Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is easily one of the best movie trilogies of all time. They’re also some of my favorite movies of all time. The Hobbit trilogy, on the other hand… that’s a more complicated story.
Sadly, The Battle of the Five Armies, which is the largest of the three films in scale and was supposed to be the grand finale, fell spectacularly flat. It’s arguably the weakest film in The Hobbit trilogy. In short, Peter Jackson tried to replicate the success of Lord of the Rings, but it didn’t work out well.
But why? What made The Battle of the Five Armies so bad? Easy— it tried too hard to be another Return of the King. It wanted to be a grand, spectacular ending to the trilogy, but instead left us with an unsatisfying, unbalanced third act that lacked emotional impact. And, of course, it didn’t have much source material to go off of.
But first, a brief disclaimer
Before we get into it, I just want to preface this with a quick disclaimer. The Hobbit trilogy is nowhere near the perfection that is The Lord of the Rings movies, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have love for them.
An Unexpected Journey came out during a time when I absolutely dreaded going to school each day. These movies, along with some others, provided the fantasy escapism I craved. I remember being so excited for each movie to come out. I spent hours on Tumblr obsessing over it (and Aidan Turner, thanks to these movies). The amount of times I listened to Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire is embarrassing (it’s still a jam to this day, I don’t care what anyone says).
So, while I’m about to criticize the hell out of The Battle of the Five Armies, I do so out of love. While the movies have more than a few issues, I can still enjoy them but also criticize them at the same time.
Now, let’s get into it.
An unbalanced third act
One of the things Peter Jackson does so well in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy is successfully tell individual stories within a massive battle while maintaining all the dramatic and emotional tension.
We see this most prominently in Two Towers and Return of the King. Small-scale conflicts occur while a colossal battle rages on around them: Eowyn fighting the Witch King during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, or Aragorn taking on a Troll during the Battle at the Black Gate, to name a few. Even when we cut away from the main battle to drop in on these stories everything still feels like one cohesive, well-constructed sequence.
The Battle of the Five Armies fails to do this with a very important scene. Rather than have Thorin, Kili, and Fili’s death play out like in the book, amidst the Battle of Five Armies, the film moves it to a secondary location, Ravenhill, away from where the main story is unfolding.
Taking Thorin, Kili, and Fili’s final showdown with Azog the Defiler to Ravenhill alienates them from the main event that’s literally the title of the film. We spent an entire trilogy building up to this battle for control of Erebor, only to have our three main dwarves go off to a different location and barely participate in the title event.
This decision creates a jarring back-and-forth sequence the audience can’t emotionally invest in. Not only that, but also it makes for an unbalanced third act that doesn’t stick the landing and leaves viewers dissatisfied after all is said and done.
Little emotional impact when it mattered most
Speaking of dwarves and emotional impact, let’s talk about those death scenes.
In the book, Thorin is mortally wounded during the Battle of Five Armies. As a result, his nephews, Fili and Kili, rush to his aid and are ultimately slain. It’s a valiant yet heartbreaking display of the loyalty and love the two have for their uncle.
In the movie, though, their deaths play out differently, and in a way that loses the emotional impact of their sacrifices. Like I said earlier, the dwarves’ last stand takes place at Ravenhill while confronting Azog. Thorin sends Fili and Kili to scout the area, where the two are quickly separated from each other and dispatched. There’s no sacrifice involved, just quick deaths in a careless manner.
What frustrates me most about this scene is it could have had more of an emotional impact. We saw the strong uncle-nephew bond between Thorin and Kili right before the dwarves charged out of Erebor, but that sentiment is lost on the audience once we leave the chaotic atmosphere of the battle.
Instead, Fili and Kili are sent out to scout the area like soldiers, and rather than giving their lives to defend their uncle, they’re killed in a careless manner that the audience quickly moves on from.
Source material that was stretched too thin
Finally, the trilogy shouldn’t have even been a trilogy to begin with. There just wasn’t enough source material to support it in the first place. Would I have loved to see a live-action adaptation of The Hobbit? Absolutely. But a trilogy wasn’t the way to go.
Peter Jackson tried to supplement the lack of material with new characters, additional plotlines, and some material from the appendices, but it all fell flat by the end.
Stretching a 300-page book into a nine-hour trilogy resulted in a story that felt more and more hollow the longer it went on. By the time we reached The Battle of the Five Armies, there was little to no emotional grandeur and gravitas behind it like there was with Return of the King.
Here’s what worked in The Battle of the Five Armies
I don’t want to end this on a sour note because, again, The Hobbit trilogy holds a special place in my heart. Despite the lackluster battle and stretched plot, The Battle of the Five Armies has elements that worked well and are pretty enjoyable.
The destruction of Laketown
Opening The Battle of the Five Armies with the total destruction of Laketown was perfect. That’s not to say that watching an entire town get burned to the ground (or water?) is enjoyable, but you get the point.
The audience finally got to see the terrifying dragon that had been teased since the beginning of An Unexpected Journey, and what a payoff. Smaug was an absolute menace in the skies. Seeing the iconic book villain come to life in all his fire-breathing glory was extremely satisfying.
Bard stepping up and slaying Smaug in the character-defining moment from the book was exciting to see brought to life. Luke Evans as Bard the Bowman was definitely one of the highlights of the trilogy.
Before the let-down that was the literal namesake of the movie, the build-up to the Battle of Five Armies was actually pretty good. Having to establish who the five different armies were and why they were fighting couldn’t have been an easy task. Considering the context of the battle slightly differed from that of the book, the writers no doubt had their work cut out for them.
By the time the battle was about to take place, I felt it was pretty clear why each of the groups was fighting. Personally, I think the film deserves some credit for tackling that. Sure, the execution of said battle didn’t go well, but I think we can agree that we’ll take any win we can here.