As written by J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit” is a relatively slender fable for children (a 75th anniversary edition of the book runs a cool 320 pages). As adapted by co-screenwriter and director Peter Jackson, it is a lumbering, hugely expensive filmed trilogy, running nearly eight hours in total (and that’s before you factor in the expanded home video editions). What was supposed to be two films blossomed into three, which means that the weight of financial expectation and the emotional investment of countless fans is placed squarely on this final film in the trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” especially since it doesn’t just wrap up the ‘Hobbit’ but the “Lord of the Rings” franchise as a whole. This seems like a damnably unachievable task, and in truth this chapter does fall short, but Jackson and his team cannot be faulted for not trying hard enough.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” starts exactly where the last film, 2013’s “The Desolation of Smaug,” left off. The fearsome dragon Smaug (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a feat of performance capture derring-do) terrorizes the citizens of the nearby Laketown; the heroically goofy dwarves are split between escaping Laketown and assessing the Lonely Mountain that belonged to their ancestors (before the aforementioned dragon moved in); and wise mage Gandalf (Ian McKellan) is hanging upside down in a cage at a scary castle after discovering that an even more evil plot is about to unspool and shake Middle Earth to its very foundations. (Also, a word of warning: if you have a foggy memory or only saw the previous films once, it might be time for a refresher.)
After the threat from the dragon is neutralized, courtesy of a wonderfully airborn set piece involving various characters trying to either escape his wrath or take him down, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” basically turns into a fantastical, medieval war movie (at 144 minutes, it’s the shortest entry in the entire six-film franchise), complete with the titular five armies, various nightmarish creatures, and all of the heartache and sacrifice and tested alliances that come with that kind of material. It is not, mercifully, simply a film meant to bridge the two trilogies, which is what most assumed would happen when Jackson started stretching the original novel into three films and introducing Tolkien writing not explicitly connected with “The Hobbit.” Yes, there are more shout-outs to the original trilogy than either of the previous films, but cast members from “Lord of the Rings” aren’t haphazardly wedged into the background of scenes, and there aren’t mini-adventures invented to serve purely as connective tissue.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is easily the best film of the new trilogy, more entertaining and energetic and tonally in sync with Jackson’s earlier, edgier work, shifting from berserker comedy to abject horror at a moment’s notice (and then back again). There’s a reason why the “Lord of the Rings” movies are the only films by the director to be widely embraced commercially; his movies aren’t easy to define on a tonal level, and that makes people nervous. Here, ensconced in the safety of a film that will undoubtedly make over a billion dollars, he seems looser and more free than in the previous two films, willing to push the limits of what a PG-13 rating can handle (it’s seriously violent) while also breaking ground technologically, in terms of crowd simulations and the number of computer-generated characters on screen at any given moment. Remember when Gollum and his lifelike performance seemed downright revolutionary? Compared to what goes on in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” that seems positively quaint.
There is a whole section of the movie that is made up of a single battle sequence, with some suggesting it runs as long as 45 minutes. While that number seems a little high, it does play out out like a very long joke—at first the sequence is thrilling, another virtuosic tour de force from Jackson and his creative collaborators, but then it goes on for a little too long and borders on repetitive and tedious. Then the unthinkable happens (it keeps going) and it becomes amazing again, a dexterous feat of stamina more than anything else. This is what people will be talking about and dissecting in the weeks to come—the different movements of the battle sequences, what is conveyed emotionally and character-wise, and which of the new monsters introduced are really the coolest.
Aside from this battle sequence, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is truly enjoyable as a victory lap for Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit. His performance is probably the least showy in the entire franchise, a character defined almost exclusively by crippling self-doubt, a lack of physical prowess, and a duplicitous side that could get him in a lot of trouble (especially given the magical ring he picked up in the first “Hobbit” outing). Freeman is so good, in fact, that he’s easy to overlook, especially amongst all the actors adorned with prosthetic ears (like Evangeline Lily and, returning from “Lord of the Rings,” Orlando Bloom) or replaced as performance capture marvels (including, in this film, Billy Connolly). Here he’s given the opportunity to be more outwardly heroic and connect with the other characters on a deeper level. He makes tough decisions and stands by them and, as essayed by Freeman, Bilbo is firmly established as the quietly beating heart of a series defined largely by cacophonous sound and fury.
This isn’t to say that the problems that have plagued “The Hobbit” films have abated here; if anything they’re easier to identify and make this conclusion less bittersweet than it probably should have been. Many of the dwarves (aside from Richard Armitage‘s Thorin Oakenshield, who’s given a nifty arc) are still indistinguishable from one another; not only do they have similar-sounding names but the actors are encased in the same rubbery prosthetics that render them virtually anonymous. There are also far too many plot threads, some of which seem much more like time fillers than they’re probably intended to be (including an unintentionally goofy dream sequence) and sometimes the screen becomes so dense with visuals that it becomes difficult to discern what to look at.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is the conclusion to a trilogy that should have really only ever been one film, and as such sometimes plays like a collection of insanely expensive deleted scenes, strung together and exhibited for fans. But for a movie that shouldn’t exist, it’s still largely satisfying and undoubtedly entertaining. It doesn’t wrap up either “The Hobbit” or the “Lord of the Rings” franchises in the grandiose, sobbing-while-leaving-the-theater way that many expect it to. But maybe it wasn’t supposed to. At the end of this entry, we’re back to the beginning of the entire franchise. Or, to quote the original novel, we’re there and back again. And sometimes that’s enough. [B]