In the service of transparency, I’m not a fan of the first two films in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. We could go into greater depth, but that would take a good long while, and I’ve already detailed my issues elsewhere. I find them tedious and dull and almost completely lacking in all of the things that make me love J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel. That said, the latest and final chapter in the franchise, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is not only the best of the series by a mile, it’s damn entertaining, and a mostly satisfying end to a troubled, overlong journey.
Battle of the Five Armies is still much more concerned with serving as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings and connecting to a larger mythology than with actually telling Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) story. But as a film, this one, though far from perfect, works well as an actual feat of storytelling. It’s also much looser and less dour than the other installments, like now that they have those films out of the way, Jackson is free to go nuts.
You pick up right where you left off last time, with the dragon Smaug (Freeman’s Sherlock costar Benedict Cumberbatch in a marvel of motion capture) taking off to wreak havoc on Laketown, the dwarves finally reclaiming their rightful home in the Lonely Mountain, and the wise old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) hanging upside down in a cage, realizing there’s some bad times coming for Middle Earth. The opening action sequence, which sees Smaug rip and burn through the crisp tinder of the town, is exciting and thrilling and you don’t even care that you don’t really see Bilbo for the first ten or fifteen minutes. This is high adventure the likes of which this series has sorely lacked, and this all goes down before you even see the title card.
Once the dragon is dispatched, the remainder of the movie is divided into the set up for the battle of the title, and then the actual melee, which is as massive an affair as you expect from a clash of five armies. There are orcs, dwarves, men, elves, Lee Pace riding a giant moose, Billy Connolly riding a fat pig, and tons more that can only come from Tolkien. The battle is so big that it begins, is crazy for a while, grows almost tedious and repetitive, and then gets good again. The conflict goes on for so long that it’s actually able to evolve over time and gain a second wind. It’s ridiculous in the most epic possible way.
Here Jackson uses a similar strategy to the one he employed in Return of the King. Most of Five Armies is about a single continuous battle, but within this constant fighting he finds time for smaller, more personal moments. From a character perspective, the narrative is primarily about Thorin Oakenshield’s (Richard Armitage) fall and ultimate path towards redemption. He becomes obsessed with the hoards of gold and treasure in the mountain, turning on his own people, unwilling to honor his word, and basically becomes a total dick. But Bilbo isn’t willing to write him off.
It’s easy to overlook the diminutive Hobbit in the midst of this swirling chaos. Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Bard (Luke Evans), and others are out there fighting, being heroic and giving these big, epic speeches, and Bilbo’s just this little guy. He’s unsure of himself and not much use in hand to hand combat, but he’s steadfast in his devotion to his friends, to the point of making hard choices that will get him ostracized and standing by his convictions, making up for his lack of battle skills by with sheer determination. He’s the one thing in this film that is quiet and reserved, while everything else is pure bombast.
It’s within these moments, woven into the larger battle, where the connection between Thorin and Bilbo comes into play and develops, where the Hobbit shows how vital he is in the big picture. With much more to work with here than elsewhere in the franchise, Freeman delivers a subtle, charming, legitimately moving turn. Jackson may be the least delicate filmmaker alive—if you’re lost, never fear, because every few moments the characters on screen tell you exactly what is going on. But in this one arena anyway, Five Armies delivers real human—you know what I mean—connection, and performances that are more than just yelling and scowling. The story, at least in the movies, truly does belong to Thorin, but in these scenes, you realize why it’s not totally ludicrous to still call this The Hobbit.
While it can be an engaging, exhilarating, oftentimes surprisingly violent PG-13 movie, Five Armies still falls into many of the same traps as the previous films. Most of the dwarves have always been little more than interchangeable shapes in the background, but here they’re relegated a role akin to moving furniture. Half of them don’t even have lines and are only present because they’re in the book, and do and add little. There are also way too many plot threads flying around that are never developed in any meaningful way, and that creates a messy tangle. Eventually it just becomes clutter you try not to trip over.
In short, there are significant problems, but, unlike it’s predecessors, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies has more than enough to distract you and keep you from dwelling on these issues. It may be 144-minutes long, but it’s the shortest of the three, and practically flies by in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, I still look forward to the day when all three movies are out on video and someone cuts the saga down to a single movie that sticks closer to Tolkien’s book, but for now I’ll take what I can get, and this isn’t bad. [Grade: B]