I won’t mince words, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series has been pretty pitiful up to this point. Sure, the first film ‘An Unexpected Journey’ was not the worst thing in the world, with some decent character arcs and performances, but my god was it slow as it attempted to stretch half of a relatively small children’s book to three hours. Things really started to get hairy with ‘The Desolation of Smaug’, when Jackson really started turning the rousing tale that inspired the Lord of the Rings trilogy into extended fan-fiction, with silly love triangles that were never supposed to be there, characters that didn’t exist or were not relevant yet, and action scenes more droningly long than a congressional debate on CSPAN. So, with an average of 0:2 thus far, I went into this final installment with as low of expectations as possible, after all, this is just going to be one big Battle based on about 20 pages of the original book…there’s no way that could be boring, right?
The Battle of the Five Armies picks up immediately after Desolation ended, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his band of dwarfs lead by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) lost their battle with Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he descends on Laketown. In the aftermath of that attack, the citizens look to Bard (Luke Evans) as their leader, as he leads a mission to reclaim some of the gold from Thorin’s now reclaimed fortress. When Thorin refuses (having been consumed by greed and a burning desire for the Arkenstone, a family heirloom), Bard’s army, an elf army who joins them, the dwarfs, and an Orc army who wants them all dead end up thrown into a massive confrontation for power in middle earth.
It’s absolutely remarkable how little Jackson gives himself to work with here. Extending what should have been the 40 minute climax of the second film into it’s own two and half hour movie would in theory give the film time to up the emotional investment that we’d be able to gain for these characters before the final massive conflict, where several of them don’t survive. However, since Jackson did such a god awful job of defining and fleshing out these lifeless action figures in the first two films, there is nothing to build up and pay off here. It really is about an hour of these characters talking back and forth about this devilishly simple conflict, and then fighting for what seems like an eternity.
When an entire film is built around spectacle, one would at least expect that aspect to deliver. However, all of the action feels completely flat, entirely lacking the tangibility and consequence of the violence and practical effects of the original trilogy in favor of endless droves of CGI, and certainly not the cutting edge kind that’s been making movies like the recent Planet of the Apes films work so well. Every character, background, and fight move looks like a video game cutscene, so much so that as crash test dummy after crash test dummy got stabbed and thrown around I was expecting a combo meeter to come up on the screen. This approach robs these sequences of any sense of danger that they might have had otherwise, and when characters die, it’s bloodless cannon fodder. We’re just watching big groups of nothing battle for 45 minutes (yes…45 minutes…no joke)
The one thing that has been consistently good in this series is Martin Freeman’s wonderful work as Bilbo Baggins, and for his relatively limited screen time (which is pretty amazing considering he’s the title character), that does not change one bit. He brings so much earnestness, subtle humor, and intelligence to the character, that when others are on screen with him, he brings out the best in them. This series would have been wise to focus more on him, and it’s a real shame to see him so especially so marginalized here. In the meantime, Armitage postures around, delivering every line in a slow intense monotone as if each one is narration for the trailer, Evans is stiff as a board and totally unengaging, while series regulars Ian MaKellen, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving show up, say a couple goofy lines, and collect a check.
The Battle of the Five Armies is the final dismal nail in the coffin for what has been one of the greatest missed opportunities in cinema history. Peter Jackson consistently missed what made his original series so full of incredible pathos, characters, and stakes, in favor of moving a bunch of utterly uninteresting characters from set-piece to set piece. Hopefully one day he will find a project that will make his talent shine again, but in the meantime, Star Wars 1-3, meet your new friends!