THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Epic Battle Sequences and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE RETURN OF THE KING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Ian Holm & Marton Csokas

When Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was announced, everyone in the fantasy circuit probably went crazy. This sounded like a movie deal that was too good to be true. After all, this was a three-year laid out in advance. While all three films were shot simultaneously, they were distributed for three consecutive Christmases in a row. FELLOWSHIP was a solid start to the series, but lacked a natural flow and felt like an obligatory introduction in areas. TWO TOWERS is my favorite of the trilogy with the most exciting and dark material being covered from the entire Middle Earth saga. However, RETURN OF THE KING is the film that walked away with 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture). Though it remains more of a technical achievement than any of the other films, KING fumbles in the home stretch with a running time that feels too drawn out (made worse by an ending that can’t decide what it wants to be).

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The journey is drawing to a close as the ring of power nears possible destruction and peace for Middle Earth is becoming a real possibility. Frodo, Sam and (the not so trustworthy) Gollum are getting closer to the fires of Mount Doom. As Frodo becomes slowly corrupted by the ring, tensions between him and Sam grow. Gollum enacts a diabolical plan to get his precious ring back. While all of this is happening, the last battles are upon those few who remain from the original Fellowship and Aragorn is mustering up what it takes to reclaim his crown at one of the last kingdoms of men. This all leads to, of course, epic battles and a conclusion that will decide the fate of Middle Earth once and for all.

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TWO TOWERS delivered in bringing one of the best battle scenes ever in Helm’s Deep. That hour-long conflict would be hard to beat in a follow-up film, so Jackson’s solution is simple. He’s pretty much stretched out a majority of this three-plus hour film into two separate battle sequences. Scenes of Frodo and Sam trying to make it to Mount Doom are intercut, but the battles themselves are quite awesome. Adding another layer of tension is a crazed Steward who doesn’t want to give up his position of power for Aragorn as the rightful ruler. KING has plenty of moments that seem tailor-made to get the viewer to cheer and they work effectively. It’s nice to see cocky villains who you’ve been pissed at for most of the trilogy (or just this movie) get their comeuppances. One specific scene caused the entire theater to burst into applause when I first saw this back in 2003 and that moment still holds up perfectly to this day!

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This final film is loaded with appropriate pay-off for the whole trilogy. It’s nice to see story-arcs that have been building for over 6 hours (when you combine the running time of the previous two films) turn out to be worth the wait. The best of these lies with Frodo, Sam and Gollum though. The identity of the mysterious “she” that Gollum mentioned in his cryptic dialogue with himself at the end of TWO TOWERS comes to fruition in a scene that features probably the scariest creature of the entire series (which is saying a lot). This long suspenseful sequence also gets one of the biggest applause-worthy moments in its final minutes.

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Peter Jackson keeps an epic scale fully in tact for this finale to his original Middle Earth trilogy (way before three-film adaptation of  THE HOBBIT was even announced). This also contributes to the only problem that keeps RETURN OF THE KING from perfection in my eyes. The running time is unbelievably bloated and that all comes in the final 40 minutes. Spanning over three hours in length, Jackson feels the need to throw 5 different endings into the conclusion. It’s almost like he didn’t want to end the story, so he kept filming different final scenes and decided to loop them all together in the actual movie. Some of these details are so minute and insignificant (including Bilbo’s departure to the elf paradise and even going as far as Sam’s wedding) they become annoying. In this sense, Peter Jackson slightly wears out his welcome. When you’ve got 40 minutes of wrap-up scenes, there’s a big issue with the storytelling at hand.

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I don’t love RETURN OF THE KING as much as most other RINGS fans and the reason why might be considered a relatively simple complaint. The film slightly overstays its welcome in its (multiple) ending(s). The battles definitely up the action from the stellar Helm’s Deep sequence in TWO TOWERS and scenes that almost seem guaranteed to receive an applause in the theater still hold up flawlessly. It has been a lot of fun to watch character arcs develop and play out naturally over a 9-hour-plus trilogy (which is one hour shy of one season of GAME OF THRONES). Perhaps, the overlong climax is a prime example of too much of a good thing that ultimately becomes a problem. In the end, RETURN OF THE KING is a highly satisfying conclusion to a supremely successful trilogy of fantasy epics.

Grade: A-

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Epic Battle Sequences and Scary Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE TWO TOWERS by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Brad Dourif & Karl Urban

FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING may have introduced audiences to the incredible cinematic take on Middle Earth, but it did have a couple of shortcomings. TWO TOWERS more than makes up for those flaws in a middle chapter that’s far more exciting, interesting and action-packed than its predecessor. While FELLOWSHIP was focused on characters and kicking off the quest, TWO TOWERS hones in one the battles and war springing to life around the one ring to rule them all. This second installment in the RINGS trilogy is also darker than the rest of the other Middle Earth saga.

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Picking up shortly after the conclusion of FELLOWSHIP, Frodo and his trusty companion Sam are continuing on their journey towards Mount Doom. They’re lost when they encounter the ring’s former owner Gollum. Though he appears to have a nasty streak to him, Frodo decides to trust the insane and gauntly Gollum as a guide, which may lead the two hobbits into even further danger. Meanwhile, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli (aided by a familiar face thought lost) try to save the people of Rohan (one of the few remaining kingdoms of men) from Sauron’s rising orc army. This climaxes in a huge battle to protect the confined fortress of Helm’s Deep. While all this is going on, the comic relief from the previous film, Merry and Pippin, try to provide further aid with an ent (living tree) leader named Treebeard. All of these three plots are interwoven throughout each other and provide a stellar fantasy epic that far outweighs anything seen in FELLOWSHIP or THE HOBBIT trilogy.

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The main advantage that TWO TOWERS obviously has is that the main character introductions are over and done. This frees up the story to center more around the actual warfare and how the forces of good are trying to turn the tide against the forces of evil. TOWER’s slightly optimistic ending comes after a whole lot of darkness. Most of the threats (whether they’re ring wraiths riding on winged creatures, fellowmen, or cursed locations themselves) are the creepiest things that this trilogy has to offer. One of these villains comes in the welcome presence of Brad Dourif as the slimy toadie of Sauron, Grima Wormtongue. Another danger comes in the form of one of the scariest locations in LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. This would be the Dead Marshes (that Frodo and Sam are forced to cross in the first third) littered with the drowned corpses of unlucky men and an eerie atmosphere that still gives me goosebumps multiple viewings later.

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New creatures are highly enjoyable too. There are more orcs and Uruk-hai (a stronger breed of orc) this time around, but the addition of the ents are very cool. These tree giants can look a little too over-the-top at times, but they (Treebeard, especially) have a huge part to play before the movie is over. The biggest accomplishment that TWO TOWERS offers is in the iconic character of Gollum. Through a motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis (who later went on to play Cesar in the new PLANET OF THE APES series) and amazing computer animation that holds up extremely well, this schizophrenic skin-and-bones character is the stand-out of the film. He provides most of the comic relief to be had, but that never lessens his fragile emotional state to the viewer and he’s always a tad creepy. What’s better is that there is a side of him that will warrant sympathy from many viewers (myself included), so he’s a complex character who hovers between good and evil in this film. However, one cryptic bit of dialogue near the end (where Gollum mentions a mysterious “her”) makes the viewer immediately curious to see what’s in store in the final film. After first watching the film in theaters back in 2002, I mercilessly bugged one friend, who had read the books, to reveal who or what the “she” Gollum spoke about was.

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The battles are fantastically structured with a stellar scene in the opening of Pippin and Merry escaping from the orcs. This is only one of many great action-packed moments. Another in a field of orc riders (orcs on the top of massive wolf-like beasts) is also phenomenally well-done. Then there’s the climax being the Battle at Helm’s Deep. Considered to be one of the absolute best on-screen battles of all-time by many, this almost hour-long conflict doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. Creative steps are taken to keep things interesting without ever becoming absurd or too clichéd. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli do seem to be invincible, which doesn’t offer much suspense for their well-fare. This being said, plenty of other bodies pile up and it’s awesome to behold.

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In lesser hands, TWO TOWERS may have suffered from feeling like the middle piece of a larger story. Instead, it’s an excellent fantasy epic that guides the viewer through the more dangerous areas of Middle Earth with a likable group of heroes. The mixing of three different plotlines are perfectly paced to ensure that the viewer’s attention is never focused on one more than the other and never gets bored. Gollum is the stand-out of the film, but everything else is phenomenal as well. THE TWO TOWERS might be my favorite Middle Earth movie (that decision will be determined by my re-watch of RETURN OF THE KING).

Grade: A

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Epic Battle Sequences and some Scary Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm & Andy Serkis

In 2001, Peter Jackson released a first chapter in the most ambitious undertaking in the history of fantasy film. LORD OF THE RINGS exploded into a cultural phenomenon and went on to receive universal acclaim from both critics and audiences alike. The original Middle Earth trilogy ranges in its quality, but all three films are notable in their own way. If I had to pick a least favorite entry though, it would be FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. While this first epic introduces the viewer into a world of magic and wonder, the lengthy run-time and formulaic storytelling are a couple of kinks in an otherwise steady beginning to one of the most celebrated cinematic trilogies ever constructed.

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Middle Earth is a land populated by different creatures and filled with magic. Times weren’t all bright and cheerful as a dark era has long since past. Something survived from those bleak times. That wicked survivor is the spirit of the Dark Lord Sauron. A powerful ring exists that, if Sauron were to posses again, will lead to the destruction of Middle Earth. This ring was lost for thousands of years but somehow landed into the possession of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. The tiny object has now been passed onto his nephew, Frodo. Frodo and a group of individuals are charged with getting this one ring to the fires of Mount Doom (the only place where it can be destroyed). This fellowship of the ring (as an elf leader prolifically puts it) includes four hobbits (Frodo included), Aragorn (a man with a mysterious past), Legolas (an elf and master bowman), Gimli (an axe-wielding dwarf), and Gandalf the Grey (a powerful wizard). The fellowship begin their quest and find that many perils lie at the start of their journey.

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FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is a beautiful film to look at. Peter Jackson brings a world only thought possible in the pages of a book to life. Through gorgeous New Zealand locations and stunning effects, Middle Earth is right in front of the viewer’s eyes the whole time. Talented actors become their roles as well. The best of which is definitely Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, and John Rhys-Davies almost form a three musketeers sort of trio as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. The only real weak links come in Elijah Wood as Frodo. He comes off as a wussy protagonist, especially when compared to every interesting person around him. It might be argued that this was required for his character, but his delivery still seems a little forced in moments.

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One arguable problem is clear in FELLOWSHIP’s formulaic storytelling that becomes apparent in the second half. The plot pretty much moves into a rinse, lather, repeat mode of the group encountering one threat and then moving on, where they only encounter another threat. In this sense the viewer is moving from set piece to set piece. This isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, but it does get distracting when it’s so obvious that it’s being used. The dangers are creative, including my personal favorites of an almost invincible cave troll and a towering demon, but other threats almost seem like throwaway monsters. This is especially seen in one sequence with an octopus-like beast that randomly pops up from a lake for the sole purpose of causing a little havoc.

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While I don’t find the film to be the masterpiece that most diehard fans claim it is, FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is a technical masterwork in the sheer nature of bringing a mystical world to life in the most detailed way imaginable. The beginning of any trilogy usually suffers from the syndrome of leaving the viewer wanting more, which can be both positive (wanting the story to continue) and negative (wanting a more satisfying conclusion). FELLOWSHIP has a couple of issues that might detract from the overall awe-inspiring factor of it thanks to storytelling and a so-so protagonist, but remains a very good film that has stood the test of over a decade of time passing. Fantasy fans who haven’t checked this out (I can’t imagine there are many), would do well to introduce themselves to Middle Earth with FELLOWSHIP.

Grade: B+

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis & Ian Holm

Out of Peter Jackson’s recently completed HOBBIT trilogy, I haven’t actively disliked a single film. However, there’s one entry that was clearly padding out its running time to justify a decision to split one relatively short novel into a three long movies. This film would be AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Creative decisions and distracting tonal shifts don’t exactly work in this nearly three-hour long beginning to Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy. Though UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is far from terrible, it’s definitely the lesser film of the entire Middle Earth saga.

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An unnecessary prologue shows elderly Bilbo Baggins writing down the past adventure that changed him into the hobbit that he is today. Flashback to a younger than he looks 50-year-old Bilbo meeting Gandalf the Grey. This wizard forces him into hosting a dinner party for a ragtag team of 13 dwarves. These dwarves, led by the rightful king Thorin, are headed to a distant place known as the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their kingdom and treasure. Bilbo is recruited as a burglar and their journey begins.

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The first thing that is distinctly different about UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is its tone. This first film is more whimsical, merrier, and funnier than the rest of the Middle Earth series. Peter Jackson also feels the need to incorporate songs from the text into the film. This decision seems to have been all but abandoned in the sequels, which only goes to make it even more strange in the context of the film. We barely meet the dwarves and haven’t quite developed any of them as characters (other than Thorin), but they’ve already sung two very different tunes in the space of about 10 minutes. Jackson always uses epic scenery when tackling Middle Earth, but UNEXPECTED JOURNEY feels unexpectedly contained. There’s a visit to an elf city, a fight in a field, and encounters in a forest, but the scale is much smaller in this film. That isn’t exactly a positive.

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There are no major issues with the cast. Martin Freeman excels as the cowardly, but slowly improving Bilbo. After you’ve seen the sequels, it’s nice to revisit this film to see just how far his character has come from the beginning. Ian McKellen slips right back into his role of Gandalf. He’s so good in the part that I don’t even see McKellen, just Gandalf the Grey. Various dwarves are likable enough, though some come off as cartoon characters. Thorin is clearly meant to be the most fleshed-out of the bunch and therefore receives most of the dialogue besides Bilbo and Gandalf. Appearances from Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee feel like desperate cameos in order to remind the viewer that this is in the same universe as LORD OF THE RINGS.

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One character specific to this trilogy is Radagast the Brown and he’s absolutely horrible. This nature-obsessed wizard is the equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks with a beard. It certainly doesn’t help that Peter Jackson devotes damn near 10 minutes to watching this annoying quirky sorcerer as he tries to save the life of a hedgehog of pads the film out even further with a useless flashback. Speaking of useless scenes, the film drags its feet to even get moving. It takes a full hour before Bilbo even decides to leave his home with the dwarves. Adding to the pointless long running time is a prologue that only serves to showcase Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles from the original trilogy. Three hours was far too long to stretch this opening film. There’s literally an hour that could have been cut out of the finished movie and released in the eventual Extended Edition that followed soon after.

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The best parts of UNEXPECTED JOURNEY come in the variety of threats that Bilbo and Thorin’s company encounter. These range from dim-witted trolls and strategic orcs to mountain wrecking giants and underground dwelling goblins. These might seem rather small when compared to the craziness that comes in the later films containing giant spiders and the scariest dragon that I’ve ever seen, but they’re solid here. The riddles in the dark scene between Bilbo and Gollum is also fantastically done with Andy Serkis reprising his signature role for one last time. The attacks and chase scenes are the best parts of this first entry in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy, but they don’t cover the majority of this film as they do in the sequels. This wouldn’t be as a big a detraction, if the character development was interesting or fully entertaining.

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It may sound like I’m hating on THE HOBBIT or completely railing against UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and I don’t dislike it. However, it’s certainly dragging its feet with a running time that’s far too long for its own good. The whimsical tone is a bit off when compared with everything else seen in the Middle Earth saga. I do like the film, but it’s best as a first viewing in a marathon of otherwise great movies. Overall, UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is the most dull of the HOBBIT trilogy, but still enjoyable nonetheless.

Grade: B-

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro

(based on the novel THE HOBBIT by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Graham McTavish, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee & Ian Holm

The decision to split J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT into a trilogy of films was an object of speculation to say the very least. While some hardcore Middle Earth fans were overjoyed to see Peter Jackson incorporating details from Tolkien’s THE SILMARILLION, others were upset about this prequel trilogy clearly being an excuse to bank for three years in a row. In all honesty, THE HOBBIT is not a long book and could easily be squished into two entries or one long film. However, I haven’t actively disliked any of Peter Jackson’s HOBBIT trilogy at all. UNEXPECTED JOURNEY felt stretched and was still enjoyable, but DESOLATION OF SMAUG turned out to be unexpectedly awesome. Though I can see where some folks might not care for BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, I found this final HOBBIT film to be a suitably epic conclusion to a wholly epic fantasy saga.

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When we last left Bilbo and his band of dwarves, they had invaded the Lonely Mountain and put up an intense fight against the ferocious Smaug who escaped into the sky. With the fire-breathing dragon being fast defeated at Lake Town by Bard in a stand of courage, the survivors of the now demolished community look to the dwarves for the treasure owed to rebuild their homes. The greed for his long-lost treasure is slowly corrupting dwarf-king Thorin, which ignites tempers on all sides. Bilbo tries to find a way to get the dwarves to make peace with the humans and elves (the latter of which want to recover relics within the mountain). To make matters even more dire, Gandalf has discovered that an orc army is coming to claim the territory and this rising evil puts everyone into an intense battle that will decide the fate of Middle Earth.

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We all know that the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy exists, so there’s little question to the day being saved or not. This being said, lives are still lost (including those of crucial characters from the previous two films) and the battle sequences are ragingly intense. Watching Bilbo, the dwarves, Gandalf, and elves return to the screen for one last outing almost feels like rejoining old friends at this point. There’s an epic setting in all of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga that feels sort of easy to take for granted sometimes, but BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is an exciting pay-off to two good-to-great movies of build-up. After an hour into the film, you’re essentially watching one big war rage on-screen and it’s done in a way that doesn’t get repetitive in the slightest.

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A good way to describe how the title battle plays out is based in the structure of movies themselves. When you have a hero and a villain, you get everything boiled down to one intense final fight scene that echoes of everything at stake for both characters. BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is loaded with multiple “final fights” between important characters. That’s not a bad thing at all and it makes up a third of the film. There’s Kili and Taurei vs. Bolg (the deformed second-in-command orc), Thorin fighting Azog the Defiler (the main orc leader), and the film even begins with Bard facing off against the enormous Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Besides Smaug still being the coolest dragon that I’ve ever seen put on film, each creature has their own diverse look which helps make things more creative. There are orcs, trolls, and goblins fighting against elves, men, dwarves, and wizards. It helps that they don’t all blend into look-a-likes (which is what happens in the original LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy). The battle scenes kept me fully engaged and the suspense building to that breaking point was also very well done.

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The only two details that keep BATTLE slightly down from an A+ come in one distracting special effect that sticks out like a sore thumb and an annoying comic relief character. In the first third of the movie, an elf does something that comes off as very over-the-top and the special effect used looked like it might have worked back in THE TWO TOWERS, but doesn’t convince in 2014. Ryan Gage reprises his slimy role as the greasy-haired Alfrid is extremely annoying this time around. He and Stephen Fry provided a couple of good chuckles in DESOLATION OF SMAUG, but he’s just plain awful and tone-deaf in BATTLE. This character wasn’t bad enough to keep me from loving this film, but he was definitely a flaw.

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Though some people may rail on the excessive nature of BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES consisting of, well, one big giant battle that lasts for a long time, I thought this was a fitting conclusion to a solid fantasy saga. I can buy this as the last time that we’ll visit Middle Earth on film and am completely content with that. Peter Jackson provides a solid, entertaining, and epic fantasy film for one final time and I loved this movie!

Grade: A

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