Remember when Peter Jackson announced he was splitting J.R.R. Tolkien's slim volume The Hobbit into three movies? Even with Jackson's OCD attention to detail, that seemed too much — and the entire internet worried that it would be all bloat and no heart. Well, the internet was right, at least about the third movie.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has none of the character-building moments, nor the sense of grim forboding, that made The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug the best of this trilogy. Like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it's incredibly uneven, often pointless, and full of fight scenes that lack any sense of gravitas because they are so emotionally decontextualized. Ultimately the problem here isn't the acting or directing. It's quite simply one of the most clearcut cases I've ever seen of a trilogy that failed because it should have been a single movie.
In every Hobbit film, there have been standout moments of intensity and awesomeness that any cast and crew should be proud of. Beorn's house. The fight against the spiders. The moment when Thorin thanks Bilbo for saving his life. The rage and weirdness of Smaug. All the things with the wood elves. I'm sure you have your favorites, too.
The problem is that these moments were sandwiched between story bloat so incredible that it actually induces amnesia about the story itself. I found myself wondering, as the final battle began in The Battle of the Five Armies, who the five armies actually were. Wait, there are two groups of orcs? And why are the elves fighting the dwarves again? This war had been bubbling across three huge movies, released over three years, and every ounce of narrative momentum was lost. There is just no way to sustain a story like this over that amount of time, no matter how many extra scenes you add of Gandalf fighting Sauron, or Thorin freaking out from "dragon sickness."
The Battle of Five Armies has a plot that careens between Smaug's attack on Laketown, Thorin's psychological struggle with his maniacal lust for gold, and the eponymous battle between those five armies whose motivations you'll be hard-pressed to figure out. Unfortunately, it felt like the issues raised by the two previous movies were resolved within about 20 minutes of the beginning — leaving us with almost two hours of denoument.
In the previous film, Bilbo made a convincing transition from reluctant companion to truly brave hero. But in The Battle of Five Armies, he's just coasting. He does some clever things, but there's no emotional journey — we're just watching the further adventures of Bilbo being a great guy. And that's frankly not as exciting as watching Bilbo learn how steely his homely Hobbit nerves can really be.
Our attention is supposed to be riveted by Thorin instead, who has taken back the family throne but is falling prey to the same gold lust that was his grandfather's downfall. We watch the once-stouthearted leader descend into incoherent mumbling, a crown askew on his head, issuing weird mandates about keeping all Smaug's hoard for himself. When the residents of Laketown come asking for their share, and the wood elves demand their stolen jewels, he refuses — and the other dwarves loyally (but reluctantly) carry out his orders.
Sadly there is no real dramatic tension here. Thorin is an epic character with a rich destiny, but little psychological depth. Asking us to care about his nervous breakdown this late in the series is too little too late — especially when we already have a character, Bilbo, whose psychological complexity has already been established in a pleasing way. The same goes for Thorin's orc nemesis, whom we're supposed to view as some kind of foil for the dwarf leader. I would love to have watched a trilogy where the orcs actually had interesting motivations and interior lives. But instead of giving us a multi-layered enemy, these movies gave us little more than monsters. We never truly understand the orcs' plight, nor why they ally with Sauron.
Despite all its flaws, this movie does deliver good battle. Of course you should expect nothing less from Jackson, but he and his team at Weta Workshop have outdone themselves here. There are giant cyborg trolls (no, really), giant worms, dwarves riding on giant pigs, wood elves on their mega-mooses (OK, reindeer, but I liked pretending it was a moose), incredible weaponry, wizard fights, and elf/dwarf tactical awesomeness. Even the people of Laketown get to kick some ass. But as I said earlier, the battle doesn't feel terrifying or portentous the way it might have if we'd seen it after two hours of movie instead of seven. Instead, it feels like a romp — complete with some really awkward attempts at slapstick. Which — there's nothing wrong with a romp. But when an epic journey of three movies ends with drag jokes and campy speeches about love, it's a letdown.
If you've already seen the first two Hobbit movies, you should absolutely stick it out and watch this one. Just remember to keep your expectations low and smoke a little twist of Hobbit herb to make the whole thing go down easier.