The first movie was the windup. The second movie was the pitch. Now we have the third movie, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and although it isn’t the home run I had hoped for, it certainly doesn’t strike out. This final entry in a trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit is an adequate entertainment – an action-packed special effects extravaganza that, like all the films in this prequel trilogy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy before it, dutifully adheres to the expected conventions of the fantasy genre. It also once again makes a convincing case for the merits of HFR 3D, which has been the target of unwarranted attacks by cinematic purists. If my opinion is of any value at all, it not only make the images as lifelike and crystal clear as those on a high definition TV set but also is the only 3D technology outside of IMAX worth paying extra to see.
If you find that the film isn’t quite as engaging as its predecessor, as I found, that’s probably because it simply isn’t as much fun. A lot of the story unfolds as a series of intense, frenetic, usually dour battle sequences, which can definitely be admired on a technical level – the choreography, the CGI, the editing, the pacing – but don’t do much to lighten the mood. There’s also the matter of the final act, which does appropriately form a narrative bridge between the two trilogies and yet feels curiously, unsatisfyingly incomplete. It’s not so much in what was left out or overlooked in terms of character or plot; you feel it on a more visceral level. I grant you that there might not actually be anything wrong with the final act, that I’m merely responding emotionally to the fact that there are no more Middle Earth stories to adapt into films.
I’m talking as if the film isn’t worth seeing, but that isn’t the case at all. My reservations aside, it’s a perfectly competent and watchable experience, in great part because Tolkien’s encyclopedic excess is kept to a minimum, a plus for layman audiences like myself who haven’t read his works. It begins exactly where the previous film left off, with the giant dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) wreaking fiery havoc on a village. He’s almost immediately slain by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), but that doesn’t put an end to the story’s conflict. If you recall, Smaug had driven the Dwarves out of their mountain home and claimed their abundant horde of treasure as his own; now that he has met his demise, the treasure within the mountain will attract all those who feel they have a claim to it.
Firstly, there are the Dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), who, ever since returning to the mountain to find a glowing white stone amongst the treasure, is slipping into paranoia and madness. Then there are the Men from the recently destroyed village; they want the share of treasure that was promised to them by the Dwarves but is being denied. And then there are the sworn enemies of the Dwarves, the Elves, led by the cold, distant Thranduil (Lee Pace). As tensions between the three races escalates, a legion of Orcs covertly advances on the mountain at the behest of the dark lord Sauron, who lusts not for treasure but merely for power. All four armies will converge and fight rather dramatically for much of the rest of the film. A flock of gigantic eagles and a rather large bear may in fact be the fifth army referenced in the title, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure.
Overseeing all this, of course, is our protagonist, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). This character is intriguing in the same way that Anakin Skywalker was in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which is to say we go into these films already knowing the impact he will have on the entire story. In terms of The Battle of the Five Armies, the only real purpose Bilbo serves is to act as a go-between for Thorin, who believes Bilbo is the only creature alive he can trust, and both armies of Men and Elves, the former wanting war less than the latter. But this pales in comparison to the purpose he serves for the entire Middle Earth saga; only through him does the ring – you know, the one that rules them all, finds them, brings them all, and in the darkness binds them – get found, and only through him can his nephew Frodo venture forth on his own great adventure away from the safe confines of the Shire.
The film contains several minor subplots that have no great bearing on the story but are nonetheless appropriate to the material, such as the forbidden romance between the Elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and a Dwarf named Kili (Aidan Turner), the growing rift between Thranduil and his son, Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the White Council, led by the Elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), having to save the Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) from imprisonment. And like all films in this saga, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is visually splendid, in great part because of superior special effects techniques and exciting action sequences, but also because Peter Jackson isn’t afraid to show off the natural beauty of his native New Zealand in select shots. This certainly isn’t the strongest or most satisfying chapter of the saga, but it gets the job done.