After three movies - totaling nearly eight hours of walking, talking and more musical numbers than anyone wishes to remember - director Peter Jackson has finally finished his expansive adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien's 320-page fantasy novel, The Hobbit. And while the last installment, The Battle of the Five Armies, falls victim to the pitfalls of the previous two entries into the franchise, Jackson manages to muster enough of that old Lord of the Rings charm to deliver a satisfying conclusion for fans of Middle-Earth.
More of the same - just bigger
The Battle of the Five Armies begins, appropriately, with a climactic battle between the humans of Laketown and the dragon Smaug, who is again given life by the British baritone, Benedict Cumberbatch. This opening scene is a microcosm of the entire movie. Jackson crammed so much of The Hobbit's plot into the previous two films that there is actually little left for the characters to do here but fight. The movie is bookended by climactic set-pieces featuring battles against dragons, orcs, goblins, dwarves, elves, humans, ghosts, wizards, giant pigs, a random reindeer and pretty much every other fantasy trope you can dream up.
The problem is that outside of the fighting, there's not a whole lot going on here. The movie has very little story left to tell, but Jackson seems insistent on creating a film that fits into the bloated run-time that has since become his trademark. He does this by stretching these battles out more and more until they border on self parody. There is so much death and destruction throughout that it's hard to stay invested as the CGI world around these characters gives way to some of the more cartoonish elements of the franchise.
Spectacle over story
Where Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy deftly combined spectacle, emotion and story for an all-time classic saga, The Battle of the Five Armies relies more on visuals than the nuts-and-bolts storytelling that Tolkien was known for. However, the visuals that are here are about as good as it gets in Hollywood. Mountainous trolls, battle-scarred orcs and giant worms straight out of Dune all highlight The Battle of the Five Armies' climactic fight scene at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. As usual, the special effects house, WETA, provides a fantasy world that is engrossing and believable - up until the point when Orlando Bloom's Legolas character has a fight with an orc that looks more like a video game than a Hollywood production.
And that's where The Battle of the Five Armies fails. While the battle scenes are great to look at, Jackson drags them out and adds so many cartoonish gags throughout that it's hard to take much of it seriously. And while there are some emotional beats during the final battle, he again stretches those out to the point of melodrama. The irony shouldn't be lost on anyone that in a movie about the dangers of temptation and gluttony, Jackson is found guilty of overindulgence.
Hints of the old magic
The Battle of the Five Armies isn't a total miss for Jackson, though. Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage are still superb as Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin. The three of them anchor the story and remind us that there are underlying themes in these movies that are interesting enough on their own, without getting bogged down by climactic battles and wizards covered in bird droppings. And even though most of the other dwarves and side-characters get a bit lost in the shuffle, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lilly and Luke Evans round out a solid supporting cast. Unfortunately by the first frame of The Battle of the Five Armies, there just isn't a whole lot for anyone, outside of Freeman and Armitage, to actually do but swing swords and shoot arrows.
A proper send-off for fans
Once the dust is cleared and the last orc has been slayed, The Battle of the Five Armies has the unenviable task of not just wrapping up Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, but the director's tenure in Middle-Earth as a whole. By in large, the last 15 minutes of the film serve as a near-perfect goodbye for fans. Outside of one clunky Lord of the Rings reference from Legolas, all of the other characters get the send-off they deserve. Bilbo and Gandalf, in particular, share a moment that solidifies their friendship and bridges the two trilogies in a way that almost makes the previous eight hours seem worth it. And in a rare moment of self-restraint, Jackson doesn't bludgeon audiences with the never-ending ending that was seen in Return of the King; instead, what's there is concise and necessary as the director wraps up what will likely be his magnum opus.
While The Hobbit trilogy would have been better served as a single movie, it's hard to deny Jackson's level of craft throughout. There is an artistic vision in these films not often allowed in other Hollywood blockbusters, even though at points that same vision also served as the trilogy's biggest downfall. Still, Jackson should be commended on what he got right, in addition to recognizing where things went wrong. Fans of his work will be happy to know that Battle of the Five Armies is easily the best of the Hobbit movies. And everyone else should know that the movie will do absolutely nothing to change your opinion on Middle-Earth.