Peter Jackson's equally exhilarating and exhausting Hobbit trilogy comes to a rousing, if not totally satisfying, conclusion with The Battle of the Five Armies, a war-ravaged adventure that is by turns breathtaking, beautiful, brutal, and boring.
The movie gets off to a great start with a pre-title sequence that picks up where The Desolation of Smaug ended, as the malevolent dragon Smaug (voiced with great menace by Benedict Cumberbatch) descends upon Lake-town and sets it ablaze. As the residents attempt to flee the burning carnage, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) confronts the swooping dragon, who now has his sights set on incinerating Bard's young son. Thankfully, he finds the dragon's weak spot and brings him down. With the village in ruins, Bard leads the townspeople to find shelter at Erebor, the Lonely Mountain.
Unfortunately, the mountain is now controlled by the greedy Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dwarf prince who is the presumed heir to Erebor's throne. Thorin is obsessed with keeping its treasure trove of gold and the power it brings, even if it means going to war. Of course, everyone else wants his or her share of the riches as well, including the dwarfs, Dark Lord Sauron and his battle-ready orcs, the woodland elves, and General Dain Ironfoot's contingent of Iron Hills dwarves. The story bogs down a bit as we wait for the armies to descend upon the mountain for the climactic battle, and then it's all-out war for the last hour.
No one does CGI warfare quite like Peter Jackson, but one gets a sense of déjà vu watching the action unfold in The Battle of the Five Armies. Jackson's craftsmanship is undeniable, yet it feels like a rehash of the fiercer combat in The Return of the King. Also, the orcs and most of the other warriors, while terrifying to look at, collapse like building blocks if struck but once with a sword or a mighty blow. One never gets a sense that these monsters will ever be a match for our heroes, which saps the action of any real suspense. The highlight of this clash comes when Thorin decides to "cut off the head of the snake" by facing the merciless orc commander. Their duel, fought on an ice-covered river, is thrilling, unpredictable, and emotionally jarring. If only Jackson could have brought the immediacy of their small-scale fight to his larger canvas.
And what of Bilbo Baggins? He's reduced here to a supporting player, spending most of his time secretly guarding the precious Arkenstone and making sure Thorin doesn't get it. But, as always, Martin Freeman is superb as the "master thief" who provides the movie's heart and soul. Another standout is Armitage, who plays Thorin with Shakespearean majesty. Blinded by the lure of great wealth and power, Thorin is a raging king willing to sacrifice his own honor and the friendship of his closest allies to gain the throne. He's the only fully developed character on display, and Armitage takes full advantage of his screen time to make Thorin both repulsive and relatable. Whenever he's offscreen, the movie suffers.
Appearing once again, in reduced but still rich roles, are Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Lee Pace as Thranduil, Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, and Christopher Lee as Saruman. Also returning are composer Howard Shore, whose ever-present but never intrusive score proves to be timeless and energizing, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, whose darker-than-normal lensing fills the screen with frightening and majestic images that are truly awe-inspiring.
All in all, The Battle of the Five Armies delivers enough bone-crunching action to please devoted fans, and like its two predecessors, it looks to reap huge profits for Jackson and company. But as his monumental but bloated vision finally comes to an end, even die-hard fanatics will likely be glad that Jackson's unexpected journey is over.