I was with director Peter Jackson through his first two Hobbit movies, which were visually rich, serviceably entertaining, and did a decent job of slowly but surely setting up numerous plot threads. Everything seemed to be reaching a head towards the end of last year’s The Desolation of Smaug, the second and best film of this trilogy. The momentum was still there at the cliffhanger ending, as the fearsome dragon (the best thing in any of these three movies, by the way) flies towards an innocent city promising massive destruction.
But then The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies begins, and Smaug dies in the first fifteen minutes.
This essentially ends the main conflict and storyline that ran through the first two movies, making it feel like the trilogy is good and done despite there being over two hours to go. What we’re left with is a big, noisy special effects battle that, from what I’ve been told, is barely even a thing in the book. While many have said since the beginning that Peter Jackson probably should not have split this book into three parts, it took until this movie for me to wholeheartedly agree. In fact, this movie is so unsatisfying that it makes the previous two movies seem a little worse in retrospect.
To its credit, Battle of the Five Armies still presents a vast, vibrant world that is fun to look at. The actors, presumably donning these characters for the last time, still deliver every single line with a sense of conviction and gravitas that sells them as members of this fantasy world. And Jackson’s unending passion for this franchise is apparent and admirable, as he seems to go to pains to link the events of this movie to the chronological next film, 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
That’s really where my sympathy ends, though. There are a few glaring reasons I think this movie flat-out fails as an ending to this trilogy. First of all, the main thrust of the first two Hobbits was the long and winding journey that the characters had to go on, and it actually felt sort of like we were traveling long distances with them, seeing different sights and facing various challenges on a fun, episodic-style quest. It was unabashedly an adventure movie, and it succeeded as such. In comparison, this film is stuck in just a couple of locations, cutting out perhaps the trilogy’s one main appeal.
Second, the circumstances that lead to the eponymous battle are contrived and flimsy. The dwarf leader Thorin, who has finally reclaimed his homeland from the dragon, is corrupted by cursed gold and stubbornly refuses to agree to the simple requests of the elves to return some of their treasures. Surely in this world of magic there’d be some remedy they could find to cure Thorin and prevent war? Either way, it’s frustrating to see the back and forth that goes on in the first hour between Thorin and the elves, as we march closer to a war we know is going to happen eventually anyways. It’s in the title! Stop waiting around! Meanwhile, the orcs decide to attack everyone with the help of some big troll guys, because we need big creatures and more hilarious PG-13 beheadings.
The third problem is that the plot threads that this movie decides to pay off in place of any real, major emotional conflict, are the ones that were always the worst parts of the previous movies! Take your pick: do you want to see the forced romance angle between a dwarf and Evangeline Lily or the forced arch-nemesis feud between Thorin and the big orc with the crazy spear-arm? There was never enough reasons to care about those things back when they were peripheral details. Now that they’re center-stage, it’s an even greater challenge to muster any sort of interest.
Jackson attempts to distract us from how truly uninspired this dramatic content is by overwhelming us with a barrage of loud, chaotic action sequences. He’s done this well before, especially with The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Unfortunately for everyone involved, this is where it finally becomes most apparent (to me at least, as most people said it from the start) that the Hobbit trilogy is hamstrung by its reliance on CGI over practical effects. Maybe some of the creatures look a little better than they did ten years ago, but the computer-generated brawls largely feel like just that — computer generated battle simulations, a video game you can’t play.
And the CGI isn’t even that good compared to other movie’s from this year such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes! At its worst, this movie begins to look like a completely animated film, with no clear ‘real’ elements other than the glued-on faces of actors in certain frames. Spectacle is still spectacle, though, so if you want to see thousands of warriors killing each other, you can certainly see that in this movie. At least each scene is packed with so much visual details that it could potentially distract you from how fake it all looks. But despite all of this, the point remains that you can never really feel the battles on a visceral level like you could in the Lord of the Rings movies.
So what is the value of this movie then, if the emotional narratives fall flat and the action scenes are weightless and inconsequential? Good question, I’m not quite sure. I guess you could do worse. For all of my problems with them, the battles feel decently choreographed and there are some cool moments where we get to see some familiar characters kicking ass. And if you saw the other two movies, you need to watch this to feel some closure, which is kind of like a hostage situation. For me, having to sit through a story that feels so pointless is almost tantamount to being punished for trusting these movies from the beginning.
At the very least, cutting this movie from two and a half hours to one and half hours would have been a merciful option. Or, you know, don’t make three movies from a book with only enough content for one. Good advice for next time.
Score: 2.5 out of 5