"Hobbit" Trilogy Crumbles In Final Entry

The Peter Jackson Middle-earth Farewell Tour has reached its final stop: “The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies.” After fourteen years, six films, $5 billion in worldwide box office, and nearly twenty Oscar wins, the third “Hobbit” picture in as many years is here to wrap up Peter Jackson’s screen telling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved 1937 novel.

Few would accuse the filmmaker of leaving anything on the field. “Battle” is as exuberant as any of Jackson’s previous trips to the Shire, crammed with characters and action and welcome nods to his past work. Perhaps most importantly, “Battle” marks the the end of the line for the finest performance in the history of Middle-earth on film – Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins. The actor not only surpassed fans’ lofty expectations, but soared past Elijah Wood’s capable work as Frodo, cementing himself as the definitive Hobbit on film.

It’s a shame, then, that “Battle Of The Five Armies” isn’t at all worth the fuss.

The heart of Bilbo’s story was told in last year’s “Desolation Of Smaug,” leaving an obvious trap for Peter Jackson, one that he predictably dives into. Headlong. The film bares all of his worst inclinations – mistaking action for story, overreliance on special effects, and paying off to Tolkien die-hards so wholly that casual fans are all but shut out. “Battle” is as inaccessible as ever, a deadly concoction of story stretched too thin with the prerequisite of intense familiarity with the material.

Having seen “Smaug” isn’t enough to follow everything that’s going on here, even though there isn’t much going on. It’s not until twenty-five minutes in that Bilbo Baggins utters so much as a syllable, by which point many moviegoers will have forgotten they’re watching a movie about Bilbo Baggins. Jackson inexplicably treats his king like a pawn, making room for all but his trilogy’s biggest bright spot.

Having the legendary Ian McKellen back for his final curtain call as Gandalf is wonderful, but the character is constantly at odds with Jackson’s all-climax modus operandi. The same goes for his invented elven storyline featuring Evangeline Lilly and Orlando Bloom. Smaller ideas that might work in a more subtle film are dragged down by bombast, partitioned into discordant parts of a loud, obnoxious whole.

The three “Hobbit” films were more or less shot in order over the course of a year, and it shows. The cast looks tired, the action sequences are strangely disconnected from one another, and none of it crackles like Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. Where his actors used to seem engaged, here – apart from Freeman – the weight of obligation hangs heavy. No one seems to be having much fun. Luke Evans tries as Bard the Bowman to give us an action hero to get behind, but Richard Armitage absolutely fizzles as Thorin Oakenshield. A role that showed so much promise in “An Unexpected Journey” becomes a point on a map, a necessary piece of exposition to get Bilbo to his final destination.

Worst of all, the special effects work ranges from passable to video game cutscene-bad, an unforgivable sin in a series budgeted at $750 million. “Smaug” corrected course from the ugly visuals of “An Unexpected Journey,” but those in “Battle” are the worst in Jackson’s long career – an astonishment considering that this is the founder of Weta digital, the hive responsible for such breathtaking effects pieces as “King Kong” and “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.”

There’s no major disservice done to Tolkien’s legacy here, meaning that fans should be satisfied. But with so much emotionally invested, how could they not be? Passion has never been Peter Jackson’s problem, and “Battle” is an appropriately enthusiastic entry finish to the trilogy. But it absolutely crumbles as a stand-alone piece, as something that a non-Tolkien fan could cling to for an action fix.

Jackson has finally given his beloved series an appropriately fiery Viking’s funeral, setting it aflame and pushing its decaying corpse out to nowhere in particular. The most noteworthy thing about “Battle Of The Five Armies” is that it’s Jackson’s shortest trip to Middle-earth – 141 minutes – but manages to feel like his longest.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: December 17, 2014
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriter: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)