The concluding chapter in what is, essentially, Peter Jackson’s remake of his own, superior-in-every-way The Lord of the Rings has, at long (emphasis on “long”) last, finally fired an arrow through the heart of its last orc. And although The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is easily the best entry in the (theoretically) Bilbo-centric franchise, the inherent problems with blowing up a compact children’s fantasy book into a three-part epic film series over the battle for Richard Armitage’s soul—as well at witnessing the result of a filmmaker attempting to capture lightning in a bottle a second time by doubling-down on his most exasperating excesses—is never more apparent than it is here. So, then, what makes it the “best” entry? The more severe Rings-tone that Jackson has been attempting to graft on top of the (mostly) whimsical original source makes the most sense here. Also—and at the risk of coming off as pedantic—it’s because, technically, it’s the shortest of the three.
As with The Desolation of Smaug, Five Armies begins immediately following the events of the previous movie. The seriously pissed-off, rapacious dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) is strafing Laketown with napalm breath in retaliation over Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) touching his stuff. (The casting of Freeman remains one of the best decisions made by the filmmakers.) Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) heroically saves the townsfolk, while Master of Town Stephen Fry gamely attempts to sell the cornball comic relief he could have written so much better himself. Transitioning from the Nazgûl attack on Minis Tir… err, the dragon attack on Laketown, it’s back to the company of brooding Thorin (Armitage) and his fellow dwarves plus Hobbit, in their recaptured city of Erebor, as they all eyeball each other noticing their leader’s growing madness. Thorin’s refusal to lend a few coins to the survivors of Laketown, and return a pretty heirloom necklace to the Elves, precipitates the throbbing drums of war, and it’s Man and Elf on Dwarf violence, until Azog and his orcs crash the party.
It’s a CGI free-for-all after that (but also a dwarfed Billy Connelly doing a bit of smashing and welcome levity), as well as a clear attempt to recreate a spectacle as grand as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King, despite the stakes, essentially, only being over who’s gonna get rich when the dust settles. To (over) compensate, Jackson cuts to Gandalf (Ian McKellen, impressively succeeding in not appearing completely over his tenure in Middle-earth), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) as they fight a few angry ghosts and a revitalized Dark Lord Sauron and attempts to half-assedly add a, “Hey Guys, we’ve got a much bigger problem here!” component. (This also succeeds in retroactively making these four of the wisest people in Middle-earth look incompetent and lazy for sitting on the knowledge of the return of the greatest evil in the land until Frodo Baggins inherits the One Ring many, many decades later.) The audience is further spoon-fed the setup to Fellowship with the hilariously on-the-nose effect of the Eye of Sauron flickering over the proceedings. “THIS IS SERIOUSLY EXTRA-MENACING, SEE?!” screams the once-charming Hobbit. Season heavily with the doomed romance between Singular Handsome Dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner) and Appearing Nowhere in the Works of Tolkien Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), and, eventually—mercifully—the heap of story padding brings the film close to the end.
Of course, grumbling about the padding is useless; the problem was obvious from the announcement that the slight volume on which the movie is based was to metastasize into three entire features, and evidenced in practice immediately throughout the first one. This third film was inevitable. Of course, so was Return of the King. Very much unlike that film, though—despite its flagrant efforts to copy it—Five Armies leaves the audience with the exhaustion of an experience endured rather than shared exhilaration of victory achieved. Peter Jackson is still to be thanked for realizing such a beautifully rich, beloved fantasy world on the silver screen. It’s just a shame it all had to end with him a pretender to his own throne.
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Fry
Release Date: Dec 17th, 2014
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.