Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lily, Aidan Turner, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace
Director: Peter Jackson
Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
It's been a very long and quite expected journey for Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 fantasy novel book The Hobbit. The long part has to do with the fact that Jackson, an extremely talented visual stylist whose The Lord of the Rings trilogy will go down as one of the greatest fantasy franchises in cinematic history, has needlessly stretched out a 300-page children's book to grandiosely epic status. The expected part is more about deja vu; a disappointing sensation that the powers that be are milking a once vital mythical world in favor of box office profits. This reaction seems partially misguided, as it's clear Jackson is irrefutably sincere and passionate about the source material, so much so that he doesn't seem to know when to call it quits. Though The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug were both overlong and given to baggy pacing and sketchy CGI mayhem, there were nonetheless breathtaking stand-alone sequences that proved Jackson could still deliver the goods. With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, he continues to give us grandly orchestrated action scenes and attempts at poignant emotion, but there's a crucial element missing here; namely, where in Middle-Earth is Bilbo Baggins?
The unfortunate sidelining of the titular character over the course of the franchise's unwieldy length has always been problematic, but it's especially glaring in the finale, which really should put him back in the limelight. Martin Freeman is so good at highlighting Bilbo's mercurial quality and innate "Hobbit-ness" that whenever he's offscreen (which happens throughout long stretches here), one gets the sense of tonal schizophrenia where Jackson is trying to tie up too many loose threads and pack in as many perfunctory side characters as possible. The problems lie mainly with the fact that we've already seen the best stuff; (the appearance of Gollum in the first chapter, the Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced dragon Smaug in the second), but also because Jackson places his focus on some of the series' least interesting aspects.
After a somewhat jarring opener involving Smaug attacking the people of Laketown through a fire and brimstone siege, the film settles into a saggy middle section where the narrative follows a variety of characters. These include the swashbuckling Bard (Luke Evans), who becomes the default leader of the Laketown refugees, the increasingly paranoid Thorin (Richard Armitage), gripped with "dragon sickness" while holed up inside Lonely Mountain's treasure trove, and the increasingly strained love triangle between kick-ass elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily), hipster-approved dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), and everyone's favorite elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom, wearing significant makeup and piercing contact lenses in order to appear 15 years younger). Of course, there's also Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) breaking free of imprisonment with the help of Galadirel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), in what essentially amounts to fan-service cameos. For his part, Lee gets to cut loose with some major wizard moves during a triply action sequence with some gnarly spirits, and then there's Lee Pace's overpowering eyebrows as Elven king Thanduil to contend with. Admittedly, there's both too much and not quite enough going on throughout The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies that at times the picture feels wobbly and uncertain. By keeping Bilbo offscreen and focusing on Thorin's one-dimensional gold lust, the plight of Bard's heroic everyman, and the superfluous love triangle, Jackson loses the heart of his story, which really should be about Bilbo's coming to terms with his own place in the world. Meanwhile, a good hour or more of screen time is dedicated to gargantuan battle sequences (this is called The Battle of the Five Armies, after all), which Jackson pulls off dutifully, if somewhat unremarkably. Admittedly, there are some thrilling moments; (Legolas and Tauriel battling a horde of baddies atop a crumbling mountainside, a visceral mano a mano duel between Thorin and a nasty Orc warlord on sheets of ice), but the sheer amount of CGI extras plowing into one another grows extremely repetitive and worse of all, downright dull. If there was ever evidence that Jackson is indulging in his worst tendencies as a filmmaker; going bombastic like a well-oiled Dungeon and Dragons video game, then the bigger-is-better finale here certainly finds some merit in such sentiments.
Truthfully, the best moments in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies have nothing to do with Orc beheadings and massively scaled carnage, but are rather the times where Bilbo interacts with those around him. Whether it be trying to reason with the shell-shocked Thorin or curiously watching Gandalf attempting to light his pipe (in one of the film's more amusing gags), Freeman's line readings and reaction shots are perfection. There's also a scene near the end where he faces his dwarf comrades standing in a doorway that's as emotionally resonant as anything in the entire series, and gets closest to peeling back the pure nature of a Hobbit thrust into an extraordinary adventure. It's a lovely moment and Freeman makes it soar. A pity, then, that such moments are few and far between. By forsaking the jovial spirit of the first installment and the brooding emotional intensity of the second in favor of green-screen overkill and unrelenting battle scenes, the final chapter makes it clear that's there's very little story left to tell, proving the general wisdom that this really should have been condensed into two films. Still, there's no denying the earnest go-for-broke ambition of Jackson's accomplishment here, and even though The Hobbit as a whole lacks the visual grandeur, thematic depth, and emotional investment of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, there's something melancholic about spending one last time time in Middle-Earth.