The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Martin Freeman, Luke Evans, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen. Directed by Peter Jackson. Rated PG-13. Now playing.
Well, at least that’s over. It’s hard to muster up any greater enthusiasm for the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel The Hobbit, and The Battle of the Five Armies is not going to win over viewers who were skeptical of Jackson’s decision to make one 300-page novel into a trilogy nearly nine hours long. If anything, Five Armies dashes the mild hopes built up by last year’s improved second installment, The Desolation of Smaug, doing away with that movie’s main threat within the first 10 minutes (before the title credit even appears) and then shifting gears to focus on an ill-defined battle that seems designed solely to recapture the magic of the battles Jackson staged in his Tolkien-based Lord of the Rings movies a decade ago.
The movie’s title character, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), ends up only the third or fourth most important character in his own movie, with little to do other than watch from the sidelines as massive armies of dwarves, elves, orcs and humans fight to the death over the treasure previously lorded over by evil dragon Smaug. The human warrior Bard (Luke Evans), who showed up toward the end of the previous movie, takes center stage for much of the early action, while dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) gets the movie’s most substantial arc as Smaug’s treasure begins to corrupt his soul.
Meanwhile, Bilbo wrings his hands and looks worried, while wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) once again spends much of the movie in an ultimately irrelevant subplot that connects to the events of the Lord of the Rings movies, with blatant fan-service cameos from popular Rings characters. The grafted-on romantic subplot feature female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is actually the movie’s most effective emotional anchor, although that’s not really saying much. Thorin’s inner torment is hurriedly resolved in one of the movie’s weakest scenes, and neither Bilbo nor Gandalf gets anything in the way of character development.
The battle itself takes up a good third of the movie, but it never makes any real impact. There’s little at stake for the series’ central characters, and the CGI hordes aren’t imposing or awe-inspiring. What once was amazing is now rote, and Jackson can’t recapture the sense of wonder of his Rings movies just by repeating some of the same techniques. Although the lopsided structure is derived in part from the way Tolkien constructed his novel, the division of the story into three separate movies only emphasizes the anticlimactic conclusion. What could have been the denouement to a single, smaller-scale film ends up bearing the burden of carrying an entire movie on its own, and no additions to the story can make the battle worthy of that much effort and attention.
Jackson can still evoke mythical grandeur in his world-building, and there’s a satisfying familiarity in visiting with these characters one more time. But familiarity can only account for so much, and Armies finds the cinematic world of Middle-earth ending in disappointment rather than triumph.