The conclusion of a now thirteen-year odyssey, 2014's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies not only closes the door on this polarising adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel, but also serves as the concluding chapter in director Peter Jackson's Middle-earth saga. Suffice it to say, the Hobbit trilogy is not on the same level as The Lord of the Rings - Jackson's breakout effort was denser, more mature and more sophisticated, whereas these prequels represent a fun ride as opposed to something weightier. War breaks out in The Battle of the Five Armies, which could have made for a poignant trilogy capper approaching the quality of The Return of the King, but the emotional stakes aren't as high here, and Jackson adopts a different tone, creating more of an epic, goofy action movie. Luckily, though, Armies isn't completely hollow like Transformers - it's a skilful blockbuster, with a certain degree of heart and complexity beneath its glossy exterior.
Following the defeat of Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his loyal company of dwarves are set to reclaim their kingdom inside the Lonely Mountain. However, the riches rapidly begin to corrupt Thorin, who wants to keep the masses of treasure only for his kind, refusing to honour his respective agreements with the Elves and the people of Lake-town, the latter of which are left destitute and without shelter after Smaug destroyed their homes. As Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves desperately try to reason with Thorin, the mountain is approached by armies of Elves and men preparing to fight for what they were promised. Amid this, Bilbo finds himself torn between his friendship with the dwarves and his own survival instinct, turning to the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) for guidance. Meanwhile, a vast Orc army led by Azog (Manu Bennett) plan to lay siege on the Lonely Mountain, seeking to wipe out the collected armies of Middle-earth.
Looking at all three Hobbit pictures now, it's still unclear whether or not this tale necessitated a trilogy. Tolkien created an amazing universe with his Middle-earth novels, and there's plenty of material for Jackson to explore, especially in the return of Sauron which is further delved into here. However, the trilogy is not entirely successful due to its rocky narrative structure which doesn't lend itself to a three-picture arc. Whereas the Lord of the Rings features were perfectly-judged in terms of where to conclude each instalment, the split between The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies doesn't quite gel. Smaug, a superb antagonist and a notorious threat, accomplishes nothing substantial before his demise in this feature's opening sequence. As a result, Smaug's defeat does not quite carry the weight that it may have otherwise achieved if the siege of Laketown served as the climax of The Desolation of Smaug. The fearsome dragon has been such a significant presence up until now, after all, hence it feels wrong that his defeat is so rushed. So much for all the development, monologuing, and pervasive dread of the first two motion pictures...
Fortunately, taken on its own merits, Jackson's third Hobbit movie works extremely well in bringing this story to a satisfying end, delivering a cavalcade of action set-pieces that are narratively justified and superbly rendered. Once the titular battle arrives, The Battle of the Five Armies serves up endless skirmishes which are infused with the same finesse and glee that Jackson initially harnessed in Bad Taste and Braindead. This is, after all, a movie featuring Billy Connolly riding a pig, and with plenty of trolls stomping around to add further flavour to the battlefield. Armies is the shortest in the Hobbit trilogy and the Middle-earth saga as a whole, clocking in at 144 minutes including credits. The brevity is nice, as the movie doesn't outstay its welcome and pacing is brisk throughout. But while the more judicious length is appreciated, the movie does leave a number of loose ends that one supposes will be addressed in the inevitable extended edition. Beorn, for instance, is barely glimpsed for a few seconds, and the fates of a number of characters are left up in the air. Luckily, Battle of the Five Armies closes the door perfectly, with the end credits containing drawings of the various cast members, set to the sublime song The Last Goodbye sung by Billy Boyd, who played Pippin in The Lord of the Rings.
With the impossibly smooth digital photography, 3D effects and an abundance of CGI, the look of the Hobbit movies is a mixed bag. While the luscious visuals are glorious to witness on the big screen, oftentimes the movies do not look quite right. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was lensed on 35mm film stock, affording a natural grain structure which allowed the fantastical world to look real, not to mention the use of enormous miniatures look much better than their digital counterpart. The illusion, unfortunately, is never quite as convincing for The Hobbit, even though the digital effects look frequently magnificent. CGI Orcs remain the most egregious use of digital effects here; extras with prosthetics and make-up in The Lord of the Rings look far more effective. As with its predecessors, The Battle of the Five Armies is offered in 3D, projected in 48 frames per second. To be sure, these additions are gimmicky, but they're executed flawlessly, and they amplify the cinema experience. But, as I have stated about the other Hobbit pictures, the movie does fine in regular old 2D.
Even though the big, crazy action set-pieces are the stars of the show here, the dramatic stuff is still surprisingly strong. Thorin's descent into madness is fascinating to watch, and the drama preceding the titular battle is engaging. There is tragedy here; those who've read the book will know that not all of the main characters survive this war, and the various deaths do tug at the heartstrings. Also strong is the finale, with Bilbo saying goodbye to his dwarf companions and travelling back to Bag End. Jackson cannot resist the opportunity to tie the last scene into The Fellowship of the Ring, and it works quite well, reinforcing the strength of the relationship between Bilbo and Gandalf. However, the largely uninteresting love triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and Kili remains just as blah as ever, and is brought to its conclusion here. Ultimately, it feels precisely like the melodramatic slop that it is, a cheap ploy to bring in the teenage girl demographic. It's played in such a perfunctory manner, too, and one has to wonder if Jackson's heart was ever really in it.
Even though this series is called The Hobbit, Bilbo is not a main player for Armies. He is still our protagonist in this fantastical world, but other characters take the forefront here. Still, Freeman again shows himself to be an ideal Bilbo Baggins, making the role his own. However, this is Richard Armitage's show - he shines in the role of Thorin, given the chance to stretch his range and venture into darker territory. The Battle of the Five Armies is packed with an enormous supporting cast, and there are many returning faces here; the likes of Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Lee Pace all hit their marks confidently. The aforementioned Billy Connolly is a real treat as well.
At the end of this journey, you can call the Hobbit trilogy any number of things: long, bloated, corny, shamelessly goofy, and even unnecessary. But I cannot deny that the movies are a lot of fun, and The Battle of the Five Armies is arguably a near-perfect way to wrap this story up, with its kitchen sink fantasy battle sequences rendering it the most giddily entertaining Middle-earth movie to date. Despite its flaws, it's wonderful that this long-gestating adaptation of Tolkien's accomplished work has finally been brought to life, and executed with far more skill than the horrendous Star Wars prequels that the Hobbit pictures are often compared to. Yes, it might be interesting to see a potentially superior adaptation of the novel by another filmmaker in coming decades, and one must continue to wonder what original director Guillermo del Toro would've made of the material (the love triangle certainly would not have existed under the Mexican's watch). In the meantime, Peter Jackson's trilogy is perfectly good, and it deepens the cinematic Middle-earth mythology and fleshes out various Lord of the Rings characters in a superb way. What a hell of a journey this has been.