Thirteen years after Peter Jackson first introduced us to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we find ourselves at the conclusion of the prequel Hobbit trilogy, and thus our last foray into Middle Earth. As a result, cinemas are bound to be packed with fans both fierce and casual, all reluctantly saying farewell to the series. But The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one film for which we can’t simply ask whether it lives up to expectations — by splitting the children’s novel into three films, Jackson inevitably set himself up for comparison against his earlier, spectacular trilogy. Yet with not even a third of the source material that he had for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit trilogy truly suffered for the split, and this is most visible in the final film.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies picks up right where “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” left us: Smaug has been unleashed from the Lonely Mountain and is wreaking havoc on the nearby human dwelling, Laketown. Before the title of the film is even shown, the dragon manages to lay waste to the town (which is unfortunately made entirely of wood) and is slain by Bard the Bowman. Logically, this brief resolution should probably have been dealt with in the last film, which left us feeling rather dissatisfied with its lack of a proper ending. However, Smaug’s destruction does make for a rather fantastic opening, and provides possibly the only connection between this film and its predecessors. Indeed, as the film continues, it becomes clear that the only connections Jackson is focusing on are those with “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” given that it is supposed to come next in the chronology of Tolkien’s world.
The title The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was a change from the original suggested title “There and Back Again,” which was also the subtitle of the novel. The newer title is certainly more apt, with the film’s entire focus centered around a nearly hour-long battle that also serves as the climax. Indeed, there is little one needs to know about the film — and little one comes out knowing — other than that there is a tremendous battle in which humans, dwarves, elves, orcs and eventually eagles are involved. The reason for this battle does not need great explanation — with Smaug gone, the humans, dwarves and elves begin to fight over the vast riches left unguarded in Erebor. When the orcs arrive, doing their lord Sauron’s bidding, the three races team together to fight them off, with some success until a second army of orcs arrive. Of course, as is understandable for anyone who has seen the other films, the eagles arrive and even before they really achieve anything, it is understood that this means the war is over. But this all leaves the question: Where is the eponymous hobbit?
Bilbo Baggins is very much the observer in this final chapter of his autobiography, given that he has a small part to play in the battle, whether in terms of strategic thinking or actual fighting. Rather, the main character of the film is undeniably Thorin Oakenshield, whose character arc sees him corrupted (almost jarringly quickly) by “dragon’s sickness,” which is essentially greed and paranoia fostered by possession of the dragon’s immense wealth. It is Bilbo that must awaken him from this stupor of sorts, and though it is done in a frustratingly superficial manner, both Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage bring enough emotional gravitas to their characters to create a truly heartwarming scene. Indeed it is the cast who really bring the film to life, from Freeman saying goodbye in the most touching way possible, to Luke Evans creating conflict within the otherwise tame Bard. Evangeline Lilly, graceful though she is as Tauriel, cannot however distract from the fact that the almost admirable decision to include a female character, to compensate for the book’s lack thereof, is entirely undermined by her primary purpose being to fall in love and be desired by two men.
Perhaps expectedly, given Peter Jackson’s evident preference for grandiose spectacle over intimate characterization, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies prefers displaying feats of strategy over moments of humanity. There are a few individual battles that stand out, but when it comes to the larger picture, it often feels painfully obvious that we’re watching characters fighting rather than living beings; there is no emotional connection to their deaths save for when actors such as Lee Pace (as Elven King Thranduil) convey their loss in the aftermath. While such a magnificent war certainly helps the trilogy go out with a bang, it is riddled with such elements that ultimately make the film rather anticlimactic.