The Problem with Prequels: A Battle of the Five Armies Review

This month I’ve been writing article after article saying how emotional the last Middle-Earth movie was going to be for me. I even came up with metaphors for how many tears were going to be shed. (Filling the River Anduin? I mean, come on.) Except that I did not cry tonight. This could be because, throughout the film, I was constantly thinking about things to write for this review. Or perhaps this was because my students were in the theater with me. Or maybe this was due to the fact that I hyped myself up for the movie, thinking it was going to be Return of the King all over again.

But that’s just it: The Battle of the Five Armies cannot be Return of the King all over again. As the third of three prequels, this movie cannot resolve in the same way that the actual last Middle-Earth movie (chronologically) can. So many have said that Return of the King is a movie of too many resolutions, but that’s actually what I love about that movie. There’s a definite sense of finality to every storyline. There’s an absolute farewell to the characters as Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel leave Middle-Earth, and Sam says “Well, I’m back” to his family.

The last movie in a series of prequels has a very different task at hand: try to tie together the end of the prequels with the beginning of the originals, while at the same time trying to bring about a conclusion to the whole legend. Certainly no easy task. Star Wars was faced with the same daunting problem, made worse because the prequels were graphically so superior to the originals. How do you tie a prequel to an original that looks so different? Even George Lucas couldn’t make that happen without feeling jarred by the result. The Hobbit movies had that going for them at least: they look close enough in style to the Lord of the Rings films that it shouldn’t be uncomfortable watching one marathon to the next.

“Mind the gap” between the old and the new

This movie also does a decent job of tying in references to The Fellowship of the Ring to help build that bridge between the two trilogies. Thranduil mentions to Legolas that he should seek out Strider. Thorin gives Bilbo the mithril shirt (which Frodo wears throughout The Lord of the Rings). Galadriel casts Sauron out of Mirkwood and into Mordor (which was such a cool scene, particularly when she says “You have no power here” to Sauron). Most clearly the gap between the two trilogies is bridged by telling the entire storyline of the three films in a flashback. An Unexpected Journey begins with Bilbo telling Frodo to put the “No Admittance Except On Party Business” sign on the gate, and it ends with Gandalf arriving at that gate, as he does in The Fellowship.

As awesome as this made the ending, it also inherently brings us back full circle, back to the beginning of the next trilogy, away from a strong sense of finality and conclusion. Flashbacks are a great literary device, but in a way, this movie felt less resolved to me because of it. I actually wanted to see more resolutions. I mean, totally extended resolutions like we see in Return of the King. When Balin mentions a feast of great magnificence in the end, I wanted Bilbo to stick around for a while and see that feast. I wanted to see whether Thorin (or anyone else) ever did track down Thrain, which I’m surprised that the movie didn’t show this, because Thorin went through the trouble of mentioning looking for him in the beginning of The Desolation of Smaug. I wanted to see how Balin comes to reclaim Moria, to see Gimli there with his father Gloin. More than any of this, I wanted to see the dwarves rebuild Erebor, or Moria, or the men rebuild Dale.

Too much “there” and not enough “back again”

Instead, we see this idea of rebuilding happen metaphorically. When Bilbo finally gets back to Bag End, he sees the Sacksville-Bagginses auctioning his furniture. After a brief confrontation with them and the auctioneer, he reenters his home, which is in total disarray. What does he see on the floor? His pocket handkerchief, of course. He picks it up. He rehangs a picture and straightens another. He rebuilds his life in Hobbiton. It makes me think about Frodo’s narration at the end of The Return of the King: “How can you pick up the threads of an old life?” Bilbo, like Frodo, has been through so much. How can you go back home? How can you feel like you belong there again? By rebuilding your life there, just as the dwarves were forced to rebuild Erebor and the men were forced to rebuild Dale.

Tolkien’s words found their way into the dialogue

It’s not an unsatisfying conclusion to the epic. I would have been severely unsatisfied, though, if they hadn’t included these lines from Gandalf: “You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world after all.” I told my students while we read this book that if those words weren’t included in the movie, it would be a deal-breaker. Thankfully, they were. Other great words by Tolkien thankfully used in the movie were Thorin’s: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Oh, and don’t forget Bilbo’s: “Tea is at four, but any of you are welcome at any time.”

Different ways that the movie’s deaths affected me

All of these are very touching scenes, but there were so many other great scenes in this movie too: some funny, some tragic, some poignant. Gandalf cleaning out his pipe is a poignant scene. I loved the way The Master of Lake-Town (Stephen Fry) dies, because it’s funny. (Less funny is how the totally awful character Alfrid doesn’t die.) Also funny (and then scary) is Thorin’s battle with Azog. When Tauriel mourns over Kili’s dead body, that is so tragic. I think the deaths of the three dwarves affected me less than I expected, because I knew they were coming. I’ve been teaching this book for a long time; I’ve known for a long time which dwarves were going to make it and which ones were not, so I wasn’t shocked when they died.

Unpopular opinion, but I prefer Journeys to Battles

By the time Fili, Kili and Thorin do die, however, I was admittedly feeling rather battle-fatigued. An hour of near-constant fighting is pretty overwhelming. Thankfully, we had comic relief from Thorin’s cousin Dain, who was so awesome. I know that many will appreciate the long battle scenes more than I do, but for me, as I’ve said already, I wanted more resolution, as well as more in the beginning. The major conflict from the previous movie, Smaug, was disposed of surprisingly quickly. The way Bard escapes from prison and uses his own son to shoot the dragon are both great scenes, but it all happens so quickly. Smaug is dead before the movie’s title card is shown.

Did I accidentally just see the extended version?

Then we see the aftermath the people washing up on the shores of the lake, where Bard emerges as a leader. This is where the movies starts to slow down a bit. Or a lot. The pacing felt almost unreasonably slow to me after this. Thorin’s dragon-sickness was, I thought, tedious at times. It takes Bilbo too long, I thought, to bring the Arkenstone down to Dale and offer it to Bard. It takes Thorin too long to come to his senses and realize that he was blind to his greed all along. The scene where he envisions himself being swallowed by gold? Too long (I’m actually surprised that the entire scene made the cut for the movie) and graphically not fitting for the rest of the story, I thought. Granted, this scene is needed to show how Thorin has changed, as he casts his crown aside and takes up his sword, but I still felt that it took too long to get there and too long to get out. And to think: the extended edition supposedly adds 30 more minutes to this movie? Why even bother? It’s long enough as it is. The pacing quickens again when Thorin and Company start fighting.

In all, I felt that six chapters per movie mostly worked for this series, except for this last movie. This movie felt thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. However, I cannot say that this is not a great movie, because it is. But for as long as it’s been touted—leading up to its release—as the “epic conclusion to the Middle-Earth legend”, I really cannot consider that to be a fitting title. Return of the King still reigns victorious to me. The Battle of the Five Armies is what it needed to be. Not a fitting conclusion, but a fitting middle, tying together two trilogies, thirteen years in the making.

I can’t believe it’s over! What did you think of the last Middle-Earth movie? Share in the comments!