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Review: 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' is both the flimsiest and best of the bunch

An action-packed capper to an unnecessary trillogy also has the benefit of being a melancholic farewell to a cinematic world.

‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’
Director:
Peter Jackson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

There’s an old joke: Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.” That’s how one can feel about “The Hobbit” series. That may sound absurd, given it’s a three-part, nine-hour-plus saga that brutally Stretch Armstrongs a slender children’s novel. (And, grueling as they've sometimes been, they'e never been terrible.) But now that it’s over — much like life itself — it’s sad to see it go. “The Hobbit” is the last of Tolkien’s works to which Peter Jackson and company own the rights, making this third in the second series a victory lap paired with a melancholic farewell. Middle-earth may be rebooted — surely in like 10 years — but this is the last time you’ll see Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and others.

Granted, it’s a bittersweet end. Though technically a prequel, the “Hobbit” series plays more like the fan service “Star Wars” TV movies from the ’80s. Spin-offs, like “Ewoks: The Battle of Endor” — as opposed to the cataclysmically misjudged “Star Wars Holiday Special” — periodically cropped up to sate viewers’ need for more, if not exactly the same. The “Hobbit”s play to similar lowered expectations. The third isn’t even really a stand-alone film; it dispatches with fire-breathing Smaug (with the hammy voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) before the opening title, then builds to the titular skirmish. Even with so little going on, it’s still two minutes shorter than “Goodfellas.”

That’s not to say it’s not entertaining anyway. For sheer minute-by-minute goings-on, it’s the series’ most solid number, delivering the goods the previous films parceled out piecemeal. The tone is darker, the action more violent; as “Revenge of the Sith” did to its original trilogy, “The Battle of the Five Armies” attempts to bring things closer to the “Lord of the Rings” cycle. The meat of the story finds Richard Armitage's boringly taciturn stud dwarf Thorin Oakenshield — wasn't he in The Moody Blues at one point? — suddenly turned mad by gold fever. He wants Smaug’s money bin to himself, enraging the elves, the humans displaced by the dragon’s wrath. Then some orcs come around, plus two other armies, we’re assured.

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The battle itself is 45 minutes long — longer than “The Two Towers”’ Battle of Helm’s Deep, if never as gripping. It’s pretty good, though. Jackson, luckily, quickly gets bored with anonymous mass clashes over sprawling battlefields, and shifts the action to some one-on-one beatdowns on a snowy mountaintop between our dwarf and elf heroes and some hissing orcs. One has a sword for an arm. Jackson has always been deft at choreographing Spielbergian action, and there’s some fine Rube Goldbergian roundelays, even if Orlando Bloom’s Legolas is nothing more than a CGI character hopscotching over CGI crumbling rocks.

But what of the hobbit himself, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman)? He’s a bit lost in the movie named after him, having mostly served his purpose by holding court with Smaug in part two. No matter how much Jackson and writers dip into Tolkien’s appendages, annotations and other books, they’ve never found a rigorous shape for the series’ three chapters. This one shifts the attention to a supporting character, Thorin, we perhaps didn’t know was supposed to matter at all, and who they’ve tried to turn into a mash-up of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn and Sean Bean’s Boromir: a badass turned tragic badass. But his character shift comes out of nowhere, and he can’t help but belie how every character and event in “The Hobbit” was Tolkien’s dry run for the more complex and rich “Lord of the Rings.” Only Bilbo and Smaug stood out as unique, and they barely feature here.

Still, no matter: as pure spectacle, and despite considerable padding and weak characters (there’s far, far too much of comic relief human coward Alfrid), “The Battle of the Five Armies” goes down easier than its predecessors. It would actually be cynical to charge that director Peter Jackson and company ballooned the book into a trilogy out of pure greed. Their love for Middle-earth is sincere and palpable. Even when Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) make a gratuitous, not terribly defensible cameo, you can sense the makers’ grief over having to let go of this world, to which they almost certainly will never return.
Even so, at least Jackson heard your complaints about the unending coda of “The Return of the King”: the finale/farewell here is relatively fleet, oozing English reticence, complete with Bilbo asking his diminutive friends to one day join him for a cuppa tea. (This goodbye would be more affecting if we could tell any of the shorter, beardier dwarves apart.) Superfluous and endless as the "Hobbit" films have been, once “The Battle of the Five Armies" ties up with “The Fellowship of the Ring,” it can’t help make one wish there was just a little bit more. After all, we need the eggs.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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