If ever there was a reason for Peter Jackson to split his adaptation of The Hobbit into three movies, this, I presume, is it: All-out war between dwarves, elves, men, and orcs. Forgetting how slim J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel is for a moment, the progression of this trilogy makes plenty of sense. A party of travelers leave The Shire for The Lonely Mountain, where there is a great trove of treasure and a long-dead dwarven kingdom where lies the dragon who rent it asunder. The mountain must be journeyed to, the dragon must be dealt with, and, with the dragon slain, the fate of the mountain must be decided. Of those three movements, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is, thankfully, the installment with the least amount of fat.
The first piece of business this film attends to is the slaying of the dragon who necessitated the quest. Smaug, after surviving the dwarves’ attempt to kill him with molten gold, flies off to destroy Laketown, forcing his enemies to witness the destruction of their friends and allies from afar. Laketown is so much kindling to the dragon, who sets most of the village on fire in one pass. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth as the town tries to evacuate. Bard (Luke Evans) breaks out of prison and is the only man who tries to defend the town, firing arrows at Smaug in futility until he is given one that works. Smaug falls dead, but the town is ruined and winter is coming. The survivors decamp to the Lonely Mountain to ask for their share of the dragon’s horde, so that they might rebuild. News of the dragon’s death also reaches the woodland elves, who set out to reclaim some elven heirlooms.
In the Lonely Mountain, however, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is overcome by his lust for gold, glowering and mad with desire for the Arkenstone, the crown jewel of the king of the dwarves. This stone is in the possession of Oakenshield’s burglar, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who has claimed it as his 1/14th of the keep. When Bilbo sees that his friend is so lost that he would go to war over gold, he parlays with Bard and the elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace), giving them the Arkenstone so that they might ransom it, averting war. It so happens that war is coming regardless of what happens, because the two unaccounted for armies, both of them Orc hordes, can’t be reckoned with.
When the battle actually starts, it’s like Jackson is finally expelling all the breath he’s been holding since the outset of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie use the series’ trademark sweeping long shots to show the movements of huge blocks of elves, dwarves, and orcs across the valley at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, and they are as breathtaking and spectacular as ever. The camera revels in the glint of elvish armor and the iron of dwarven shields, the blocking of bodies and the breaking of ranks. In close quarters, however, the fighting only works to show how thin Jackson’s conception of the novel as three films was. A dragon lays waste to a city, armies clash, but when a sequence focuses on a man or a dwarf or an elf or an orc as a singular entity, they’re as wraith-like as the Nazgul, apparitions of little substance because they’re meant only to serve as preamble to something else.
And while it’s so often fruitless to complain about the problem with prequels and adaptations, that so much of The Battle of the Five Armies serves to set up The Fellowship of the Ring often leaves poor Bilbo Baggins standing around with Gandalf, waiting for his inevitable happy ending in the Shire. That’s a shame, too, as the best sequences of The Hobbit, like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings before it, have so often been the ones that show how stout its little protagonist is in the face of problems that are too large even for the gods and immortals whose company he keeps. Martin Freeman, as Bilbo, is as engaging as ever, and the scenes where he speaks with or for Thorin Oakenshield are the best of this film. They’re quiet. They’re meaningful. They aren’t undercut by odd bits of comedy. This, however, is not a film about Bilbo Baggins. Rather, it’s the one that leaves him behind, old and doddering, so that his younger relations can go off and deal with necromancers, rings of power, and the return of a certain king. There has never been a moment where The Hobbit didn’t feel subordinate to The Lord of the Rings, and that, more than bloat or pacing or anything else, is what’s so bothersome about this film in particular. Like a relative who has already finished the book, The Hobbit is always tittering excitedly about what’s going to happen next instead of appreciating the story being told.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. With Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellan (Gandalf the Grey), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Lee Pace (Bard), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug/Sauron). Directed by Peter Jackson from a screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro. Based on the novel The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien