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I’m going to state right up front that I’m a lover of Tolkien’s books The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and I’m a huge Peter Jackson fan. I love his adaptations of the novels. I’m not a yearly reader of Tolkien’s work like some fans, although I have read each book a few times. I’m also not married to a literal translation of the books like some fans. I have an incredibly vivid and active imagination and I love to see others imaginations come to life in the worlds they create, even if some things are different than how I thought them. So you’re not going to get a nit-picky review here. I will try to keep it as spoiler free as possible. I went to the trilogy marathon screening and it was great fun. I got to watch from the beginning of the story to the end. So some of my observations may well encompass things from the first two movies. BOTFA is definitely my favorite of the three, even after just one viewing. I suspect subsequent viewings will only strengthen that feeling.

Even though this movie is titled Battle of the Five Armies, the characters and their story arcs take center stage. The battle is the catalyst that brings these disparate folk together and weaves the threads of their stories into whole cloth. One of the things I love most about Peter Jackson is that he understands that the heart and soul of any story are the characters and if we don’t feel something for them, good or bad, the story suffers. I’ll start with the title character, Bilbo Baggins played by Martin Freeman. I had seen some of Martin’s work like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Sherlock, but I never did see The Office for which he is most famous. I could understand why Peter wanted him for Bilbo, but I’ve always felt a bit of a disconnect with Martin’s characters and so was a bit apprehensive as to whether or not I’d really care for Bilbo. I needn’t have worried. I believe Peter is a genius when it comes to casting and Martin as Bilbo is spot on. Watching Bilbo change from a stuffy, prickly, homebody bachelor, learning to navigate not only a company of 13 very different dwarves, but also the wide world outside the Shire, gaining confidence with every new experience and learning to trust his own instincts is a pleasure. The Bilbo in BOTFA is navigating an extremely difficult political situation and the choice he makes that he believes will help the situation is one that I never agreed with when I read the book and yet absolutely agreed with in the movie. Part of that is the way Peter set up the reason for the decision, but also in the way that Martin made Bilbo such a sympathetic character in his obvious caring for the people and the world around him, wanting to do the right thing in his pragmatic way, and all the while the One Ring is starting to exert its influence on him. Bilbo’s relationship with Thorin comes full circle and is by far my favorite of the films.

Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield and while I’m very fond of Bilbo, Thorin is my favorite character in these films. The first words I spoke after An Unexpected Journey ended were, “Who is the actor who played Thorin Oakenshield?” I had not seen any of Richard’s previous work which is interesting since I watch a lot of British shows. I remember reading a bit of controversy about his casting focusing mainly on the fact that he was so young but basically ignoring it because I wasn’t very invested in book Thorin. After these movies I can’t imagine another actor as Thorin. Something about his Thorin just speaks to me. His determination to do right by his people, his fear that he will fail them, his stubbornness and stoicism that he uses to mask his anxiety, his pride in his nephews and their shared heritage, the responsibility that he clearly feels for Bilbo despite his words to Gandalf stating otherwise while still at Bag End, his friendship with and loyalty to his cousins Dwalin and Balin, and his hope that he can restore their homeland to his people despite his own perceived shortcomings; all of that and more you see in his eyes. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched another actor able to portray such complex emotional states just in his or her eyes. And Peter seems to get that because there are a lot of close-ups of Richard in BOTFA as he descends into madness. Richard Armitage made me care deeply for a character that was always just a bit “meh” for me in the book and I cannot say enough how much his portrayal of Thorin in BOTFA moved me.

I’d like to talk a bit about the Tauriel, Legolas and Kili love triangle. I know a lot of fans were upset that a character not in the books was added to the movie. I was not one of them because 1) I agreed that these movies could use a lot more feminine energy and 2) they were in the woodland realm presumably containing hundreds if not thousands of elves so, why not? As I stated above, it is a rich universe and I’m happy to explore lots of different bits of it. Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel and I liked her portrayal in The Desolation of Smaug and I loved it in BOTFA. Orlando Bloom is of course back from The Lord of the Rings as Legolas and Aidan Turner plays Kili. I knew Aidan from the British series Being Human where he played vampire Mitchell. So I already had a soft spot for him before the movies even came out. In fact he was the only one of the 13 dwarves that I had ever seen on screen. At first, in DoS when it became obvious that there was going to be a love triangle, I had a bit of an eye roll. Not because I don’t believe elves and dwarves could never fall in love or that it wasn’t in the book, but because it seems like a bit of a tired cliché. But the way that Peter uses those relationships to tie into The Lord of the Rings is brilliant. And that’s all I’ll say in order to avoid spoilers, other than that this part of the story line is lovely. Lee Pace as Thranduil has much more to do in BOTFA and I really like his story arc too. His insights into the love triangle show him to be a wise and compassionate elf underneath the arrogance and coldness.

Speaking of female elves, I’d just like to say that Galadriel kicks ass in BOTFA and it was an amazing sight to behold. Trust me when I tell you that you do not want to piss off the Lady of Lorién. Cate Blanchett was her usual wonderful Galadriel with a kick. She comes to Gandalf’s rescue along with Saruman and Elrond, but it is the lady Galadriel who saves the day. Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee don’t have a lot to do in this movie, but they are welcome additions to the story. Ian McKellan is again stellar as Gandalf and even though he’s more on the sidelines rather than in the thick of things more often than not in this movie, he’s still essential to the story. I’d be hard pressed not to say that he’s my favorite character in the Middle Earth universe.

Luke Evans was fine as Bard. I didn’t feel much of a connection with Bard though in either of the movies, but less in this one than in DoS which is interesting since he’s the only human main character. I can’t put my finger on why yet and is something I’ll think about more when I re-watch the movie.

As in the first two movies, most of the other dwarves don’t have a lot of dialogue or sometimes even much screen time. That said, every single one of the company of dwarves that show up at Bilbo’s house in the shire are indelibly imprinted in my mind. The actors who portray them do a lot with a little screen time and have made their characters into fleshed out and recognizable characters that will not soon be forgotten.

The cinematography is stunning as usual with New Zealand as the backdrop and most of the CGI is pretty seamless. One quibble I had is with Azog in this movie. He didn’t look quite real in An Unexpected Journey but they fixed that in DoS. But there were parts of this movie where he looked particularly fake. It was during times he was on and/or surrounded by ice. Since he is so pale and the ice was white, I suspect that is why he just didn’t look right.

Howard Shore’s score is again one of my favorite parts of the movie. I love the music from all of Peter’s Middle Earth movies and this one was no exception. Billy Boyd sings the song over the end credits and it is, I don’t know how to describe it really, other than just lovely. It is well worth the time to sit and listen to the entire song. And Billy really does have a beautiful voice.

I have lots more thoughts in my head about this movie that I can’t quite articulate and that will probably need at least one more viewing to clarify in my mind. But the thing that sticks most in my head is that these movies are about love. Love between family, love between friends and how love is more powerful than even the most terrifying evil. And that love can come in the most unexpected places and change you in the most unexpected ways. And even when your part in the story is done, it goes ever on and on.