code to redeem an UltraViolet digital copy of the extended cut. As expected, the bonus features are ridiculous, and together form a highly detailed production diary.
DISC ONE: The Film and Select Bonus Content
- Audio Commentary by Peter Jackson and Co-Writer Philippa Boyens - You can hear the relief in Jackson's voice as he discusses the film and the lengthy journey to make this second trilogy. This is a lively, interesting track with plenty of behind-the-scenes dirt on the production.
- New Zealand: Home to Middle-Earth Part 3 (6:07/HD) - The final featurette about the New Zealand locations used in the film. This is basically a tourism ad.
DISC TWO: The Appendices Part 11: The Gathering Storm
- Opening (3:46/HD) - Jackson and company kick off another tremendous making-of documentary.
- In the Dungeons of the Necromancer (30:08/HD) - McKellen and Blanchett discuss their work together and the battle with Sauron.
- Fire and Water (30:02/HD) - This piece looks at the epic destruction of Laketown by the dragon Smaug.
- Under the Shadow of the Mountain (18:03/HD) - The cast and crew battle the elements while shooting on location.
- In the Wake of the Dragon (27:28/HD) - Evans earns the Victoria's Cross, and some of the extras go a bit overboard on set in this piece.
- The Gathering of the Clouds (30:10/HD) - The cast and crew rush to finish filming on a tight timeline and bond on set to relieve the tension of the production.
- Many Partings (30:02/HD) - Principle photography wraps and Freeman leaves the set, causing tears and much reminiscing.
- The Clouds Burst (29:49/HD) - Fire damages some sets, and the cast and crew begin pick-up shots.
- A Last Desperate Stand (30:12/HD) - Bloom and McKellen spend their final days on set in their iconic roles.
- Out from the Gate (30:10/HD) - This piece looks at the initial dwarf charge at Erebor.
- The Last Stage (34:05/HD) - Jackson finishes filming and posts a message to his fans.
DISC THREE: The Appendices Part 12: Here at Journey's End and Select Bonus Content
- Beneath the Thunder: Forging a Battle of the Five Armies (90:00/HD) - This expansive documentary chronicles the practical and digital creation of the massive, five-army final battle.
- The People and Denizens of Middle-earth (88:08/HD) - This piece focuses on some of the characters who take center stage in this part of the trilogy.
- Realms of the Third Age: From the City of Dale to the Halls of Erebor (90:28/HD) - See how the filmmakers created these iconic sets for the film.
- Farewell, Friends! (32:56/HD) - A touching wrap-up to this trilogy and Jackson's work on The Lord of the Rings.
- Butt-Numb-A-Thon 2011 Greeting (11:43/HD) - Jackson, McKellen and Quint from AICN make a birthday video for Harry Knowles.
- The Real Adam Brown (5:25/HD) - The actor who plays Ori gets the spotlight here.
- "Rivers of Gold" Music Video by Jed "Nori" Brophy.
- Andrew Lesnie Remembered (5:47/HD) - A tribute to Lesnie, the film's cinematographer, who died of a heart attack earlier this year.
At the end of this epic, not always successful Hobbit journey is The Battle of the Five Armies. This film is the least cohesive when viewed on its own, but stands as a decent conclusion to Peter Jackson's epic trilogy. Imperfect but largely entertaining, the film is presented here with 20 minutes of additional footage. Fans will no doubt want to own this extended edition, which offers fantastic picture and sound quality and hours upon hours of extras. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.