Peter Jackson's epic Middle Earth saga started with a bang with 2001's “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” but now ends with a whimper in the final chapter of “The Hobbit” trilogy: “The Battle of the Five Armies.” The tale of the burglar Hobbit Bilbo Baggins limps - no, crawls - to a disappointing and profoundly underwhelming finish.
“The Battle of the Five Armies” picks up where “The Desolation of Smaug” ended - mid-flight as Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) heads to Laketown village to deliver a fiery message. With Thorin (Richard Armitage) reclaiming the dwarf home The Lonely Mountain – and a massive stash gold and jewels, five armies consisting of men, orcs, goblins and more dwarves from across Middle Earth converge to claim their share. Possessed by greed for his newfound power and wealth, Thorin throws a tantrum and sparks a war over his gold.
The majority of the two and a half-hour film is the epic battle between the elves, dwarves, men, orcs and goblins. It’s an exhausting battle (and film) for a number of reasons. One: Unlike “Lord of the Rings,” characters are not written well enough to warrant any emotional involvement so there’s never any real threat. Two: The same scene throughout the battle happens over and over again; a character falls, the sound drops and we are forced to wait with bated breath for some kind of impaling. Then, of course, someone from behind slays the beast. Over and over again.
Peter Jackson seems to have lost his way with this experiment in excess. “The Hobbit” films were originally to be directed by Guillermo del Toro and presented as two films. In hindsight, this is what should have happened. J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story is light and fun. It’s meant for children, unlike his later “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Jackson stripped Tolkien’s lightness and added so much unnecessary bloat. Think George Lucas’ tinkering with the “Star Wars” prequels. It appears there was nobody on hand in New Zealand to politely tell Peter Jackson to rein it in and that story must always come first.
This trilogy, though, will get the benefit of the doubt. It is possible that “The Hobbit” will play much better back-to-back. As stand-alone films they suffer from a weak plot and a broken story structure. While each chapter is not strong enough as its own film, the true test will be to see how they hold up as one epic long experience.
Once again the high frame rate format is as distracting as ever. Jackson implemented the 48fps during the first “Hobbit” film and created a shockwave of criticism. The same criticism applies to “Battle of the Five Armies.” The frame rate takes the entire cinematic feel out of the experience. Instead, “Five Armies” looks like behind-the-scenes video in the DVD extra features or worse- that TruMotion feature on HD TVs. The cinematic magic is stripped: sets, costumes and movements look fake. Not to demean plays, but it looks like a play, which is not the best use for cinema.
One person whose quality has not diminished in the slightest from 2001 to now is composer Howard Shore. He, more than anyone, has maintained the “Lord of the Rings” vibe throughout all six films and his music for Jackson's Middle Earth has become timeless and classic. His Middle Earth masterpieces will be listened to and remembered long after the accompanying films have been forgotten.
It should go without saying that the cast – as expected – is first-rate. Martin Freeman, again, is delightful as Bilbo Baggins. Even though Bilbo has little to do in the final chapter, Freeman is a class act. Richard Armitage has center stage here where he out-broods his performance in the first two films. Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lily, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Lee Pace, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee all make one final appearance to close out Peter Jackson’s epic 13-year run in Middle Earth.
Warner Bros. Pictures. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 2 hours and 24 minutes.