The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is easily the weakest of its trilogy, and by far the worst of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies. It’s all climax, an endless battle that does nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished with an extra fifteen or twenty minutes in the last one. And yet, this is likely the last time we’ll get to visit Tolkien’s fantasy world through Jackson’s eyes. For those of us who’ve liked that feeling, it’s bittersweet to see it go. That it’s not as rousing and wistful as the first finale, eleven years ago with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, is almost beside the point. It’s one more chance to go there and back again, to see these landscapes and creatures, marvel at the prodigious attention to detail, and hear the strains of Howard Shore’s melodies, a feat of film scoring nearing John Williams’ Star Wars work for its web of themes. In other words, it’s worth seeing for those who’ve already made it this far.
So maybe it’s helpful to think of Battle of the Five Armies less as a self-contained movie, more as a way for Jackson to create this place on the big screen for the last time. It’s a bestiary: Hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, horses, elk, giants, wizards, goblins, evil spirits, war bats, giant eagles, bears, a dragon, and more. It’s a map: CGI armies marched around a game board battlefield. It’s an armory: swords, shields, helmets, hammers, clubs, battering rams, bow and arrow. It’s a drawn out conclusion from a creator who doesn’t want to let this story go, who wants to linger in Middle Earth for just five more minutes, then five more, then more. Good thing, then, that Jackson’s skilled with whipping up blockbuster spectacle, splashing his vivid visuals across the wide screen in ceaseless fantastical imagery so big it betrays how small the thinking is of so many of our tentpole directors. Sure, he’s a filmmaker who errs on the side of too much of a good thing – endless stalemates, overdone comic relief – but so be it.
This last Hobbit picture picks up right where the last left off, with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) emerging from his mountain lair, flying angrily toward the nearest village and leaving his vast stockpiles of gold unattended. In the mountain are the dwarves (led by Richard Armitage), who have a historical claim to the site, and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the Hobbit who helped them get there. Eventually, the riches are the target of attack by an army of men (led by Luke Evans) and an army of elves (Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, and Evangeline Lilly among them) who want their fair share. The army of orcs right behind them just wants to kill a bunch of people for some reason. I know that’s only three armies, four when you count the dwarves reinforcements, but I must confess I’m not exactly sure how the title’s math works out here.
For the first half of the movie, those computer-animated armies line up behind character actors as everyone argues about who gets the gold and how the fighting’s going to start. Then, the fighting starts, and the armies collide repeatedly in anonymous garbles of digital noise across rocks and fields, up and down the sides of cliffs, and across an icy lagoon. We dip into personal conflicts between recognizable orcs and our big heroes, follow the king of the dwarves and his battle with curse-induced greed, and check in with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who has important Lord of the Rings foreshadowing to take care of before joining the main battle. Some moments of combat are nicely done – the bit with ice is clever, as is a neat trick involving an elk – but it grows awfully repetitive. You can almost hear the small material as it’s stretched thin to fill time.
The film loses the emotional thread, and its central narrative momentum along with it, as it gets tangled up in the clanging swords, stabbing and bludgeoning. But when the camera comes to rest on Bilbo Baggins, with Freeman's performance as good as always, the film finds its center. He’s taken aback by the developments, is ready to help his friends even when they disagree with his strategy, and bravely stands in the thick of it even when danger is great. When it’s all over, he is happy to have had this experience and even happier to go home. And so Five Armies brings him there, eventually. It wraps up dangling plot threads, resolves its cliffhangers, and joins up with the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring quite nicely. Along the way we have to slog through some colossally uninvolving battle business, but Jackson brings it home, to the Shire and the Hobbits, the coziest corner of Middle Earth, safe and sound. He asks your indulgence, tries your patience, but eventually delivers some small rewards.