The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens mere moments after the previous film’s almost painfully frustrating cliffhanger ending, with the great dragon Smaug (voiced and mo-capped with delicious gusto by Benedict Cumberbatch) about to lay the draconian smack down on the innocent townspeople of Lake Town, merely for providing shelter to the band of dwarves who attempted to slay him. What follows is an incredible conflagratory sequence as Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the rest of the dwarven party have to watch Lake Town being razed as retaliation for their efforts, while reluctant hero Bard (Luke Evans) stands alone against the great beast to protect his family, hurriedly being escorted through cinder and flame by lady-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily). This opening sequence is fever-pitched, magnificently shot, and filled with dramatic heft. And it’s over in just a few minutes. What’s more, nothing that comes after this point in the final installment of director Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth saga matches its incendiary heights.

That’s certainly not to say that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a poor film – which is something I will say of the first film in the trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, with its frequent flair for frenetic time-wasting. In fact, Five Armies is a good film, a very good one even, but it just falls short of true greatness.

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There are plenty of rousing highlights to be found in its 144 minute running time – the briefest of all three films – though. Jackson may possess an almost Bay-esque tendency to reuse shots and a Lucasian love for CGI, but there’s no denying the visual fidelity of the film. I’ve seen the film in both 2D and IMAX 3D with HFR and while it looks superb in the traditional two dimensions, Five Armies will simply assault your eyeballs with the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous, sumptuously detailed tableaus you have likely ever seen on screen. I can honestly say that I have never seen a movie, even one so rife with digital effects, look so absolutely… real. This is one movie where the trip to an IMAX is not only justified, but vigorously recommended.

But it’s not just the film’s technical achievements that stand tall. An early scene showing Gandalf (Ian McKellan), Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchet), Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) getting involved in a staff and sword dustup with some spectral warriors had me wishing for a TV series spinoff in which these Fab Foursome just go on adventures across Middle Earth, solving crimes and kicking butt (like Murder, She Wrote, but with orcs and magic). Luke Evans’ Bard also rises to true action hero status, while Ryan Gage is the very definition of a snivelling vermin as scummy bootlick Alfrid. As Thorin, the erstwhile dwarven king slowly driven mad by the very treasure he kicked Smaug out of the mountainous holds of Erebor to acquire, Richard Armitage also turns in an impressively brooding and thunderous performance.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Thorin’s sombre display also affects the overall tone, making Five Armies by far the darkest of the three Hobbit pics. It may lack the emotional texture and resonance of Return of the King, but this franchise-capper is a far cry from the goofy singing ‘n dishwashing found in the first film. There’s a Shakespearean heft to Thorin’s arc, and some of the best character moments come from him interacting with his dwarven comrades or Freeman’s ever likeable Bilbo, sometimes to spine-tingling thespic effect.

The script from Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Guillermo Del Toro (who was originally supposed to direct) still tries to get those additional emotional hooks in though through the addition of the forbidden love between crowbarred-in character Tauriel and conveniently conventionally handsome dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). But this lovestruck duo’s swooning declarations – always cued up by Howard Shore’s ever-present and increasingly familiar score – still ring false to me, especially since this ground was already covered much more efficiently and effectively with Aragorn and Arwen in Lord of the Rings.

The hamfisted addition of Tauriel’s story is a symptom of this third film’s biggest problem though: This shouldn’t have been the third film. Jackson’s original plan to adapt Tolkien’s 300-page novel into a two-parter would have left far less time for some of the unnecessary bloat that has plagued this franchise. Five Armies admittedly has far less fat to trim than the first two installments (which over the course of their combined near 6-hour running time merely covered about 100 pages of the source material), but by stretching the narrative the way he has, its resulted in this finale essentially being nothing more than one Middle-Earth rattling battle and some other stuff before that.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

Said battle of course being the titular clash between the five armies who’ve all come marching/riding/lumbering/tunneling down to Erebor to either claim their supposedly allotted share of Smaug’s recently vacated riches or in the case of the Orc armies led by the vicious Azog the Defiler (mo-capped by Manu Bennet, and brought to life by magically detailed CGI), to claim the strategically important mountain hold for their master, Sauron the Necromancer. To his credit, Jackson not only lives up to his promises regarding the gargantuan scale of this 5-way engagement, but manages to successfully corral the various sword swinging, ram-riding (wait until you see the rams!) elements in a Herculean logistical effort that never sees the battle’s geography being muddied over its 90-minute stretch, nor it losing any of its punchiness.

The director doesn’t go full Michael Bay though – never go full Bay! – by just assaulting your senses with a cacophony of explosive sight and sound, as he leaves place in this multi-faceted clash for various characters to have their moments. But those pacing peaks and troughs fall just, just short of the giddy highs and gut punching lows that he’s clearly aiming for. I suspect this has to do with the fact that through three films and a large cast mostly populated with interchangeable dwarves, the only character that Jackson squarely gets you emotionally invested in is Thorin.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES

While the film never lacks for big hurrah moments (like some unexpected elf-dwarf teamwork, or Legolas pulling off his now obligatory bout of cartoonish gravity defiance), due to that absence of true character engagement underpinning it all, these scenes are held back ever so slightly so that we never reach the triumphant, fist-pumping heights of Eowyn slaying the Nazgul, the ride of the Rohirim or Aragorn’s last stand seen in Lord of the Rings.

It may seem unfair to keep comparing The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, but not only is such a comparison inevitable, Jackson almost forces the issue by throwing in links between the two trilogies (one such link is inserted in the most obvious and clumsy manner possible) that never existed in Tolkien’s texts. And in such a weighing of trilogies, The Hobbit is clearly the lesser overall, but – and it’s a big ol’ giant troll-sized “but” – the efforts of The Battle of the Five Armies ensures that gap is nowhere near as chasmic a divide as it was when Jackson first kicked off this prequel coda. It may not be as perfect as we had hoped, and may have taken far too circuitous and dawdling a route to get here, but Peter Jackson’s last Middle-Earth jaunt is a technically superlative and often rousing adventure of a truly epic scale.

Last Updated: December 11, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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