Where the Hobbit truly shines is in its first two installments, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. Here are films whose devotion to world-building and characterization, delivered in the form of journeys and mythical quests, offer relief from the numbing effect of clanging swords and armour that has otherwise defined the Tolkien cinematic universe. The Hobbit’s richer fantasy narrative ends up more anthropological than ornamental, serving as more than background for an essentially mundane war story. At last, it’s entirely possible to simply savor Middle-Earth – its landscapes, history, and cultures – and appreciate the characters’ places within it without being drummed over the head with mythological warfare.
Battle of the Five Armies, then, disappoints precisely because it concludes the trilogy with the very tiresome qualities of Lord of the Rings, consisting mostly of a long protracted battle between humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs. The most fascinating scenes occur at the beginning, with an exciting resolution to Smaug’s fiery return to the world and Gandalf’s rescue from the Necromancer’s clutches by Radagast the Brown, Galadriel (the always-welcome Cate Blanchett), the elven-king Elrond, and Christopher Lee’s Saruman. Past that, the familiar theme of greed-induced madness resurfaces as the dwarf-king Thorin Oakenshield corrodes from his exposure to gold “beyond the dreams of avarice,” of avarice, which sets up the film’s only real wellspring of drama. The rest is fighting, fighting, and more fighting, with the only question being: when is Gandalf actually going to do something cool and magical? (Answer: don’t get your hopes up. Gandalf is no Dumbledore.) Tiresome, indeed, but not boring or entirely without merit in a trilogy that justifiably makes an effort to intertwine with the Lord of the Rings narrative. (I say justifiably because I am not vested in Tolkien’s work as an admirer, and I have long shed my reservations about the need for fidelity when translating books to film.) As usual, Jackson delivers engaging production design and suitably big direction, just as his cast offers engaging performances even when the characters are thinly dimensioned.
Curiously, the Battle of the Five Armies ends rather anti-climatically, as if Peter Jackson and his writing team were still reeling from criticism over their endless parade of endings in The Return of the King. Bilbo, of course, returns home, but the fate of other characters are more or less cast into the narrative ether for viewers to piece together on their own or with a bit of help from the Fellowship of the Ring. I presume this wouldn’t be so stinging a quibble when immediately followed by a viewing of the first Lord of the Rings film. Still, the loose ending coupled with excess action isn’t enough to condemn the film too strongly. Battle of the Five Armies is, in the balance, a middling but reasonably satisfying chapter in the Middle-Earth saga.
But one thing has to go: this obsession with the higher frame rate, which makes the film look like a behind-the-scenes documentary rather than a gorgeous cinematic tableau. Photographic realism has its place, no doubt, but arguably not in fantasy films where style enhances the substance.