One last time. Finally, thankfully, mercifully, one last time. After 13 years and six films, the cinema’s immersion into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth comes to a close with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, a film that brings full circle not only the events of Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien-based trilogy, but also the well-founded fears of many fans and critics. Four years ago, after Guillermo del Toro dropped out of what was intended as a two-film adaptation of The Hobbit, Jackson once again assumed the reins, eventually determining that Tolkien’s single novel merited a trilogy. The overwhelming question surrounding this decision was simple: “Why?” No logical answer is discernible on the evidence of The Battle of Five Armies, easily the weakest link in an already-inferior trilogy, one that functions as the scrap heap for the remainder of the source material.
After the first two installments treaded narrative water while the screenplays waited patiently to dig into the novel’s signature Tolkien moments (in An Unexpected Journey it was the Bilbo-Gollum confrontation; in The Desolation of Smaug, it was the revelation of Smaug himself), there was indication that The Battle of the Five Armies would be refreshingly streamlined. Perhaps it would be a final chapter consisting of nearly all climax, not hindered by the bloat of its predecessors. Though while it does clock in at a “mere” 144 minutes, easily the shortest of Jackson’s Middle Earth films, Five Armies follows the same crippling structure of its forebears, wading through completely-invented, yawn-inducing, geek emo-drama (since characters like Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel did not exist in the book of The Hobbit) before once again settling in for the stuff with which Jackson feels at home – epic CGI battles.
The film’s opening 15 minutes feels like a dangling participle, paying off the Desolation of Smaug cliffhanger in quick order and moving onto a lengthy hour of expository brooding in preparation for the titular Battle. When said battle commences, it is certainly more of an eye-opener than the sequences that preceded it (which often threatened to shut my eyes), though it’s covered with such a thick blanket of CG mayonnaise (much of it completely transparent) that the epic onslaught feels far more artificial than the Lord of the Rings clashes. The lethal combination of incomprehensible jibber-jabber as preamble to a soulless green-screen bonanza feels – dare I say it – to echo the later works of one George Lucas.
It’s interesting to chart the course of this three-part prequel. Whereas Jackson’s original trilogy felt completely cohesive, building to a conclusion of epic scope and narrative density, these Hobbit movies feel not only lacking a persistent through-line but also a unique identity. An Unexpected Journey, minor problems aside, established itself as a close relative to the LOTR trilogy while creating a lighter, more whimsical tone all its own. The Desolation of Smaug felt like a middle movie lost in a quagmire of myth, stalling the core narrative and affixing a graver tone for no apparent reason. In retrospect, Smaug now feels like an unfortunate bridge to The Battle of the Five Armies, which fully sheds the whimsy and assumes full LOTR mode. Ominous exposition gives way to massive cartoon spectacle. But rather than seeming like one franchise fusing to another, it feels like a pale imitation of a much grander series.