It’s been said, but it bears repeating: the titular Battle of the Five Armies is only a small fraction in J.R.R. Tolkien’s 300-page book, and yet here we are with the 144-minute conclusion to the somehow-epic Hobbit film series. That the movie is at all watchable is praiseworthy—an unlikely attribute of any final entry of a 3D prequel trilogy—but Eru help us all if Peter Jackson ever decides to adapt War and Peace.
With the dragon Smaug defeated (in the first 10 minutes, hardly a spoiler) and the Lonely Mountain reclaimed, the company of 13 dwarves and hobbit Bilbo must now make fair use of the hoarded riches within. But something is wrong with Thorin Oakenshield; the once proud leader is becoming increasingly paranoid and obsessed with defending the mountain against those who wish him no harm. The people of Lake-town—left homeless in the dragon’s wake—were promised assistance but are turned away, as are an army of wood elves. This impasse continues to the point of near destruction, until the three sides must unite against a far greater enemy.
Though the plot and dialogue are stretched way too thin across endless battle scenes, The Battle of the Five Armies is a satisfying conclusion, although whether you’ll feel enjoyment or relief depends on if you dug the last two installments. It will not win over new fans; those who appreciate the series stylistic and narrative callbacks to The Lord of the Rings will enjoy the swordplay, field tactics, cameos, and cooperation (or lack of it) between the races of Middle-earth. It’s easy to forgive Jackson’s more indulgent impulses when the special effects, battle sequences, and action set pieces work as well as they do. And although there’s nothing plot-wise that couldn’t have been shoehorned into the previous films, watching it unfold is never a chore.
That said, Jackson does paint himself into a corner by copying his own style, and it becomes painfully obvious that the three-part structure was a decision made well into production. For example, The Desolation of Smaug ended with an effective cliffhanger as the terrifyingly intelligent dragon escapes the Lonely Mountain to lay ruin to Lake-town. Within minutes of battle, he’s dead. That gigantic buildup ends with nothing more than a prologue. It’s the biggest bait-and-switch opening to a sequel since Apollo Creed demanded a rematch in the beginning of Rocky II.
But it’s not a disaster, and for that, the series deserves credit, even if it’s unlikely to inspire yearly viewings of the extended cuts as the LotR series did. And now that it’s over, let’s hope that Jackson has gotten Middle-earth out of his system. The last thing we need is for him to become to fantasy adventure what Tim Burton is to sanitized macabre.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES | PG-13 | IN THEATERS NOW
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Look far enough back in Peter Jackson’s filmography and you’ll see how the visual style that came do define his vision of Middle-earth was always in him; the ick factor of Bad Taste and Dead Alive directly inform every scene involving orcs. For his seamless integration of breathtaking special effects with the silly, scary, and exciting, check out 1996’s The Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox as a ghost-whispering con artist who encounters a terrifying spirit unlike any he’s seen before. It’s energetic and funny, and never lets its sense of humor get in the way of a good scare.
Also known as “The Fantastic Journey of the Hobbit Mr. Bilbo Baggins,” this little gem—broadcast in 1985 on the Leningrad TV channel—will appeal to you even if you don’t speak a word of Russian. Soviet television always had a soft spot for classic British literature, as can be seen in its creation of distinct and memorable visions of Winnie the Pooh and Sherlock Holmes (seek these out, too). But unlike in Jackson’s version, the story and acting does the heavy lifting, thanks to the classic Russian willingness to accept science fiction and fantasy on its own terms.