Despite Peter Jackson's best, most passionate efforts, his second trilogy capper, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies falls far short of the emotional and visual splendor that made The Lord of the Rings such a staggering cinematic achievement. Granted, the film boasts enough breathtaking visuals, heart-stopping action, and touching tenderness to help viewers through the realization that this is Jackson's final foray into Middle Earth, but it won't ever stand up well against any entry of the previous trilogy. Like its bloated predecessors, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies turns out to be nothing more than giddy indulgence for Jackson, bereft of the weight and emotional resonance of The Lord of the Rings but still entertaining in its own right.
After spending years sleeping under a pile of stolen gold, the dragon Smaug (an incredible Benedict Cumberbatch) has decided it's high time for wanton destruction. He descends upon the unsuspecting residents of Lake-Town, spewing fire from his fearsome maw and dealing death and destruction at every turn. But the dragon's rampage ranks low on the list of “Oh Shit” moments here. An army of angry, stoic elves moves to seize the Lonely Mountain from Thorin Oakenshield (a superb Richard Armitage), an even larger army of Orcs quietly prepares an ambush, and the wizard Gandalf (a tired-looking Ian McKellen) escapes from his captivity to warn everyone of the Dark Lord Sauron's return.
The cast turns out to be a frustrating blend of stellar and mediocre, with a handful of the key players turning in phenomenal performances while everyone else simply stands around swinging swords for two hours. However, a select few shine in their roles, particularly Richard Armitage, whose performance as Thorin Oakenshield is all at once terrifying, heartbreaking, and utterly real. Driven mad by materialism, Thorin begins a long, spiraling descent into madness, falling into unprovoked fits of rage and slipping further and further away from any kind of rationality. He devolves into a volatile, monstrous projection of his deepest desires, pushing away his closest friends and falling into step with his own grandfather's path to insanity. Martin Freeman, despite being robbed of screen time, finishes at a close second, turning in a phenomenal, heartfelt performance that makes viewers remember why we rooted for Bilbo Baggins in the first place. Let's not forget Benedict Cumberbatch's chilling performance as the greed-driven dragon Smaug, who kicks things off in spectacular fashion before making way for the main event.
Each member of the star-studded supporting cast shows up to fight and look pretty, but that's about it. Lee Pace's callous Elf-King, Thranduil, receives a hefty chunk of screen time but brings little to an already crowded table and really only functions as a grim general in a multi-faceted conflict over a shiny rock and a conveniently positioned mountain. Tauriel and Legolas, portrayed by Evangeline Lilly and Orlando Bloom, respectively, get shafted here, flitting on and off screen before participating in the absurd finale with elvish grace. Even franchise staple Gandalf the Grey (a weathered Ian McKellen) finds himself vying for screen time amidst a myriad of key players, stepping out of the spotlight and offering little this time around. Luke Evans, reprising his role as Bard the Bowman from last year's The Desolation of Smaug, shines brightly during the film's opening scene, but he quickly falls into a bland action hero role that undercuts his greatness as a character.
Whereas An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug showcased Bilbo as its plucky hero, The Battle of the Five Armies brushes the little hobbit aside to shine a telling light on Thorin and explore his vulnerabilities as a dwarf and as a king. Many of the film's most memorable moments involve Thorin coming completely unhinged, consumed by the same “dragon sickness” that led to his grandfather's undoing. More Bilbo would have been preferable, but I suppose it's fine that he takes a backseat this go around.
Despite a handful of memorable, awe-inspiring moments, The Battle of the Five Armies feels utterly, pitifully empty. Action is not and has never been a suitable substitute for substance, but the filmmakers don't seem to care much here. Jackson's enthusiastic efforts to bring us closer to these timeless characters ultimately pushes viewers further away from them, widening a rift that slowly grew over the course of three horribly sub-par films. A handful of pivotal players meet their ends here, but Jackson's insistence on ramping everything up to eleven dilutes the emotional impact their deaths may have brought to this crowded picture.
Even the film's plot falls away before rank upon rank of steel-clad soldier, lost in the titular fray and forgotten by the time the credits roll. What happens to the Arkenstone, that all-important jewel that galvanized everyone into action in the first place? What happens to Bard, the brave man who saved his people from a fiery end? It's assumed that the dwarves return it to the mountain and that Bard makes it out alive, but we need to see it. The battle packs enough pulse-pounding thrills to keep viewers more than occupied, but the film's purpose is swept up and carried away just as armies of elves, dwarves, and orcs collide with startling ferocity.
Missteps aside, The Battle of the Five Armies pulls out all the stops and excels at immersing us in the action, showcasing dazzling special effects interspersed with powerful character moments that partially bridge the gap between character and viewer and make some of the film's most impersonal moments palatable. Some of the film's finest moments harken back to the awe-inspiring spectacle that made The Lord of the Rings the masterpiece it is today. These moments may be nothing more than mere glimpses of what could have been, but they keep the movie grounded in mediocrity when it could have been much, much more of a chore to watch.
The Battle of the Five Armies satisfies where it wants to, but not where it needs to. Time won't be kind to this stale send-off, so all we can do is smile and enjoy the ride before it fades into notoriety.
2.5 out of 5 stars