It’s hard not to be overcome with nostalgia while watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the last chapter in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of The Lord of the Rings prequels, and the presumed end to his massively successful journey through Middle Earth that began 13 years ago. Much like 2003’s The Return of the King, this is an out-and-out war film with thrilling battle sequences and elaborate set pieces. We’re introduced to a smorgasbord of new creatures that engage in deadly combat, but we’re also visited by beloved characters that stop by so Jackson can tie up this story to the ensuing LOTR films.
Picking up right where The Desolation of Smaug left us, The Battle of the Five Armies kicks straight into action with the very irate dragon swooping into and scorching the human village of Lake-town, while Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his dwarvish comrades look on helplessly. It’s a chilling opening that infuses a sense of urgency into the proceedings, and one from which emerges a new hero – the brave, dragon-slaying archer Bard (a terrific Luke Evans).
Back at the Lonely Mountain, consumed by greed for Smaug’s vast treasure, dwarf-leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) sparks off the titular war when he refuses to honor his promise to share the loot with the Lake-town survivors, and the elves (led by Lee Pace’s grim-faced king Thranduil). Meanwhile, Orc armies are on the march too, even as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) recruits a few old friends to help him break out of Sauron’s dungeons.
Despite a middle portion that feels unduly flabby, the film ultimately soars in the exhilarating hour-long confrontation between dwarves, humans, elves, orcs, trolls, and all manner of strange beasts including giant bats and oversized earthworms. When he’s bored with those frenetically-edited mass clashes on the battlefield in which it’s often hard to tell who’s doing what to whom, Jackson shifts his focus to one-on-one smackdowns between our dwarf and elf heroes and those nasty orcs. The CGI, especially in these portions, has gotten progressively slicker, although I’m still not sold on the 3D, which only makes the film appear darker.
It’s a shame there isn’t much for poor Bilbo Baggins to do here; the titular hero of this trilogy got his best moments in the previous film, standing off against Smaug. The added storylines of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) are overkill, but Armitage makes his screen time as Thorin count with a richly layered performance.
Clocking in at 2 hours and 24 minutes, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest film in the series. There’s awe and spectacle and some nice light-hearted moments too, but it still pales in comparison to Jackson’s original LOTR trilogy. For Tolkien nuts though, understandably it marks the end of an era. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.